Eight Months of Plastic Trash

It’s done! My eight month trip around South East Asia has come to an end and I’m back home in sunny San Diego, California.

As most of you know I was traveling “Plastic-Free”, more specifically, disposable plastic-free. I went to great efforts to refuse disposable plastics whenever possible and I was quite successful! (If you’re interesting in learning why and how I did it, read here) I’m very proud of what Fernando and I accomplished. In 8 months I used zero disposable water bottles, refused hundreds of bags and straws, and used zero disposable take-out containers. However, it wasn’t perfect and I did produce some plastic waste. So now I want to share the plastic trash that I did make and the story behind each piece. I want to share this because  I’m not perfect, and the fact that I did make plastic trash doesn’t deter me from reducing or reusing in the future. Technically my plastic pile could be smaller, but I’d like to focus on how much I saved rather than how much I made. But since you can’t actually see all that I did save, this will have to do.

I want to clarify that this is my personal plastic trash. I’m well aware that a lot of plastic was used on behalf of me. The bag of cones when we bought ice cream,  vegetables that were cooked for us at restaurants most of the time came in plastic bags, as well as rice,  noodles, and sauces. Just because I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t used. But I wanted to focus on reducing the disposable plastics that I had control over, the plastics I could easily choose to use, or not use.

I also want to clarify that this isn’t ALL of my plastic trash, this is the majority. Missing from this picture are a few plastic bags that were given to me when I picked up my clean laundry, and there were also quite a few receipts and bus tickets that are made from paper but also contain plastic. The plastic bags I reused to clean up litter, and receipts and tickets I threw away in the trash.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
8 Months of Plastic Trash- Produced while traveling in South East Asia

My Plastic Trash and the Stories behind It

Bread Bag– I most likely would not have bought this. Fortunately we were able to find packaging-free, freshly baked bread in cities throughout South East Asia for when we did want bread (which is all the time). This I collected in June when I did a 10 day Vipassana mediation course. We had a delicious, vegetarian breakfast and lunch every day, served on reusables, but I did treat myself to a slice of toast every day. It was somewhat conflicting because I knew it came from a bag and contains palm oil, but regardless I chose to eat it every morning. (the 10-day silent, no distractions course was hard!) But I did make a conscious choice to eat 1 and not 2 slices. So when it was the last day of the course, I knew I had to take an empty bread bag.

Nescafe Instant Coffee Packaging– Okay, this is one is really bad (by my standards). One day in August, when I was with the Mindfulness Project, we went to the Buddhist monastery for a day of meditation. It was after a big lunch lunch, it was hot, we had 2 more hours of meditation, and I was literally falling asleep. Literally falling asleep and dreaming, while sitting.  I knew there was coffee and mugs outside, free for us to use, and I fell to temptation. It’s unlike me because during this whole trip I drank very little coffee, especially not instant, individually packaged coffee made by a company that I do not like. But I reasoned with myself that it was already there and I hadn’t collected much plastic trash at this point. I will just blame it on my sleepiness.

Oreo Packaging (2) – The first one I bought in a small town in northern Thailand. We slept through dinner and when we went out to find food we found that all of the restaurants were closed and the only open place was a 7 Eleven. I walked the aisles of the small store at least 3 times each, searching for something to eat. But it was useless, 7 eleven only had packaged, processed crap. As Fernando picked out some crackers and soy milk, I stood looking disappointed while Fernando asked if I seriously preferred not eating. So I gave in and bought a package of oreos, at least they’re vegan.

The second I bought in Java. Traveling by land through Java was the most difficult time we had, and I wasn’t feeling well. I bought the cookies at a moment when I didn’t care much and gave into my cravings to try and feel better.

Glove– Used it to make soap at the Green School in Bali. I realized later I didn’t really need it but I had already put it on. On the bright side we made two bars of unpackaged soap with used cooking oil!

Instant Oats Bag– I bought this at the supermarket in Penang, Malaysia. Fernando was sick with dengue and he loves oatmeal, so I got it for the both of us. I figured that if we ordered oatmeal at the restaurant it would still come in a plastic bag, we just wouldn’t see it.

