Here’s how to be a Finnish parent: kalsarikänni

A few years ago, a quiet country called Finland came to world attention suddenly: from relative obscurity, its education system was suddenly hailed as the best in the world.   One was the documentary, Waiting for Superman, about the poor state of American education (despite the No Child Left Behind policy and large investment in education), and the second was the stellar performance of Finnish students in PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment.

I was in Asia at that time, with three or four school aged children in a very competitive, academic school. I looked on with bemusement as folks here scrambled like lemmings to emulate Finland’s success. There’s even a Chinese word for it, kiasu, meaning ‘afraid to lose’.

Private schools and international schools of course capitalised on this kiasu-ness of parents. Words such as lifelong learner, problem-solver, resilient thinker, etc began popping up in marketing material, vocabulary and curricula already laden with homework, tuition, assignments, more tuition.

And here’s the thing: I think these schools AND parents who are suddenly longing for Finnish education are schizophrenic. They want to emulate Finland’s success, but the very nature of Finland’s success when it comes to education is its non-competitive nature:

  1. There are no mandated, standardised tests in Finland except for ONE exam at the end of a student’s senior year in high school;
  2. There are no rankings, no comparisons, no competitions amongst students, teachers or schools;
  3. If one method doesn’t work for a student, try something else rather than beating him/her to finish first amongst the strong finishers.

My view as a mother of five who have always been keenly involved in education (I was a school governor of my children’s school in Portsmouth) is that pushy parents and relaxed Finnish style education simply do not mix. You have more chance of mixing oil with water.

Finnish children climb trees. Finnish children use sharp blades to build their own playhouses. Finnish children don’t go for tuitions. Finnish children don’t spend all their hours indoors. And most of all, Finnish parents simply don’t compare …. since comparison is not in the national ethos.

Equality is the most important word in Finnish educationOlli Lukkainen, president of Finland’s teaching union.

And as we well know, it all starts from the home though of course, schools and national education systems do have some impact on how your child will turn up. But I would always maintain that parents are the main teachers.  Your ideologies, your values, your ethos and your philosophies shape your child’s psyche as surely as the river shapes the landscape it flows through every day. If you are pushy, stressed out, competitive about your kid’s exam scores, you’re not going to have a relaxed, happy, curious kid with an inquiring mind. Your kid would be too afraid to fail (or worse still, not care a jot about failing) have the time and space to explore, expand, formulate, rationalise, grow….because all his/her available resource would be invested into the pointless task beating the exams and beating “competitors” rather than actual learning.

So, in the interest of education, let me share with you the mindset of the Finnish people that perhaps is the key factor to the success of the Finnish education system: kalsarikänni.

It basically means sitting around in the home, drinking beer in your underpants, watching some TV maybe. Yes, I kid you not. But at the heart of kalsarikänni is optimal peace of mind, comfort and equilibrium.

Here’s an enlightened article about it in The Guardian, written by the Finnish author Miska Rantanen:

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Though I have just learned about the word for this particular way of being only a couple of days ago, it is something that my children’s father and I have always practised in parenting: I never go to school meetings with my children’s teachers (my communication with my children are honest and frequent enough for me to know if there is a need for my intervention) and my children’s father often (like four days a week) took my youngest to the pub after work when she was young. Even the damn dog went to the pub in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur. I wrote about my daughter’s beermat-flipping skills (as the result of spending 4 days a week waiting for her father to finish drinking with his mates in the pub) in my book. She actually did most of her homework and studying in the pub.


So why am I so chilled? Because my thesis is that a happy, well-balanced, and kind child with good social skills will always succeed as an adult So focus on the important bits.  Take a leaf out of the book of the Finns. Relax. The more you try to grab hold of something, the more it seeps out of your fingers like sand.

Here’s something for you to think about:

Schools are not just places for transmitting technical know-how. They must also be places where children can learn to be happy, loving, and understanding, where teachers nourish their students with their own insights and happiness.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”.

And from Great Parenting Simplified:


My book, Easy Parenting For All Ages: A Guide For Raising Happy Strong Kids, is available for free download on kindle unlimited. Click on this link.

