Clearing the Air: Simple Solutions for Reducing Air Pollution in Laos

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Drone photo showing dangerous air pollution levels in 2019 (Photo: Jettana Viengsaly)
Drone photo demonstrating air pollution levels in 2019 (Photo: Jettana Viengsaly)

As air pollution thickens in the skies above Laos, concerned individuals are rising to the challenge with some simple solutions, writes Bridget Dooley.

Residents of Vientiane may be noticing smoggy, smoky skies this week as air pollution worsens during the so-called “burning season,” a time when farmers burn off their agricultural waste to ready their fields for cultivation. 

The Nation Thailand reports that crop burning leads to forest fires as well as dangerous PM2.5 smog, which is so bad that experts recommend wearing face masks outdoors—not because of Covid-19, but in order to reduce inhalation of dangerous air. 

Like households who burn waste, the practice of crop burning has economic roots: farmers often sell the ash from their burns as fertilizer. However this culture of burning has serious health and environmental consequences: air pollution is reportedly an even worse threat to public health than the coronavirus, often leading to asthma, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. 

Air quality problems become especially serious in the dry season when there is no rain to wash away pollutants. Contributors to pollution include not only agricultural burning but also unregulated vehicle exhaust and power production. 

Founder of Zero Waste Laos, Ms. Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh, spoke with Laotian Times, saying that while there are no strong government regulations in place to combat the polluting practice of burning, it is everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to combat pollution, and there are many steps which individuals, households, and business can take to do their part in reducing the smog. 

“Surprisingly, many of these anti-pollution measures can also have economic benefits, which may help incentivize air-friendly decisions,” says Souksaveuy.

Composting food waste and agricultural plant waste can save it from being burned or from entering landfills, or it can be converted to biogas, which provides energy and saves money. 

A home biogas unit provided by Lao Biogas.
A home biogas unit provided by Lao Biogas.

While creating biogas at home might seem like an extreme or complicated solution for food waste, local company Lao Biogas installs low-effort biogas systems suitable for homes and restaurants. Their systems convert waste into cooking fuel, a sustainable alternative for forest-killing charcoal and climate-warming fossil fuels. 

These systems not only prevent the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change but in fact capture them, making them a carbon-negative option for atmosphere-savvy consumers. And they are low-tech enough to be used in even the most remote contexts: Lao biogas has set up a system at a school in a remote part of Houapanh Province, where students can learn about sustainability while accessing cooking fuel without the added carbon-cost of delivery. Moreover, these biogas systems provide fertilizer as a by-product, taking the place of the burn-made ash partially responsible for these smoggy March skies. 

Plastic pollution is among Laos’ most troubling environmental issues, and plastic is one of the most dangerous materials to burn, yet many Lao households continue to use fire as their means of disposing of it, posing a danger to their lungs and throats. 

Zero Waste Laos suggests that to avoid burning plastic people must first reduce dependence on it by buying fewer products packaged in plastic and reusing the plastics (such as water bottles) that we already have.  

At the same time, companies that produce plastics should become part of the solution. Environmentalists at Green Vientiane say they’d like to see manufacturers encouraging recycling among consumers, as well as facilitating the collection and recycling of their products.

At Ban Khao Hom, a shop on Vientiane’s Lao-Thai road, common household products are available in bulk, from hand soaps to dry cooking staples. Rather than purchasing these products in single-use plastic containers, shoppers can bring their own containers or purchase eco-friendly ones made from materials like wood and glass, which can likewise take the place of the ever-ubiquitous plastic bags at markets. 

Sustainable options like banana leaves are also excellent low-cost packaging solutions, provided they are disposed of through composting or other fire-free means. 

As petrol prices rise in response to international conflict, driving poses an economic challenge to many families who can no longer afford to fill up as often as they once did. While walking or cycling to work might not be possible for everyone, especially in the dangerous smog, their benefit to the atmosphere is significant. Single-rider cars are the worst contributor of transportation emissions, but carpooling cuts down on emissions, gas costs, and traffic. 

In short, while practices like burning trash and agricultural waste might appear the most affordable to many residents of Laos in the short term, eco-friendly choices pay off in the long run, both in money and in medical costs, and investing in respiratory health can be a means of investing in the local economy. 

Story by Bridget Dooley