10 Ways to Live More Sustainably in the Tropics

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smiling girls sitting on bench in tropical country
Image: Michelle Raponi

Roughly a third of the world’s population lives in the tropics. They receive sunlight and warmth all year round, making most of the tropics ideal for growing an extensive variety of crops and making it easy for most who reside there to live a more natural, sustainable, and eco-friendly lifestyle.

However, the vast diversity of the tropics is under pressure, thanks to increased human populations and increased wealth. Population growth has produced an increase in the demand for food, water, shelter – all of which is putting a strain on the environment.

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If everyone was to live like westerners in developed countries with their carbon-intensive lifestyles, then it’s estimated that the world’s population would need three or four planets the size of Earth! The good news is that there are plenty of ways to live sustainably in tropical climates. It is easier than you think!

Because of the extreme heat and humidity, conserving energy and water is key to sustainable living in the tropics. Here are 10 ways that you can live more sustainably in the tropics. Most of these apply to temperate climates too, but many are easier to implement and achieve if you live in the tropics.

man planting vegetable seedlings in tropical garden
Image: Anil Sharma

1. Grow Your Own Fruits and Vegetables

Why not? With year-round sun and monsoon seasons with free water, you can grow a lot of different healthy vegetables and fruits. You can start with what you eat on a regular basis. Here are some veggies that you can stick in the ground and let them do their thing.

      • Amaranth
      • Arugula
      • Asian Greens
      • Chili peppers
      • Cucumber
      • Eggplant
      • Okra
      • Sweet Corn
      • Tomato
      • Zucchini

And if you live in a highland region where temperatures are cooler, you can add lettuce to that list as well. Of course, you can grow lettuce even in lowland regions, but the hotter the climate is, the more attention you need to give to lettuce.

There are a wide range of fruits that can be grown in the tropics, and generally these need less attention than vegetables. In many cases they need no attention at all until they are ready for picking.

      • Banana
      • Coconut
      • Dragonfruit
      • Guava
      • Lanzones
      • Mango
      • Papaya
      • Passionfruit
      • Pineapple
      • Rose Apple
      • Soursop
      • Starfruit
man watering garden with garden hose
Image: Ryan McGuire

2. Get Creative with Your Gardening

Gardening can be a fun outdoor job in the tropics. After all, it is the natural medicine that will keep you active, fit, and engaged on your land. However, gardening often involves harmful chemicals that wouldn’t be good to have in the environment, much less your fruits and veggies.

Get creative with your gardening in an eco-friendly way, such as using rainwater to irrigate your plants and composting your food scraps. Learn about the issues surrounding food waste and cut down on what you throw out at home.

Rainwater is the healthiest and most preferred water source for plants, and it does not contain the chemicals typically found in treated tap water. In addition, rainwater contains nitrate, one of the primary nutrients that help plants thrive.

Here are the steps to irrigate your plants with rainwater:

    1. Install gutters to collect rainwater that falls on the roof of your house.
    2. Install filters on the downpipes to your storage tanks to prevent debris, dust, or leaves from entering.
    3. Storage tanks can be anything from large stainless steel tanks designed for water storage down to the traditional rainwater barrel.
    4. Raise the storage tanks off the ground if possible so there is gravity flow when watering your plants (otherwise a pump will be needed for larger tanks).

After the water is stored in the tank, you can use a watering can or hose to water your plants. Free water! You can also use open tanks to collect rainwater directly, but these are much less efficient than roof collection. However, they can be useful in the rainy season if you experience thunderstorms with heavy downpours. But keep an eye on open tanks for any sign of the breeding of mosquitos.

vegetable scraps and egg shells being composted
Image: Mel Green

Composting is a sure way to ensure healthy plant growth. Plants grow faster and stronger in composted soil and will produce higher yields. In addition, converting food waste into compost provides many environmental benefits. As well as nourishing and improving the structure of the soil, composting reduces the impact of drought by improving water retention in the soil, and of course reduces waste that might otherwise unnecessarily end up in landfill.

The materials needed for compost can come from any organic waste you might have. Some of the types of food waste that you can use for compost include fruit and vegetable scraps, nutshells, eggshells, and coffee grounds. See this comprehensive guide for more information. Note the types of food waste that should not be used for composting which include dairy products, meat, fish bones, fats, and oils.

