Avoiding disposable plastics back home in California had become a part of my life. I knew where to buy my favorite food like oatmeal, pasta, and fruit without plastic, as well as personal care items like soap and coconut oil. Asking for “no straw” at a restaurant was easy enough because the server and I spoke the same language, and everyday I knew where I was going and could plan in advance with my reusables. But traveling is different. You don’t speak the language, you eat out all the time, you’re not familiar with the places, you can only carry a limited amount of stuff, and every day can be a surprise. But after 4 months of traveling in Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia, even with all the obstacles, I’m living proof that it’s possible!
Before we get into the how to do it, let’s talk about the why. This is a big commitment, so why exactly do I make an effort to avoid disposable plastics? Unfortunately, the reasons are numerous. Here are the main reasons why I choose to avoid disposable plastics.
- PLASTIC NEVER GOES AWAY
Plastic is not biodegradable. It won’t be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Even if recycled, any plastic I use during my lifetime will outlive me by centuries. Getting rid of all plastics might be more of a challenge, but the least I can do is not use disposable plastics.
- PLASTIC POLLUTES OUR OCEANS
There are currently an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean! The plastic to plankton ratio is 36:1. Plastic travels from land to our oceans via rivers, once in the ocean it photo degrades into small pieces of plastic called micro plastics which are difficult to clean up and easy for animals to ingest. Even if we were to clean up all the plastic in the ocean tomorrow, it would not solve the problem.
- DISPOSABLE PLASTICS KILL WILDLIFE
Animals don’t know what it is and many times mistake it for food. Many animals will choke on the plastic or eat so much of it that it fills them up. Giving them a full-stomach sensation, stopping them from eating, and resulting in starvation. Many animals also become entangled in disposable plastics resulting in injury and/or death.
- PLASTIC IS A MADE FROM FOSSIL FUELS
Fossil fuels were made millions of years ago. Now we extract them for fuel, but it’s also what plastics are made from. To me, it’s illogical to extract oil, coal, and natural natural gas from the earth to make something that will be used for minutes, then have it pollute the earth for centuries to come and contribute to climate change.
In 2010, 2.7% of total U.S. petroleum consumption was used for the production of plastic.
- MANY PLASTICS ARE NOT RECYCLABLE
Most disposable plastics are not recyclable. Straws, plastic bags, plastic lids, polystyrene “Styrofoam” containers, and plastic utensils are just a few of the items that aren’t recycled. When an item is not recyclable it will either be sent to the landfill, burned, or end up in the ocean.
- PLASTIC ISN’T INFINITELY RECYCLED
The reasons I don’t use recyclable plastics like water bottles are
1. Plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times. Eventually (most likely after being recycled only once) it will end up in the landfill or incinerated.
2.There’s no guarantee my plastic will be recycled. It is estimated that only 38% of plastic bottles are recycled in the US. Worldwide the percentage is much lower.
3. I want to reduce my use of fossil fuels.
These reasons are specific to South East Asia where I’ve been traveling for 4 months
- BURNING PLASTIC IS TOXIC
Without a proper waste management system, many people living in rural areas in Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia will burn plastic along with the rest of their trash. When plastic is burned it releases hazardous gases and ash.
- 5 ASIAN COUNTRIES DUMP MORE PLASTIC INTO THE OCEAN THAN THE REST OF THE WORLD COMBINED
Sixty percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from Thailand, China, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Their waste management systems can’t keep up with the increase in trash caused by a growing economy. Since I am currently traveling in South East Asia, it’s not unlikely that if I make trash it will end up in the ocean and I definitely don’t want to contribute. Please read more about this here.
Now that I’ve listed why I choose not to use plastics, here’s how we do it.
- REFUSE! People want to give us plastic all the time. Plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cups, it’s as if it’s free! So it’s up to us to refuse it. Items we refuse on a daily basis are straws and bags. If you want to start refusing, you might forget at the beginning, or find you’re not fast enough and they’ll sneak a bag or straw before you notice. But keep it up, it soon becomes habit!
- REUSE! Our reusables have been essential in reducing our plastic waste. This is something I planned for ahead of time, thought about what I’d need, and made sure I packed it. My backpack is about 14 kg and my reusables probably make up 2 kg of that. When we leave our house or hotel I think about what I might need during the day and make sure I bring it along. If I’m craving coconut water I’ll bring my glass straw, if we’re headed to the market I’ll bring my bag, and if we’re getting dinner I’ll bring my container in case there are leftovers. If I want something but don’t have the reusable for it, I just won’t get it and wait till next time. Conservation outweighs convenience.
- LOOK FOR ALTERNATIVES! Once you start avoiding plastic, you suddenly realize it’s everywhere. But that’s when you start noticing treasures in the form of plastic-free alternatives.
- EAT HEALTHY! When you stop using disposable plastics you also get rid of a lot of unhealthy, processed foods (that also contain palm oil) like cookies, chips, and soda. As a result, we eat a mostly unprocessed, plant based diet that’s better for us and the planet. I’ve been eating this way for the last few years and it really makes me happy and healthy. Changing your diet will take sacrifice and some getting used to, but it’s so much better.
- MINDFULNESS! A plastic free or zero waste lifestyle requires a present mind. Not only do we have to be mindful to refuse a straw, but also to remember why we do it. Traveling plastic-free in a plastic obsessed world is not easy, but keeping a positive mindset is essential to keeping it up.
- LET GO… Sometimes there are no plastic free alternatives, and I’m okay with that. Right now I haven’t found any plastic-free peanut butter, so I’ll just wait. When I do find it, it’ll be so much better.
By following these 7 steps I have managed to reduce my plastic waste to a few items that fit into a small bag. Most of the plastic I’ve accumulated has been because of the language barrier, and a couple pieces because we’re not perfect. I want to show travelers that it’s possible to see the world without leaving a trace of polluting plastic behind. This world is an amazingly beautiful place, if we want to keep it that way, we should all do our part to conserve it.
Going completely plastic-free overnight can be overwhelming, but it is possible to reduce!
Here are 3 ways you can reduce your use of disposable plastics.
- No more plastic bags! 1 trillion bags are discarded every year worldwide! Bring your own bag, and if you don’t, get creative and refuse. Instead of using a plastic bag I’ve used my hands, backpack, and purse to carry fruit, snacks, donuts, jars, clothes, etc! (The donuts with my hand of course.)
- Use a reusable water bottle! More than 100,000 million plastic bottles are used every day worldwide. No need to contribute, choose to reuse!
- Say NO to straws! Straws are unnecessary, non-recyclable, and non biodegradable. Next time you go to a restaurant or coffee shop, ask for no straw. If you really like straws, don’t fret, you can find reusable alternatives.
For a Clean World,