The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia

Plastic Free Southeast Asia is a social impact business aimed at stopping plastic pollution at the source. The organisation designs and delivers important initiatives to increase awareness and encourage tackling the over-consumption of plastic.

Chi Lo sat down with Sarah Rhodes, Founder of Plastic Free Southeast Asia about the Plastic Free July programme, PFSEA, and the plight of plastics in the tourism industry.

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia

CHI: Hi Sarah, you tell the story of how Plastic Free Cambodia began on your blog, so I won’t ask you again, but can you tell us how Plastic Free Cambodia became Plastic Free Southeast Asia? 

SARAH: During conferences and events people from other parts of Southeast Asia would say to me, “I wish we have Plastic Free in our country.” In 2018 I worked with two partners in other countries, Myanmar and Laos, and was continuing to get interest from around the region. I decided to change the name so that no one would feel that this is something only available in Cambodia, that I can help a wider audience.

CHI: Plastics is such a hot topic right now – what differentiates PFSEA’s activities? What sorts of projects are you working on right now? 

SARAH: PFSEA has spent time listening, learning and working closely with local communities to understand their barriers. Our workshop programs bring in knowledge, team building and problem solving elements and have proven results. We work hand in hand with businesses to get real change happening. This is why our impact is different, and we’re stopping plastic at its source.

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Source: PFSEA

Our annual Plastic Free July program is in its fifth year. It’s exciting to see how the community has grown – we’re also holding live online events to reach our growing audience. This year there will be classes, parties and product launches, panels, film screenings, coffee talks, and more, concentrated in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The Facebook page has a listing of events where people can get involved!

The big project in the pipeline is an online course, hopefully the first of many, giving greater access to the kinds of things our workshops offer, but to more people in more locations. It’s a program that is beneficial to people whether they are taking their first steps in increasing their knowledge or already on the path and wanting to know more.

CHI: Sorry for the cliché question, but I must know – what are your biggest challenges and successes? 

SARAH: Waiting for our partners to be ‘ready’. Sadly, despite the growing awareness, it’s still often a lower priority for many businesses and organisations. I often meet the eco champions of a company and they are hindered from being able to move forward. Once we get people in a room, the transformation is incredible – it’s getting them in the room that is the challenge.

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Source: PFSEA

CHI: In terms of tourism, what can the industry do to make less plastic impact? 

SARAH: Start with operational aspects of the industry. Tour companies and hotels can make a huge difference by reducing the majority of their single-use plastics. Then, look at better awareness for travelers. Often travelers feel that they don’t have options when they’re in another country, so it is up to the host destination to show them how they can be part of the solution. As a start, travelers can also prepare for their travels by bringing a water bottle and tote bag in their luggage. 

CHI: Advice such as “Bring your own water bottle” or “Supply guests with branded water bottles” are such common tips to reducing consumption of single use plastic. What merit does this advice have? Do you find that people are actually bringing their own? 

SARAH: If we tell people to stop using all of the plastic immediately, it’s overwhelming. The merit of bring your own bottle is that it provides an accessible entry point to further steps. Many people bring their own, many more wish they had once they get to their holiday location. Then it has to be easy for people to refill their bottle and that’s definitely improving throughout the region. As long as we use this as step one and build on it from there, we will see greater reductions in more areas of plastic use.

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Source: PFSEA

CHI: What kinds of plastic-related travel & tourism trends are you seeing in the region?  

SARAH: More tour companies are encouraging their guests to reduce plastic. Many such as EXO Travel and Intrepid give their guests a tote bag at the start of their trip and advise them to use it. They also encourage their partners to be more eco conscious too. Programs like Refill Not Landfill and many similar programs are making a huge difference to how people consume water whilst they’re travelling. Zero waste or plastic free flights are starting to become available and that’s definitely a trend I’d like to see more of. And more travelers are making conscious travel decisions… as the customer they have a lot of power over this, so I also hope they continue to use their social media and their tourist dollars to make bigger impacts.

CHI: As consumers, we are offered plastics in so many ways. How can we take a stand against plastic when it is so prevalent in our daily lives? What impact would our voices as consumers make to plastic producers and manufactures of products that use plastic? 

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Source: PFSEA

SARAH: The truth is, there are more than 7 billion of us, and we can make such a huge impact if we choose to engage. Producers and manufacturers are focused on one thing: profit. If we don’t buy their stuff, they will lose profit margin and ultimately adapt to what we want. We have the power if we’re willing to make short term changes to our behavior and speak up for what we want.

We can also be more conscious in our actions. In travel and daily life we’re often presented with ‘free’ plastic; the bag at the market, the bottle of water, the free samples at the supermarket, etc. Saying “no” to these free things will have amazing results. How many plastic bags do you have stowed in a cupboard or under the kitchen sink? How many times have you taken a conference delegate pack for example because it’s handed to you? Then you get home from the conference and pack it away or put it at the office for it to gather dust. Eventually you throw it in the bin. What a huge waste. Let’s stop doing that.

CHI: Awesome, Sarah. Thank you – I think that’s a brilliant note to end on!

The push for plastic free: interview with Sarah Rhodes, Founder, Plastic Free Southeast Asia
Source: PFSEA
Chi Lo
Chi Lo is recognised as an expert in sustainable tourism with over 10 years experience leading sustainability programmes spanning several continents. Her consultancy offers both sustainability advisory and coaching services for businesses wishing to operate more responsibly and conscientiously, as well as communications and content development services. Chi is active in the sustainable tourism community and is currently a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Executive Committee and Board, and the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage Advisory Board.

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