To order a copy of Pantsdrunk: The Finnish Art of Drinking at Home. Alone. In Your Underwear by Miska Rantanen, (Square Peg, £9.99) for £8.59, go to


“The best classroom in the world”

It is true, the best classroom in the world is the world.  Though books are great for growing young minds, I strongly believe that children (and adults) need to go out there to the world they live in to feel the lessons.

The best teacher is often the parent. What my parents taught me all those decades ago still reverberated strongly in me. And indeed, my biology teacher, Mrs Jenny Woods who took the class out on field trips to Harting and Stoughton.

And so I am back here again, walking in my beloved Hampshire, far from the madding crowd.

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Amongst the golden ripeness, we came across a field where its entire crop of broad beans were devastated by the hot summer we are having.

“Oh no,” I said, with feeling. I remember what my father told me about his childhood: he had grown up in a farm, and one summer, a whole field of crop was ruined, with just one blade standing. A lone tear rolled down my father’s cheek, all those decades later.

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“What happened, Jacqueline?” Little Berti asked. He slipped his tiny hand in mine. The youngest of the triplets, he was particularly in tune with my emotions.

“The sun, it destroyed this whole field. There was no rain, so the plants burned.”

“Why didn’t the farmer water his plants?” Christian asked.

“Because the cost of watering this large field, so far from a water source, would cost more than his crop.”

“Let’s pick the alive ones to eat,” Alex said.

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And with the wisdom of an old soul, Berti (named after Umberto Ecco) said firmly, “We will take the seeds home to plant them, so that they may grow again next year.”

My heart soared at those words for this is the most precious lesson of all, that life is kindness and cruelty, good times and bad times, but we must have hope always ❤

Drying the seeds in the sun for next season, may God bless us:

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The best schooling for your child

This is the Oratory School, London.  It was reputed to be the best.

It rejected my son Kit.

Kit was 10 when we applied for him to attend this school in 2000.  We had lived in nearby South Kensington and all my children attended the Oratory’s feeder school, Our Lady of Victories RC Primary school. We attend the Our Lady of Victories Church regularly – three of my children were baptised at the church – and still attend this church.

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Additionally, Kit’s father was also the head of faculty at St Thomas Aquinas in Birmingham, an Oratory school.

On the day of the interview, Kit cycled to the London Oratory School on his own. He was a confident, sporty sort of chap and though not terribly academic, he was not that bad in his studies.

But The Oratory School rejected him after the interview.  We were flabbergasted, as we were not allowed to apply to the other Catholic school in the area, Cardinal Vaughn. The choice was either or: you couldn’t apply to both.

As Catholic education was very important to us, we decided – with heavy hearts – to send him to school near his grandparents: to St Simon Stock all the way in Kent. He had to take two trains to get to school each day and once, he was picked on very severely by bullies on his journey to school. And my boy had not even turned 12 then.

But with his indomitable spirit, he won medals and trophies in karate and go-carting.

After that, we moved abroad and Kit had three years at an international school. He got his International Awards, did passably well in his studies, collected great experiences as he embraced everything in his robust, enthusiastic and boisterous way.

At 18, he decided to join the Royal Navy. Much to our surprise, he passed the Admiralty Interview Board with flying colours! We knew he would pass the Fitness Selection Test easily, but AIB???? He was up against other 18-year-olds who went to Welbeck College and /or came from distinguished naval families.

And so, Kit began his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Southampton University, fully funded by the Royal Navy. Whilst there, he added on to his arsenal of medals: in boxing and fencing.  After his first degree, the Royal Navy paid for him to do a Masters, and then he went on for officer training at Dartmouth Royal Naval College in the UK and Annapolis Naval Academy in the US. He went on foreign tours of duty (including six months in the Middle East) before being awarded the prestigious job as the Deputy Weapons Engineer on the Queen Elizabeth, a post he held for two years during the building of the aircraft carrier. The biggest accolade for him, however, was when he was picked to be the Day Officer when the crew of 600+ came onboard. When his 2-year posting ended, he was invited to do a second Masters, this time in Guided Missiles Technology, which he is completing now, before his next posting, working towards his next promotion to Lieutenant Commander. He is often on TV and newspapers (the photo on the right was from Daily Mail and the one below is a screenshot from BBC’s recent programme, Britain’s Biggest Warship):

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His whole life is his job. He is ambitious and embraces all the experiences the Royal Navy gives him. He took up every opportunity that was offered to him and did well.