In the kitchen, store food scraps in a gallon bucket with a tightly fitting lid. You can place newspaper over the scraps to reduce odour when opening the bucket to add more scraps. Transfer the scraps to your compost heap at least every few days to reduce odours and prevent flies from getting into the bucket (they will lay maggots if they do).

You can of course bury food scraps directly into the soil as well. Dig a hole in the soil to a depth of roughly 30cm, place the food scraps in the hole and cover them with the excavated soil. It takes much longer for the food residue to decompose and blend into the soil before you can plant anything there, so if you want quicker results, it’s better to build a compost heap.

fruits and vegetables in Mexico market
Image: Ja Ma

3. Seek Out Produce that is Locally Grown

Gardening is not something that everyone has the opportunity to do, perhaps because they don’t have yards or don’t have enough free time. An alternative to growing your own food is to buy local, seasonal products that are grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Produce that is grown locally means that it is cultivated within a geographical area where you live. The produce of local farmers around your city or the results of your garden plants can both be referred to as locally grown.

Examples of foods that can be grown locally are seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy products and eggs. Local farmers can also grow certain types of crops through the year, but their availability depends on the local climate.

Locally grown produce provides many benefits to both yourself and the wider community. Produce that is grown locally is usually preservative-free and much of it is grown organically (but you need to check that) so it’s better for your health.

fruits and vegetables in Thailand market
Image: Nick Walker

In addition, locally grown produce is likely to be higher in nutrients. It tastes delicious compared to produce produced on an industrial scale because most produce in that category has undergone mechanical harvesting and genetic improvement to make it last longer on long-distance shipments.

It also requires much less fuel for distribution to market (sometimes nothing if you can buy from the farm gate), resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than imported products or products shipped from outside the city. Therefore, the carbon footprint of the produce is much lower.

Small scale local agriculture can still enhance biodiversity because the farms still provide habitats for birds and insects unlike industrial scale farmlands which have little or no biodiversity (and may be poisoned by insecticides).

Last but not least, buying locally grown produce provides social benefits for the local community. You have directly contributed to the community and its economy, which can improve everyone’s overall well-being.

free range chickens on green grass
Image: Heiner Rambold

4. Buy Only Organic Meat and Dairy

Aside from agricultural produce, it’s important to look for organic options for meat and dairy products, preferably produced from animals that are free-range. That means livestock that is allowed to range freely outdoors, without being caged or fenced.

This is in stark contrast to unethical industrial conditions where livestock do not have enough space to move, imprisoned every day in cages, and often and fed with chemical supplements or hormones. Chickens have a natural behaviour that is actively moving and foraging, and in the process, it involves pecking and clawing.

When this behavior is restricted, the welfare and health of the chickens is compromised and this flows down the food chain to their meat and eggs. Producing healthy and stress-free livestock provides better health benefits for humans and better food quality.

empty biodegradable drink containers
Image: Brian Yurasits

5. Choose Environmentally Friendly Products

It may not always be possible to do, but when you can, choose products that are more environmentally friendly. As people become more aware of climate change and other environmental issues, many manufacturers have started selling eco-friendly products, both from large corporate scale operations, to homegrown small businesses.

Eco-friendly products typically involve recycling non-biodegradable waste which will have a negative impact on the environment if disposed of carelessly. Many are made from biodegradable and organic materials that do not overwhelm our landfills.

Stop buying single-use products like plastic bottles, tableware, or cutlery. In a day, there are about 66 million drink bottles that end up in landfills or thrown carelessly on land or in drains that end up in the ocean. And only about 15 percent of that amount is successfully recovered and recycled.

The tropics can be hot. Very hot. You’ll need to hydrate constantly, so make your favourite refillable water bottle as important as your keys, wallet or purse, and phone. Don’t leave home without it!

6. Don’t Throw Away: Reuse if Possible

Before throwing your stuff out, think. Maybe it can be repurposed into something else? Plastic bags are always useful to have around the home for wrapping food waste that can’t be composted. Cans can be recycled or turned into planters or pen holders. Glass jars make great storage containers and are often airtight.

takeaway food in styrofoam container
Image: Vitalis Arnoldus

7. Avoid Single-Use Products

Unfortunately, tropical countries are notorious for single-use items, especially plastic bottles and styrofoam takeaway food containers. Many tropical beaches and waterways are littered with these products. If you are buying street food, bring your own reusable plastic containers, or your own mug when buying takeaway coffee or tea.

