Empowering Youths to become Sustainability Leaders

Solving the issue of waste management in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region requires the contribution of all members of society. Youths make up about a third of the region’s total population, making them an important stakeholder group to engage in efforts to address plastic pollution.

Zero Waste Laos (ZWL) is a youth-led organisation based in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) that works on raising awareness and conducting pilot projects to tackle issues related to waste, climate action, youth development, and gender. While ZWL primarily works with youths at the grassroots level, they also engage with governments, the private sector, and other stakeholders. ZWL is officially recognised by the Lao PDR Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) and has plans to collaborate with other ministries to broaden their impact.

Our team recently had the chance to talk with Ms Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh, the founder of ZWL, about raising awareness on waste management issues in Lao PDR. She shared her experiences working to protect the environment while empowering youths through ZWL. Besides her work with ZWL, Ms Souksaveuy is also a member of the National Steering Committee of the Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Programme, a consultant for various policy and capacity-building projects, and the Chief Executive Officer of the environmental consultancy firm Connect2P. In 2022, she was awarded the Women of the Future Southeast Asia Award in the Environmental, Social, and Governance category, demonstrating recognition of her contributions and commitment to environmental sustainability.

The Centre: Can you please tell us about your background and how you started working on environmental issues?

After I graduated from the Asian Institute of Technology, I started to work with international organisations and focused on sustainable waste management. It made me realise that there is a lot of work that needs to be tackled on the ground, especially raising awareness. Many times, the challenge for development partners that try to set up policies or provide facilities is the lack or low level of environmental awareness in the targeted communities. This is why I started ZWL in 2019. At the time, it was just a Facebook page. I wanted to spend 2–3 hours per day in my spare time creating posters to raise awareness. Then I started to spend time during the weekends doing activities with young people. It made me realise that this is something that I love doing and something that I want to do more professionally than as volunteer work. Last year, we registered as a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) and got approval from MoNRE in 2022. This makes us the first youth-led organisation working on environmental protection with ministerial-level approval. 

Please elaborate more on the general awareness of waste issues in Lao PDR and ZWL’s efforts on this front.

My observation from working with communities is that people do not have a place to dispose of their waste. There needs to be ownership to develop and align a waste collection system at the community, village, district, and province levels. There is still a need to build awareness and involve people in the process, even in the capital and big cities. However, in Lao PDR, we also need to build supporting systems and facilities. For example, in Vientiane, the level of waste collection is still below 40%. There are nine districts in the area, four of which are in urban areas, and the waste collection rate there is about 90%. In the other five districts outside the urban areas, the waste collection rate is not even 20% or 30%. So, a lot of times, waste is just dumped or burned. Where I live in Vientiane, there is no waste collection service. I understand that I should not burn the waste and that I have to reduce my waste production. So, I separate my waste, make compost and biogas from organic waste, and give the recyclable waste to informal waste pickers or sell it. Then I send the remaining waste from my house to a landfill, which is about a 40-kilometre drive from my house, about three times a year. For those who do not have the awareness or willingness to do that, it is much easier to just burn the trash.

Can you tell us more about ZWL’s members?

Right now, we have 80 team members in Vientiane who are mainly volunteers. They range from secondary school or high school students to university students. Most of them start volunteering from a very young age while they are still in high school and continue until they graduate. We also have members in different parts of the country. We try to set up a unit in every province to support our project and campaigns. We have quite a lot of activities in the southern part of Lao PDR, in Champasak, so we have about 30 members there. Our members are not limited to those with a background in the environmental sector. From a recent survey, I found that our members come from 22 different fields, including business, accounting, banking, and even nursing and medicine. This makes our team very diverse and helps bring different perspectives to our work.

How does ZWL engage with youth? What do you think drew them to join?

ZWL can be considered a group that is involved in youth development because although the focus is on environmental protection, we also provide our members with a platform to learn, explore, get more experiences, and express a part of themselves. For example, by having their photo attached to the content that they prepare for our campaigns. Another example is getting the opportunity to go on exchange programmes abroad. Their friends might see what they are doing, how they are enjoying it, how they get to support the community, and how they get the opportunity and scholarship to go on exchange programmes such as to the United States, other ASEAN countries, and Japan. This helps show other youths that there are other incentives to joining ZWL besides helping protect the environment. We also try to set up a supportive system with positive energy where everyone looks after each other. So, it is not only about doing volunteer work, but also about building life skills and soft skills. I tell my team that ZWL is like a bridge that can help people build their skills and mindset to become sustainability leaders as well as help them develop themselves. I also tell them that for this bridge to be stronger and be able to support more people, we all need to help. So, I remind them that they can also think about how they can give back to others.