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So this is the boy that the Oratory School deemed to be “not good enough” or “not right” for its hallowed halls. I’m glad it didn’t affect him. It wasn’t the “best” school anyway, but one of the many. And Kit certainly has not lost out by not going to this school.

Ironically, my grown-up children now live within 100 metres from the school, next to Brompton Park, and as I walked past the schoolboys heading for the school today, I want to get this message out to all parents:

The concept of “best” school does not exist. The best is already in your child. Nurture it in the home. School is just part of the story.





Environmentally friendly educational toys

When my children were tiny, I caused some bad feelings amongst family members because I banned plastic toys: I politely refused to accept those noisy, battery-operated, garish plastic monstrosity, especially those with flashing lights!

My parents-in-law used to make toys for my children: almost 30 years later, we still have some of those precious toys (Photo: Harry Helium, made by my mother-in-law based on a story I wrote).

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My parents, who weren’t so good with the sewing machine or saw, entertained the children with nature (Photo: drawing from 30 years ago!)


No, they did not suffer not owning any plastic toys. They made their own with discarded packaging and stuff they find around the house (Photo: the two sisters making something).


When my got older, I softened my stance a bit and allowed Legos into the house. But by then, they had gotten over the idea that toys are fun. They much preferred pets, and at one stage, we had two dogs, two cats and eleven rabbits. That rather large menagerie did not leave them much time for gadgets either!

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Recently, I visited my children’s father’s classroom (he teaches Design & Technology) and saw these Chinese puzzles that his Year 8 students made. It took them only 2 lessons and provided lots of educational fun:

This can be made environmentally friendly by suing softwood. The design is from MYP Design & Technology textbook published by IBID Press.

Here is something you can make simply at home with your children, using paper or even flour tortilla! A hexaflaxagon that my daughter made:

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Here are the instructions. Have fun!!!


Here’s an innovative company repurposing plastic toys:

Adaptogens: for your body’s maintenance

I turned 50 last year and people often ask me what I do and eat to keep my youthfulness. Actually, I am quite a naughty girl: I am partial to dairy (milk and cheese!) and to the odd bottle of wine. And though I live an active and healthy lifestyle, my body does need additional nutritional support (especially in the last two months, where I have been stressed out – and in the next few months, when I go back to work!).  Here’s what I take:


Our body needs so many things, especially if you live a busy, stressful lifestyle in a polluted city.  You’ve heard of co-enzymes, but what about adaptogens? These herbs and mushrooms have been used for centuries in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine.

Though it is not “hard science” yet, there is increasing evidence that these group of nutrients have the effect of normalising the body’s imbalances (adverse effect of stress, pollution and poor nutrition)  and slowing down ageing effects.

Personally, I incorporate adaptogens into my diet to balance out inflammation caused by dairy, alcohol, sugar and stress. I also use very little products on my skin, choosing instead to nourish it from the inside.

The most well-known adaptogen is of course, ginseng.

For women, these are particularly good:

  • Ashwagandha: Soothing.
  • Rhodiola: Calming.
  • Holy Basil: For vitality.
  • Shatavari: The Hormonal Harmoniser, Queen of Women’s Adaptogens.
  • Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng): For brain alertness and stamina.
  • Reishi Mushroom and astragalus: For the immune system.

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Photo: astragalus, licorice root, ginseng and holy basil stems.

I just throw the roots and barks (of what I need) into a slow cooker and boil overnight with some organic chicken carcass and vegetables. Seen here: fresh stalks from the holy basil.

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Living in Asia at the moment, I can get hold of these roots and barks very easily from traditional herbal shops.

Whilst home in the UK, I use the powder form.

