The Plastic Pollution Crisis and How Travelers Can Reduce Their Plastic Footprint
This article was first published by our friends at Teamworkz, who have agreed to its republication here. View original article on their blog The Slow Boat.
By Cindy Fan
Plastic & styrofoam washed up on Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui, Thailand
“The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely large” – Louis Pasteur
When you travel, have you ever considered how much plastic you use?
Asia has some of the world’s top travel destinations. Those who have travelled there might have noticed how vendors and stores will provide plastic bags for everything, even small, trivial items such as a pack of gum at 7-Eleven or a kebab at the night market. The majority of countries in Southeast Asia also do not have potable tap water so bottled water is cheap and available everywhere. The region’s consumer culture can be characterized as one of cheap convenience and disposability.
The plastic you use ends up here: “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – actually several patches – a moving vortex of plastic trash that stretches for hundreds of miles across the Pacific Ocean. Plastic ends up in the Mekong and its many tributaries. It ends up being burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. It ends up trapped in the stomachs of birds, fish and wildlife that mistake it for food. It enters all levels of the food chain – including ours.
Yet large pieces only accounts for 20% of the plastic in the environment. Scientists are now sounding the alarm on a problem that is far worse: microplastic. Microplastic is defined as a piece less than five millimeters in size but most of the microplastic accumulating in the earth’s waters are tiny particles smaller than a grain of sand.
Plastics are forever; it is not biodegradable. Sunlight breaks it apart smaller and smaller until it reaches a molecular level. According to this BBC report, researchers have also discovered that synthetic clothes release up to 1,900 tiny fibers per garment with every wash. When water samples were taken from 18 beaches around the globe, every single sample contained microplastic. This “plastic soup” affects all marine life, from microorganisms to enormous filter feeders like whales. The toxic molecules get lodged in the animals’ tissues down to the cellular level. As the quotation from Louis Pasteur emphasizes, these infinitely small particles are having a disastrous effect on a global scale.
Plastic pollution is more than just a tree hugger’s cause. Van Jones argues in this TED Talk that plastic pollution is an issue of economic and social injustice, for it is the poor people who suffer. As a traveller visiting a foreign land, your plastic consumption and “disposal” is harming those most vulnerable
1. Kick the bottle
You’ve heard it again and again: Use a reusable water bottle. How can you refill when you’re on the road? Invest in a travel water filter. Not only will you reduce plastic, you’ll save money in the long run.
This Drinksafe “Travel Tap” water filtration system will purify up to 1600 L before the filter needs to be replaced. I filtered my own drinking water in India and I admit, I had to psych myself up to it. Mind over matter. Rest assured that the Drinksafe filter removes waterborne pathogens, protozoa, schistomas, spores, viruses, chemicals/chemical compounds, sediments and trace metals. The filtered water is probably cleaner than your tap water at home. (By the way, I didn’t get sick in India.)
Did you know that in Southeast Asia, most restaurants, hotels and households buy drinking water in bulk? They’ll probably let you fill up your reusable bottle for a nominal fee or even for free. More savings!
2. BYOB: Bring your own bag.
Refuse plastic bags. It’s as simple as that. Carry a reusable bag.
3. Say no to drinking straws.
Bucket drinks are popular on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail
4. BYOC: Bring your own container & cutlery.
One foray into a night market in Thailand will yield a lot of tasty treats – and a lot of waste: styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery and baggies, elastic bands, straws, cups. Be a bold trendsetter and bring your own reusable container and cutlery for street eats and food on the go. There are handy travel cutlery kits available at travel or camping stores.
5. Chewing gum = plastic
Pack of Gum from an Asian Market
Yup, it’s true. Once upon a time, chewing gum was made from chicle, a natural rubber from tree sap. Today it’s synthetically made. That vague listing of “gum base” on the package is actually an undisclosed concoction of ingredients like polyvinyl acetate, petroleum, lanolin, glycerin, polyethylene, petroleum wax, stearic acid and latex. Just like a plastic bag, chewing gum is forever.
6. Use matches instead of plastic lighters.
7. Choose glass or cardboard packaging over plastic.
In Southeast Asia, you can still buy sodas in glass bottles which then get reused.
- TED Talk: Beth Terry, Living Plastic Free (You Tube video)
- Susan Freinkel on Our Toxic Plastic Love Affair (link to TreeHugger.com)
- Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown 100-fold (GlobalPost, May 9, 2012)
- Plastic Free Bali.org (link)
- On Midway, More Plastic Washes Up With Every Wave. Literally. (video on TreeHugger.com)
Photos by Cindy Fan
Author Bio: Cindy Fan
Cindy Fan is a Canadian travel writer and photographer. She is The Slow Boat‘s digital nomad, blogging and tweeting her journeys through Southeast Asia. Also connect with her @cindyisAWOL and www.cindyfan.com.