Can you share with us some of ZWL’s flagship activities or projects?

A project we just started in the last two months is setting up a recycling center. Our recycling center is quite unique because it is set up in partnership with the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI) in Vientiane, where our office is located. We try to integrate the recycling center and help VEDI become a green institute, potentially adding recycling into the education system as part of a green module. In our recycling center, people can donate or sell their recyclable materials. We accept more than ten types of items and in exchange, we sometimes give them some sort of reward, not just in the form of money, but also seeds, plants, or the opportunity to join a lucky draw at the end of the year. We also try to mobilise support from the private sector, including beverage companies, airline companies, telecommunications companies, and hydropower plants. Some development partners also support us by becoming a green office, separating their waste, and donating it to ZWL. Another one of our projects is Youth Climate Action Laos, which started in 2021. Since that was during the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was organised online and focused on awareness. Later, we started to incorporate another component through planting trees. Our target is to plant 100,000 trees and so far, we have already planted about 35,000 trees and set up several nurseries in different parts of the province. In the future, we are also planning to not only have Youth Climate Action Laos but to expand and make a Youth Climate Action ASEAN Forum.

ZWL conducted Youth Climate Action Campaign in Province. (ZWL)

Please tell us more about the recycling centers. Do you only accept specific types of waste and what is the process like?

In Vientiane or even in Lao PDR, we do not have a full recycling system where people know where and when they can come and drop their waste. Most of the work is being done by informal waste pickers who go door-to-door or to shops to collect waste for extra income. So, in ZWL, together with raising awareness, we set up a space that can receive recyclable materials.

We accept more than 10 types of items, including cardboard, paper, plastics, cans, and glass bottles. We put different boxes where people can drop them in, then weigh and record them. When we reach certain amounts, for example more than two or three tons, we reach out to recycling companies that can then come and buy the waste from us. We work together with more than five companies that buy different materials from us to be sold to recycling factories.

We set up our facility so that it is convenient for citizens in urban areas to drop off their waste any time. In the first month, we were only open on Wednesdays and Sundays, but then we thought that people may come on different days to drop off their waste and we have our office there anyway. So, we decided to open the recycling center every day and only in the afternoons on Sundays. We assign different members of our team to work in pairs and operate the recycling center each day.

Can you tell us more about ZWL’s approach to raising awareness and encouraging people to live more sustainably, such as by reducing single-use plastics?

When we try to work with adults, we understand that it is not easy to convince them because they spend most of their time working to support their families. This is why we work with young people. They can, in turn, transfer their knowledge to their communities. Interestingly, in Lao PDR, 60% of the population consists of young people under 35 years old. We work together with young people not just to get them to reduce single-use plastics, but also to build capacity so that they can have better careers in the future.

We first try to make young people role models for their communities. They can help to tell the people around them that we should not burn waste, and that we need to make compost, etc. However, they told me that other people are not listening because they do not have enough awareness of the issue. This led me to reach out to the ministries as well so that we could work at different levels and do the transformation from the top level as well.

In Lao PDR, it is common practice to burn waste, including plastics, but I think that once people have that awareness in their hearts, they would know the right thing to do and would also be able to help raise awareness in their communities. If we have 100 people and then they help raise the awareness of another five or 10 people, then the number keeps multiplying. This is our strategy to make an impact.

ZWL works closely with schools to promote recycling. (Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh)

What are your experiences with on-site and off-site or online and offline campaigns? How do they differ?

Our approach to raising awareness depends on the area. For example, we continue to use both online and in-person campaigns because we want to engage everyone in the country, not just those who have access to the internet.

For our online campaigns, all our team members try to come up with new and innovative ideas like how to make a nice poster and what content to include. This way, they do not only contribute through our recycling project but also to awareness-raising efforts through doing research and making posts for social media, including TikTok and Facebook. We have an information technology and communications team consisting of 10 young volunteer members who try to find out and analyse the trends that people like to see. We try to use digital platforms to raise awareness because they are very cheap and effective for reaching a large mass of people.

