We live on a planet where there might soon be more plastic bags than fish in the oceans. A recent news article revealed that microplastic can even exist inside a women's womb.
From the deepest trenches to the highest peak of the tallest mountain, plastic candy wraps can be found, and used plastic bottles are scattered around the summit. Single-use plastic has become an inescapable part of our daily lives that, if left unchecked, could threaten our very existence. We use it for its cheap cost and convenience. We overuse it, take it for granted, and still know little about its multidimensional consequences.
The UNDP Accelerator Lab Network has been working on both macro (creating waste management policy) and microscale (helping informal waste pickers access the proper waste collection system) waste management worldwide. The team in Lao PDR, too, is currently focusing on this topic, particularly on understanding single-use plastic pollution in the capital, Vientiane.
Data from the initial experimentation with Vientiane City Office for Management and Service (VCOMS) at That Luang festival in 2019 and a survey on single-use plastic concluded that more than 73 percent of households in Vientiane do not have access to waste collection services. Additionally, the majority of non-recyclable plastic waste comes in the shape of sachets such as shampoo, soap, etc. Finally, findings from the open burning study at Sikottabong district revealed that most of the waste being burned or dumped into rivers is non-recyclable plastic, particularly those small sachets of consumer products.
Several UNDP Accelerator Labs have been establishing a network and running experiments with the private sector,especially consumer giants such as Unilever. The collaboration aims to facilitate learning on consumer behavior on single-use plastic packaging and discuss the possibility of repurposing their packaging and a way forward to reduce such pollution.
Recently, the Lao PDR team recognized the importance of this collaboration. With learning and experimentation driven mindset, we decided to run a quick behavioral trail to learn whether there is an appetite/willingness for people to change their purchase/consumption pattern. To do this, we set up a Unilever refill station to encourage the replacement of small sachets of previously mentioned products in the city center and the National University of Laos.
Before the experiment, our team conducted a small focus group and an online survey to understand the magnitude of the issues. Qualitative research through this focus group (14 people) and an online survey (150 people) identified that most consumers prefer shampoo in sachets because they believe it will help them save money by controlling portions and not wasting shampoo. Moreover, the price is within their weekly budget, whereas a larger container is perceived as too expensive. When asked about how they discard those sachets, 70 percent of respondents admitted to burning them, throwing them into rivers, or dumping them together with other household waste.
Figure 1. Theory of Change