All plastic tableware, diapers, wipes, and other similar disposable products contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in both the production and disposal processes. Replace these items with reusable ones. Replace paper towels or tissues with washable cloths wherever possible – otherwise add them to your compost heap.

Bring your own bag when you shop and buy products with minimal packaging. The increase in e-commerce business in recent years has contributed greatly to the increasing amount of waste from product packaging. It may be difficult to avoid extra packaging when online shopping because how it is packed is outside your control. What you can do is reuse the packaging, compost the non-plastic packaging, or donate it to a local business for reuse.

Also, try to go for rechargeable batteries. They are more expensive to buy but will last much longer than single use batteries which mostly end up in landfills leaking their toxic contents into the soil and groundwater. Not only with the planet thank you, your wallet will too!

woman walking past clothes market stall in tropical country
Image: Bikram Bezbaruah

8. Buy Secondhand

Ever heard of “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”? You never know what you might find in flea markets. It could be your new favourite t-shirt or bag! Save someone’s stuff from heading to the landfills and buy secondhand products where possible.

Shop for second-hand clothes or recycle your old clothes. The fashion industry accounts for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions. This amount is greater than the total carbon emissions from all international flights and sea shipping combined.

In addition, the material most widely used in the fashion industry is cotton. Although it can be grown organically, cotton is a very thirsty plant. To produce 1kg of cotton, you need more than 20,000 litres of water. Meanwhile, the production of cotton globally in a year continues to rise from the current figure of 27 million tons.

We can’t stop using cotton in the tropics because it’s one of the most practical fabrics to wear in hot climates for both men and women, but we can try to extend the use of our cotton garments. They can be donated to poorer families if still in good condition, or if not, recycled into things like cleaning rags.

water dripping from a tap into a glass
Image: Henryk Niestrój

9. Saving Electricity and Water

Hot and humid, that’s the tropics for you. The high rainfall in most regions and proximity to the equator can make people feel uncomfortable, especially those who may not have been born or brought up in the tropics but only moved there in later life.

This triggers high energy consumption, especially with air conditioners. In many tropical countries, power costs are amongst the highest in the world. The opulent use of water is also a resource chugger. There are several things that you can do to save electricity and water:

      • Use the aircon only when necessary. Identify spots in your house where the wind flows smoothly and open the windows or blinds when the weather is cooler outside.
      • Use energy-efficient appliances.
      • Unplug all cables when not in use.
      • Turn off your laptop or PC when not in use.
      • Air dry your clothes instead of popping them into a dryer.
      • Use the washing machine only when the laundry has piled up and ensure a full load with natural detergent.
      • Take a shorter shower and use a water-saving showerhead.
      • Replace tap washers as soon as you see a tap dripping when closed.

It’s helpful to know the energy consumption of your home appliances, monitor family usage and use them wisely.

people marching with stop global warming banner
Image: Alfred Derks

10. Educate Yourself About Climate Change

Climate change is a big issue that requires the involvement of all of us, whether governments, corporations, or individuals. It is crucial to educate yourself about climate change and what efforts you can do as an individual to help repair the long-standing damage to nature.

Educate yourself by reading scientific articles, books, reliable news sources, and other reading material that discusses climate change. Numerous online courses on educational platforms address climate change. There you will have the opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas with other participants.

You can also join or start a local sustainability group to connect with others who share your values. As a result, you will be more familiar with environmental challenges globally and locally, allowing you to become more involved and help directly.

Whether you’ve lived in a tropical country for a long time or have only recently moved there, getting to know tropical ecology is one way of learning to love and care for the nature around you.

bicycle on tropical beach after sunset
Image: Febri Amar

Some Final Thoughts

Living sustainably in the tropics can be a tricky endeavour. There are so many factors to consider, from water conservation and energy use to recycling practices. Tropical countries have so much to appreciate in terms of their natural surroundings. Try to appreciate these by walking or bicycling in the cooler parts of the day, instead of driving.

Some people will say that the actions of one individual can’t make much difference. But if everyone thought that we’d be well on our way to destroying our planet. By taking the opposite approach, and accepting that the action of every individual contributes to the whole, we can all play a small part in living more sustainability.

If other people in the community – your friends, relatives, work colleagues, and even strangers on the street – see the example you are setting, more will follow the same path, and this will progressively lead to more communities living sustainably and helping our planet to recover from the damage already inflicted.


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