Sometimes when we have an awareness day like Earth Day or other environmental days, some schools also contact us to organise events. For this reason, we try to set up teams in different areas and build their capacity so that they can lead actions in their communities. We noticed that it takes up to three to four years to build capacity, become more sustainable, and have a bigger impact. So, we started to engage with the Ministry of Education and Sports to discuss how to include environmental awareness, activities, and tools in the primary and secondary school curriculums. 

What is your vision for ZWL in the future? Will ZWL cover more issues or focus more on waste?

I think we will still keep focusing on waste management, climate action, and youth development. However, another area that we are also considering is water conservation. I realised that right now, there are no youth volunteer groups working on raising awareness on this topic yet. This topic is connected to waste and marine plastics, so we are trying to integrate this into our other workstreams and have a comprehensive group working to cover this area.

Working with environmental issues can be challenging. What personally drives you to keep going?

I think it is more than environmental protection work, but it is also about seeing young people grow and getting opportunities. It is something that is very nice to see and motivates me to keep going. Seeing the negative impacts on the environment can be very stressful, so I try to create a system that makes people enjoy working in this area. We have a very positive community. We support each other. Other than that, I also pursue hobbies, such as gardening, which helps me stay mindful and peaceful so that I can keep working more every day.

Ms Souksaveuy claims that pursuing hobbies such as gardening helps her stay mindful and peaceful amidst working on environmental issues. (Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh)

If you look back over these past few years and past projects, what are some key takeaway messages or lessons learned?

From what I have learned, everything has its own time, and there is much to learn from experiences at the grassroots level. Taking a top-down approach by referring to regional or global issues to mobilise people at the community level is not effective most of the time. What we can do is bring something from the grassroots level and connect it with global issues. This bottom-up approach makes the topics at hand seem more relevant or relatable to people at the ground level and consequently makes the project more sustainable. This is something that I also try to advocate a lot to the donors and NGOs.

Experts Profile
Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh
Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh

Founder of Zero Waste Laos

Solving the issue of waste management in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region requires the contribution of all members of society. Youths make up about a third of the region’s total population, making them an important stakeholder group to engage in efforts to address plastic pollution.

Zero Waste Laos (ZWL) is a youth-led organisation based in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) that works on raising awareness and conducting pilot projects to tackle issues related to waste, climate action, youth development, and gender. While ZWL primarily works with youths at the grassroots level, they also engage with governments, the private sector, and other stakeholders. ZWL is officially recognised by the Lao PDR Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) and has plans to collaborate with other ministries to broaden their impact.

Our team recently had the chance to talk with Ms Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh, the founder of ZWL, about raising awareness on waste management issues in Lao PDR. She shared her experiences working to protect the environment while empowering youths through ZWL. Besides her work with ZWL, Ms Souksaveuy is also a member of the National Steering Committee of the Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Programme, a consultant for various policy and capacity-building projects, and the Chief Executive Officer of the environmental consultancy firm Connect2P. In 2022, she was awarded the Women of the Future Southeast Asia Award in the Environmental, Social, and Governance category, demonstrating recognition of her contributions and commitment to environmental sustainability.

The Centre: Can you please tell us about your background and how you started working on environmental issues?

After I graduated from the Asian Institute of Technology, I started to work with international organisations and focused on sustainable waste management. It made me realise that there is a lot of work that needs to be tackled on the ground, especially raising awareness. Many times, the challenge for development partners that try to set up policies or provide facilities is the lack or low level of environmental awareness in the targeted communities. This is why I started ZWL in 2019. At the time, it was just a Facebook page. I wanted to spend 2–3 hours per day in my spare time creating posters to raise awareness. Then I started to spend time during the weekends doing activities with young people. It made me realise that this is something that I love doing and something that I want to do more professionally than as volunteer work. Last year, we registered as a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) and got approval from MoNRE in 2022. This makes us the first youth-led organisation working on environmental protection with ministerial-level approval. 

Please elaborate more on the general awareness of waste issues in Lao PDR and ZWL’s efforts on this front.