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But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For example, holy basil, which I put in my green smoothies and raw on my spaghetti, is a powerful adaptogen. Turmeric is another powerful one, which functions as an anti-inflammatory.

If you are not feeling 100% but can’t quite put your finger on why, then perhaps adaptogens might be what you need to bring your body back into balance. That’s what people in the olden days do to maintain wellness, instead of pill-popping. So do your research, speak with a few specialists and maybe try this.

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Yoga = no ego

I will be running a yoga teacher training programme at my dear friend Marion’s lovely yoga studio in Cap d’Ail in South of France in July this year, and Marion had asked me to send her some up-to-date, high-resolution, nice photographs of myself to promote the course.



But here’s the problem: I have a bad injury from a kayaking accident that has gone from bad to worse: I have a fractured ankle and split tendons. In fact, the morning these photos were taken, I was in hospital with the orthopaedic surgeon discussing the next step.


So the elusive “perfect” posture did not appear to be possible on this Saturday afternoon, though the weather was sunny and just right.

But who am I trying to kid? I am 50 years old and I have given birth to 5 children, ranging from 32 to 18 years old. I am not a girl gymnast anymore. I love food and I have an active, indulgent lifestyle, which means my poor body has deep-set injuries and on many occasions, carried extra pounds.

Here’s a clip from 8 years ago about my injury (ankle again!):

I have lived fully and joyously, no regrets, and as a consequence, perfection has slipped my body’s vocabulary a long time ago. Instead, I have found deep beauty in small things. No doubt if my ever-so-patient friend Jane and I had spent longer than 2 minutes in the garden, we would have gotten more stunning photos from the session. Some perfect ones even, albeit accidentally 🙂

But is a perfectly posed, perfect posture what I’m trying to sell? Am I trying to say, “Come and learn how to look good doing an asana?”


Over a three-week period in Cap d’Ail, this is what you will be doing:

  1. Learn all about your body, the mechanics, the connections and how they all fit together to create a stunning engineering wonder;
  2. Honouring your body, enjoying the movements that are inherent and personal to you – yoga is a deeply personal relationship between you and your body;
  3. Cultivating gratitude for your body and finding beauty within its imperfections;
  4. Finding peace in Cap d’Ail.

Once you have found that deep passion for your physical being and reestablish your connection with nature, you will radiate. And this is when you become a teacher and pass on the light.

Be the light ~ SUN YOGA.

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Come and join us in Cap d’Ail  on 6-29 July 2018.

For more information please email:



A Tribute to Mr Clifford Haskins

I was telling my daughter that teachers have the power to shape lives and create destinies….for the better and also for the worse, depending on the teacher.

As I was telling her this, I thought about my chemistry teacher. I googled him, and much to my sadness, I found that there is nothing written about him at all, just announcements of his funeral.  He was such a great but humble man, so I decided to write this, for the world to remember him by.


Mr Clifford Haskins taught me chemistry. He studied chemistry at Oxford and returned to our lovely county (Hampshire) to teach in the local school.

I was lazy and rebellious. I had come to the school with three meagre O levels. I was also a teenage unwed mum. You couldn’t get a worst combination in a student than what I was.

“You could go up to Oxford you know,” he told to me seriously. “You just need to work a little harder.”

Well, that’s NOT what people have been telling me.

He didn’t get too annoyed when I messed around in his class and didn’t do my homework. “I was in Milan,” I would tell him airily.

“Oh my goodness me, did you have a good time?” He would reply, totally unflustered. I get the feeling he laughed at us behind our backs, or when his back was turned to us.

Towards exam time, he would get a little flustered. “Just listen to me for fifteen minutes, please!” He would beg the class, appealing to our goodwill.  But those 15-minute segments were very effective. He must have stayed up for hours in his cottage on Langstone preparing for the 15 minutes.

We listened to him for 15 minutes as part of the deal, and then spent the rest of the lesson gossiping and messing around with chemicals. But somehow, because of his excellent teaching (hard work behind the scenes, I suspect), we learned more than we thought.

“You could go up to Oxford you know,” he kept on telling me that.

When university application time came, the girl with three O levels (instead of ten) decided to try for Oxford. “Which college?” I asked Mr Haskins. “St John’s?”