Straws– We always asked for no straw, but I still ended up with these. These are from the times the servers forgot and from the times we were brought water with a straw without asking for it. There are 7 straws but it’s okay, I literally would have used hundreds if I hadn’t refused.

Plastic Bag with Stickers– This is from a Tops supermarket in Bangkok. They have a bakery with lots of freshly baked, unpackaged bread. When we went to pay, we insisted on no bag for the bread, we would eat some right away and I could wrap the baguette in my reusable cloth napkin. What we didn’t realize is the cashier used a bag for the stickers. Very sneaky.

Bottle Tops– 1 bottle top from a glass, apple cider vinegar bottle. 1 bottle top from a glass coconut oil bottle. 1 bottle top from a plastic sugar cane juice bottle. I choose glass over plastic but unfortunately sometimes they come with plastic tops.

Band-Aid Plastic Thingies – Just one week before coming home and I had 5-6 infected wounds. Most of them were mosquito bites that I opened from scratching too much and two were small cuts. Since it was so humid and I was basically camping and covered with dirt all the time, they became infected. I really didn’t want to take antibiotics so I tried my best to keep them clean and covered during the day. So I used band aids. Thinking back I could have kept them covered with socks or clean fabric, but I went for convenience on this one. The band aids themselves were also made of plastic but I didn’t keep those.

Airline Luggage Tags- Mostly paper, but still have plastic. Fernando and I both traveled with items we had to check. We had scissors, knives, a spork, and razors. But instead of both of us checking in our luggage, it was just me, because I had the bigger bag.

AA Battery Packaging – I bought good quality batteries that would last longer, even though they had more packaging.

Sealed Plastic Bag (grey) – This bag was given to me at the Vipassana course. When I registered, my valuables were placed in this bag and sealed. I asked if they had another option but this was it. There were people in line behind me so I just agreed. I did however reuse this bag as my soap bag for 2 months. I made holes for drainage and ventilation and it worked great.

Foamy Plastic Square– This came with the phone charger/adapter I bought in Malaysia. I could have found one with less packaging, but I really needed to charge my phone and bought the first one I saw. I gave it away in Thailand to a traveler who was going to Malaysia. That way he didn’t have to buy a new one. He saved money and my charger was reused!

Plastic Bottle – This was the only plastic bottle I used in 8 months! We did a bit of hitchhiking in Thailand, one time a very nice family picked us up, and we ended up spending half a day with them. Their generosity and hospitality warmed by heart, they brought us to a wedding and then sightseeing to a natural park. For the whole time we were with them we communicated mostly with signs and expressions, we don’t speak Thai and they didn’t speak English. So when they stopped to buy sugar cane juice from a roadside vendor and handed me a bottle, I didn’t have the heart to refuse. I couldn’t explain my reasoning and I did not want to come across as rude. But I did refuse the plastic straw that came with it.

Plastic Wrapping– This sealed a glass jar of peanut butter we bought in Indonesia. Peanut butter with lots of sugar but oh so good.

Chocolate Wrapper– I accepted this chocolate from a hostel worker in Penang, Malaysia. I thought it was aluminum foil.

Small White Plastic Bag– This came with a bar of shampoo I bought in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I really considered this purchase because of the plastic bag, but I thought it was my best option at the time. A lot less wasteful than a bottle of shampoo. Looking back, I shouldn’t have bought it. It was a bit expensive and I didn’t end up liking the shampoo, but I see it as a learning experience.

It almost all fits in the plastic bottle





7 thoughts on “Eight Months of Plastic Trash

  1. Hello, glad to hear you’re home safe, hope you had a great trip! We’ve been travelling in South East Asia for the last 7 months too, and I can attest to how difficult avoiding disposable plastics is. Nice job! We do our best to refuse unnecessary plastic, but it’s so normal here it often gets doled out before you’ve had a chance to object. Must try harder!

    What do you think about the environmental impact of reducing waste compared to taking flights for your trip? I couldn’t help thinking of this with the flight luggage tag in the photo. 🙂 Not meant as an attack at all, but to my mind the flight has a bigger impact. Probably impossible to quantify though! I think you mentioned in another post that you weren’t taking short haul flights during your trip? I’ve been working on a post this morning about why we don’t fly, so this stuff is at the front of my mind today!