My observation from working with communities is that people do not have a place to dispose of their waste. There needs to be ownership to develop and align a waste collection system at the community, village, district, and province levels. There is still a need to build awareness and involve people in the process, even in the capital and big cities. However, in Lao PDR, we also need to build supporting systems and facilities. For example, in Vientiane, the level of waste collection is still below 40%. There are nine districts in the area, four of which are in urban areas, and the waste collection rate there is about 90%. In the other five districts outside the urban areas, the waste collection rate is not even 20% or 30%. So, a lot of times, waste is just dumped or burned. Where I live in Vientiane, there is no waste collection service. I understand that I should not burn the waste and that I have to reduce my waste production. So, I separate my waste, make compost and biogas from organic waste, and give the recyclable waste to informal waste pickers or sell it. Then I send the remaining waste from my house to a landfill, which is about a 40-kilometre drive from my house, about three times a year. For those who do not have the awareness or willingness to do that, it is much easier to just burn the trash.

Can you tell us more about ZWL’s members?

Right now, we have 80 team members in Vientiane who are mainly volunteers. They range from secondary school or high school students to university students. Most of them start volunteering from a very young age while they are still in high school and continue until they graduate. We also have members in different parts of the country. We try to set up a unit in every province to support our project and campaigns. We have quite a lot of activities in the southern part of Lao PDR, in Champasak, so we have about 30 members there. Our members are not limited to those with a background in the environmental sector. From a recent survey, I found that our members come from 22 different fields, including business, accounting, banking, and even nursing and medicine. This makes our team very diverse and helps bring different perspectives to our work.

How does ZWL engage with youth? What do you think drew them to join?

ZWL can be considered a group that is involved in youth development because although the focus is on environmental protection, we also provide our members with a platform to learn, explore, get more experiences, and express a part of themselves. For example, by having their photo attached to the content that they prepare for our campaigns. Another example is getting the opportunity to go on exchange programmes abroad. Their friends might see what they are doing, how they are enjoying it, how they get to support the community, and how they get the opportunity and scholarship to go on exchange programmes such as to the United States, other ASEAN countries, and Japan. This helps show other youths that there are other incentives to joining ZWL besides helping protect the environment. We also try to set up a supportive system with positive energy where everyone looks after each other. So, it is not only about doing volunteer work, but also about building life skills and soft skills. I tell my team that ZWL is like a bridge that can help people build their skills and mindset to become sustainability leaders as well as help them develop themselves. I also tell them that for this bridge to be stronger and be able to support more people, we all need to help. So, I remind them that they can also think about how they can give back to others.

Can you share with us some of ZWL’s flagship activities or projects?

A project we just started in the last two months is setting up a recycling center. Our recycling center is quite unique because it is set up in partnership with the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI) in Vientiane, where our office is located. We try to integrate the recycling center and help VEDI become a green institute, potentially adding recycling into the education system as part of a green module. In our recycling center, people can donate or sell their recyclable materials. We accept more than ten types of items and in exchange, we sometimes give them some sort of reward, not just in the form of money, but also seeds, plants, or the opportunity to join a lucky draw at the end of the year. We also try to mobilise support from the private sector, including beverage companies, airline companies, telecommunications companies, and hydropower plants. Some development partners also support us by becoming a green office, separating their waste, and donating it to ZWL. Another one of our projects is Youth Climate Action Laos, which started in 2021. Since that was during the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was organised online and focused on awareness. Later, we started to incorporate another component through planting trees. Our target is to plant 100,000 trees and so far, we have already planted about 35,000 trees and set up several nurseries in different parts of the province. In the future, we are also planning to not only have Youth Climate Action Laos but to expand and make a Youth Climate Action ASEAN Forum.

ZWL conducted Youth Climate Action Campaign in Province. (ZWL)

Please tell us more about the recycling centers. Do you only accept specific types of waste and what is the process like?

In Vientiane or even in Lao PDR, we do not have a full recycling system where people know where and when they can come and drop their waste. Most of the work is being done by informal waste pickers who go door-to-door or to shops to collect waste for extra income. So, in ZWL, together with raising awareness, we set up a space that can receive recyclable materials.

We accept more than 10 types of items, including cardboard, paper, plastics, cans, and glass bottles. We put different boxes where people can drop them in, then weigh and record them. When we reach certain amounts, for example more than two or three tons, we reach out to recycling companies that can then come and buy the waste from us. We work together with more than five companies that buy different materials from us to be sold to recycling factories.