“Oh my goodness me, you have to be either very rich or very clever to get into that one,” he joked, pale blue eyes twinkling. “But why not? You just have to work a little harder.”

So my dear Mr Haskins, I wish to tell you this: I got there in the end, because you told me I could. Thank you, Sir, with all my heart.

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Cover photo: St John’s College, Oxford University, my alma mater (wikipedia).

Save the planet by giving a piece of you

OK, I have been told by my readers to stop going on about plastics and the environment. I agree, there has been too much preaching in both the media and social media. But hear me out – this is about a solution. This is about you making a difference. I promise 🙂


Back in those days, the greengrocer would put our purchases into my mother’s old-fashioned wicker shopping basket. Occasionally, he would wrap some types of fruits and vegetables up in old newspapers (like the beetroots my father loved, for example, or those juicy cherries). This is the greengrocer in my hometown (Southsea, Hampshire).

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These days, greengrocers are fast becoming extinct, pushed out of business by supermarket consortiums and megastores, which are able to sell products at very competitive prices that independent, family-run stores cannot hope to match. And the worst thing about this subversive takeover of the traditional way of life is that we, the customers, have no say in the packaging. Recently, Marks & Spencers’ was shamed for packaging ONE lime leaf in a plastic bag. You think that’s awful? How about individually wrapped jelly beans?

These are from the Instagram account, Pointless Packaging (@pointless_packaging). Do have a look, feel outraged and get galvanised into taking action!

So, I have joined the crusade against plastics (as if you haven’t guessed!). And thus, I have bought several reusable shopping bags. But to be honest, I don’t always remember to bring them along.

HOWEVER, recently, my niece sent some stuff from the UK to me (in Phuket) and she put my goodies in a cloth bag that she sewed. Oh, I cherish the bag so much that I carry it around all the time, folded up, in my handbag. It is so useful for my impromptu purchases, ranging from books to vegetables to picnic food!


So my suggestion is, how about you giving your friend(s) a nice reusable shopping bag? If it is from you, given with affection, I am sure it will be cherished and used again and again.


Note: I love this cotton string macrame bags (remember them?). Would love to be able to source them locally. These are from estringbags in Australia.

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Plastics & the universe

A few years ago, I went on a back-to-nature holiday with my dear friend Mario. We went to Bali. Bali is a paradise for those who are environmentally conscious; at least, the part of Bali where we were.  We stayed in a little villa amongst the paddy fields and ate in a raw green restaurant called Alchemy.


I remember with fondness the coconut shell bowls, the bamboo straws and the reusable food packaging (though they were over-priced).

In a fit of environmental fervour, I started googling these products with the idea of buying them. But wait a minute….they have to be shipped – nay, flown – to me across the ocean, burning carbon as well as a hole in my pocket (postage is not cheap).

Obviously, importing reusable stuff from across the miles is not a good solution. It might reduce my plastics usage, but it creates a burden elsewhere.

For those who are wading into the plastics war, I would recommend reading the Bellagio Principles:

Advocacy alone is not enough to rid the world of plastics. It will reduce the usage, definitely….in the educated and privileged classes who have the luxury of making a choice.  This is a reusable mug.


I mentioned this in a previous post about the people in my neighbourhood (in Asia) who are one of the biggest users of plastic: these people exist on breadline, and they have very little choice. I asked the lady who sells 300 drinks a day in plastic cups (and straws) if she knew about the damage she is doing the environment on a daily basis and her reply was, “OK. Plastics very bad. What you want me do?” She feeds her family on the back of this….and she has a large family, including extended family members. She cannot afford to make changes that will hit her precarious living by increasing her costs.

Any long-term changes must therefore address these three axioms of the triangle of humanity:  “People, Planet, Prosperity”.

A couple of years ago, I had an interesting conversation about the environment with an economist who had a hydroponics project going in my daughter’s school. He said that the only way to stop massive deforestation is to provide the people who live in the forest with alternative means of income (e.g. eco-tourism) so that they do not collude with the illegal loggers….you can preach all you like to them about the environmental impact of deforestation, but unless you provide them with a means  of putting food into their children’s mouths, they are going to cut down trees for money.