    I guess they’re different issues to an extent. Plastic pollution vs climate change. Interested in your thoughts.


    1. Hi Kristie, thank you so much for your comment and question! Flying is something that was very much on my mind as well, so I appreciate you bringing it up. For me it was never not flying vs not making trash, as you said they are different issues. I did focus more on waste because it was something I dealt with on a daily basis, and it is such a huge issue all over the world. But the way we traveled was also something I was very conscious about, and more so the first 4 months of our trip. We intentionally traveled from Thailand to Laos, back to Thailand, and then to Malaysia without taking flights, and it wasn’t until we went to Indonesia that we flew because we didn’t want to do the long complicated journey by sea. And to be honest, I felt very guilty for taking that flight. But I don’t think it’s good to be so hard and demanding on ourselves. This whole time I was doing a lot to reduce my emissions. I eat a primarily vegan diet, we rely on public transportation, lived on farms without electricity, and we used AC very seldomly. I also didn’t buy anything (clothes, etc) and because of the waste and palm oil issues I never bought processed foods. On a daily basis I had a very small carbon footprint and it would be interesting to see how that compares to taking a 3 hour flight.

      I think there are so many issues to consider (water, waste, climate change, etc) that it’s easy to find fault in ourselves and others when we aren’t perfect. For me it’s about being aware and trying our best.

      I love to hear about other travelers who don’t fly or are biking around the world, it’s always very inspirational. I’m looking forward to your post!


      1. Finally finished that post and had a bit more of a think about this! Totally agree that nobody’s perfect, and trying to be is not a practical solution. There’s a tendency for people to jump on you (/me/us) with ‘but what about…’ as soon as you admit to caring and trying to do better. Being vegetarian (rather than vegan), I get this a lot, I’m sorry I basically just did the same to you. It’s hard to find the words to discuss this without getting personal, as my post ended up partly being about :).

        It’s a difficult line to tread between inspiring people by example and coming across as thinking you’re perfect, I don’t know how well I manage this. (Probably better since we’ve found ourselves having to take a flight – definitely don’t look perfect anymore. Bad for the planet but good for looking more approachable. Oh dear…)

        I think it’s just human to feel a bit put out deep down when somebody indirectly suggests to us we could do better.

        Where I disagree a bit, is that I worry we can congratulate ourselves too much for the things we are trying, when we could be focusing our efforts more effectively. By which I mean we can overestimate the effect of things we are doing, especially if they feel really green somehow, and underestimate the effect of things we’re not addressing. I was definitely guilty of this before I quit flying, and I’m sure I still am (I just don’t know how yet).

        I try and use data to solve this problem. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t always do the right thing by the data, not by a long shot, but I try.)

        As a quick exercise, depending on which calculator you use, a return flight from Singapore to Bali releases somewhere between 0.6 tonnes and 1.4 tonnes of CO2 per passenger (this is using the two calculators I mentioned in my post). Passenger ferry for the whole trip is 6 kg, so 0.006 tonnes, by bus is 50kg = 0.05 tonnes.

        From some fairly arbitrary calculations the emissions from hostels, eating and shopping when ‘normal’ backpacking for 8 months are something around 2.4 tonnes, so reducing them by a big chunk might cancel out the flight. So, hard to say, basically. (I can send you the calculator link and screenshot of the numbers I used if you like.)

        On the other hand, not flying and also cutting back other emissions is even better.

        I don’t know where we fall on non transport emissions – we don’t buy much, generally eat in to save waste, eat mostly vegan, though Arthur eats meaty soups quite often, usually take fan rooms, refill water bottles wherever possible, stay in dorms often (though these are usually aircon), but I’m sure there are loads of things we haven’t thought of.

        All we can do is our best!

        Apologies for the insanely long comment, I find this stuff really interesting!


  2. You did incredibly well: it would have been odd if you hadn’t had any temptations at all or given in at least once or twice. I don’t think any lifestyle should be so strict that if you don’t succeed 100% all the time you’ve failed. So, very well done! You have shown that travelling zero-waste is possible, despite extra challenges life on the road can bring. I look forward to reading about your zero-waste life back at home too. 🙂


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