We set up our facility so that it is convenient for citizens in urban areas to drop off their waste any time. In the first month, we were only open on Wednesdays and Sundays, but then we thought that people may come on different days to drop off their waste and we have our office there anyway. So, we decided to open the recycling center every day and only in the afternoons on Sundays. We assign different members of our team to work in pairs and operate the recycling center each day.

Can you tell us more about ZWL’s approach to raising awareness and encouraging people to live more sustainably, such as by reducing single-use plastics?

When we try to work with adults, we understand that it is not easy to convince them because they spend most of their time working to support their families. This is why we work with young people. They can, in turn, transfer their knowledge to their communities. Interestingly, in Lao PDR, 60% of the population consists of young people under 35 years old. We work together with young people not just to get them to reduce single-use plastics, but also to build capacity so that they can have better careers in the future.

We first try to make young people role models for their communities. They can help to tell the people around them that we should not burn waste, and that we need to make compost, etc. However, they told me that other people are not listening because they do not have enough awareness of the issue. This led me to reach out to the ministries as well so that we could work at different levels and do the transformation from the top level as well.

In Lao PDR, it is common practice to burn waste, including plastics, but I think that once people have that awareness in their hearts, they would know the right thing to do and would also be able to help raise awareness in their communities. If we have 100 people and then they help raise the awareness of another five or 10 people, then the number keeps multiplying. This is our strategy to make an impact.

ZWL works closely with schools to promote recycling. (Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh)

What are your experiences with on-site and off-site or online and offline campaigns? How do they differ?

Our approach to raising awareness depends on the area. For example, we continue to use both online and in-person campaigns because we want to engage everyone in the country, not just those who have access to the internet.

For our online campaigns, all our team members try to come up with new and innovative ideas like how to make a nice poster and what content to include. This way, they do not only contribute through our recycling project but also to awareness-raising efforts through doing research and making posts for social media, including TikTok and Facebook. We have an information technology and communications team consisting of 10 young volunteer members who try to find out and analyse the trends that people like to see. We try to use digital platforms to raise awareness because they are very cheap and effective for reaching a large mass of people.

Sometimes when we have an awareness day like Earth Day or other environmental days, some schools also contact us to organise events. For this reason, we try to set up teams in different areas and build their capacity so that they can lead actions in their communities. We noticed that it takes up to three to four years to build capacity, become more sustainable, and have a bigger impact. So, we started to engage with the Ministry of Education and Sports to discuss how to include environmental awareness, activities, and tools in the primary and secondary school curriculums. 

What is your vision for ZWL in the future? Will ZWL cover more issues or focus more on waste?

I think we will still keep focusing on waste management, climate action, and youth development. However, another area that we are also considering is water conservation. I realised that right now, there are no youth volunteer groups working on raising awareness on this topic yet. This topic is connected to waste and marine plastics, so we are trying to integrate this into our other workstreams and have a comprehensive group working to cover this area.

Working with environmental issues can be challenging. What personally drives you to keep going?

I think it is more than environmental protection work, but it is also about seeing young people grow and getting opportunities. It is something that is very nice to see and motivates me to keep going. Seeing the negative impacts on the environment can be very stressful, so I try to create a system that makes people enjoy working in this area. We have a very positive community. We support each other. Other than that, I also pursue hobbies, such as gardening, which helps me stay mindful and peaceful so that I can keep working more every day.

Ms Souksaveuy claims that pursuing hobbies such as gardening helps her stay mindful and peaceful amidst working on environmental issues. (Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh)

If you look back over these past few years and past projects, what are some key takeaway messages or lessons learned?

From what I have learned, everything has its own time, and there is much to learn from experiences at the grassroots level. Taking a top-down approach by referring to regional or global issues to mobilise people at the community level is not effective most of the time. What we can do is bring something from the grassroots level and connect it with global issues. This bottom-up approach makes the topics at hand seem more relevant or relatable to people at the ground level and consequently makes the project more sustainable. This is something that I also try to advocate a lot to the donors and NGOs.

Experts Profile
Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh
Souksaveuy Keotiamchanh

Founder of Zero Waste Laos