My question; is how do we bring people together to work together to effect positive change that goes beyond advocacy?

My daughter suggests buying 100 reusable plastics drinks cups and donating it to the lady who sells 300 drinks a day and ask her to give those to her regular customers, offering them a 0.05THB discount on a 20THB drink (because that’s how cheap a disposable plastic cup is).

Here’s a review of reusable plastic cups. Eeks, mine has only a shelf-life of 30 uses!




My children’s father’s most cherished books is Viktor Papanek’s Design For The Real World: If only designers could spend 10% of their time working on solutions for real problems in the world.


Plastics – what’s the solution for the real world?

One of the things I tell my children is don’t just lecture people about your values. THINK!

For instance, we, the privileged ones, are telling all and sundry not to use plastics. But what choices do those existing on breadline have? Advocacy alone is not going to rid the world of plastics. It just generates more hot air. Thus, we need environmental stewardship to go with eco activism and I don’t see enough of that.


Twenty six years ago, way back in 1992, I wrote a book on the Environmental Impact of Paper Recycling.

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Back then, the environment wasn’t a trendy issue, unlike today. Today, each time I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I am bombarded with messages about saving the planet.

Twenty six years ago, when my book came out, I was ridiculed. I was called a New Age hippy, a rebel without a cause, a Sloane Ranger, a fool. Back then, recycling was all the rage. I tricked my way into a paper mill to show that recycling can actually do more harm to the planet, especially when the heavy metals used in some inks get leached into rivers.

I don’t think my fairly high profile shouting made that much of a difference back then.

Today, fortunately, much of paper wastage is eliminated with the advent of technology. We seldom print out stuff. We read online. This migration is both good and bad for humanity, but on the whole, it is very good for the environment.

But what about plastics? I hear the battle cry but what’s the solution for the real world?

Here’s the view from ground floor level:

I live in a humble part of town. The people here are normal, working class Thais. They work as tuk-tuk drivers, massage girls, waiters. You can get a drink in my part of town for THB20 (less than 40p) and lunch for THB70. These drinks and food are packaged in plastic cups, plastic straws, polystyrene food boxes.

Straws and a lot of plastic cups are most commonly made from type 5 plastic, or polypropylene. Although type 5 plastic can be recycled, it isn’t accepted by most curbside recycling programmes. When plastic straws aren’t recycled, they end up in landfills, or even worse, polluting our oceans. And they don’t biodegrade. Not for thousands of years. And in the meantime, they choke wildlife, enter into our food chain and kill us silently.

This is my local drinks stall.


In a day, during high season, she sells 300 drinks on average. That means 300 plastic cups and 300 plastic straws. Just on my road alone, there are 45 of these stalls (I counted).  Some of these stalls are a lot busier than this one. We are looking at 13,500 plastic cups and plastic straws A DAY from just one road in Thailand during high season. That’s heck lot of plastic ending up in landfills!

But here’s the fact: much of the local economy in Asia is run on this cheap, widely available plastic and polystyrene packaging. Every evening, the municipal bins are over-spilling with food and drinks packaging. Where I live, that is the biggest contributor of plastics pollution.

But on the flip side of the coin, the lady who owns the stall and her husband support their whole family (including extended family members) selling drinks at THB20 per pop. They are making an honest living and creating a better future for their next generation, though yes, at the expense of our planet.

What’s YOUR solution for her livelihood, if you are telling her not to use plastics?

It is a privilege to be able to make choices based on our values. I am privileged that I can afford to buy a Starbucks reusable flask, several cloth shopping bags and even tiffin carriers to take my takeaway meals home in. I made this cup for my friend to take green smoothies home in.


But what about the small-time traders who are the biggest users of plastics, serving a segment of the community that exists on the breadline, for whom choice is not their privilege? What would you propose for them to use instead, if you are telling them don’t use plastic?

Here are my suggestions for food packaging (for fish and chips from the UK, and for nasi lemak from Malaysia) but I have none for drinks. What do YOU think?