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Going Plastic-Free in Asia: Plastic Water Bottles

I’ve spent the last 18 months committed to avoiding unnecessary plastic. My food shopping is almost entirely plastic-free, and I especially don’t buy bottled water. Why would I, when safe drinking water comes out of my tap?

In Asia, however, the water that comes out of the tap is not safe to drink. The locals don’t drink it, and tourists shouldn’t either. When we decided to spend four weeks holidaying in Thailand at the end of last year, I really wanted to keep our plastic-free commitment and avoid buying bottled water in disposable containers. A holiday is no reason to throw our values and beliefs out the window! I just wasn’t sure how achievable it would be.

Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried! With a little bit of effort, avoiding using endless plastic drinking bottles on holiday was easy!

No expensive equipment required

Before we went away, I had a brief look at the water filters, water treatment tablets and other gadgets on the market. There’s plenty of options out there, from UV filters that zap bugs and parasites, to physical filters to remove debris, to the traditional water purification tablets. However, it’s not super straightforward. Ideally you need a bug-destroying filter and a physical filter, and the UV filters need recharging and will eventually run out. The traditional tablets involve using nasty chemicals so aren’t ideal for daily use. Plus these fancypants gadgets have fancy price labels too, and it didn’t feel right to buy more stuff that we’d use for such a short amount of time. If we had been going away for several months, or going into the wilderness maybe it would have been a worthwhile investment, but we weren’t.

And actually, we managed just fine without.

Be prepared

We didn’t buy any new gadgets, but we did take our two metal water bottles, two KeepCups and our two reusable collapsible plastic bottles – things we already had at home. I wouldn’t go anywhere in the Australian summer without taking my water bottle, so it made complete sense to take it with me.

bottles

It was a wise decision: all three were used regularly and if I went back, I’d take them all again. The bottles were useful right from when we arrived at the airport – both Perth and Bangkok airports had water filters once we’d passed through security so we could refill our empty bottles.

Make it a priority

Like most things to do with waste, it all comes down to convenience. There’s often an alternative way, even though it may require a little more effort than the conventional way. It’s all about priorities. So we prioritised, and made finding safe drinking water the first thing we did when we moved on to somewhere new.

We didn’t have too much planned when we jetted off, but I had booked our first night and last night accommodation in Bangkok, and I’d researched places that appeared to have genuine environmental policies and a focus on sustainability. This paid off: both places offered plastic-free drinking water, and we were able to refill our bottles hassle-free.

waterhotel

Find out what the locals do

Locals don’t drink the tap water, but they don’t all guzzle mineral water from plastic bottles either. So what do they do? In Thailand (at least in the places we visited), companies deliver treated water in big 20 litre drums to households and businesses, and the containers are returned for refilling once they are empty.

waterrefillsThese containers aren’t marketed to tourists, and the empty containers need returning to the seller, so some retailers were reluctant to part with them. The first place we found would only let us fill up our own containers using their funnel, so we purchased one plastic 6 litre water container and used this for refills. This was our only plastic bottle purchase of the trip! There was no way we would have managed without it, either. We used this to decant the water into our little drinking bottles so we didn’t end up spilling it everywhere.

The second place we needed to use these, we found a seller willing to give us our own bottle by paying a deposit, which we got back once we returned the empty container.

water8

20-litre water drum with the 6-litre water bottle we had to buy. Still, that purchase meant we didn’t have to buy any more plastic bottles on our trip.

Look for alternatives

If our water bottles were empty and we were away from our base and unable to refill them, we found we still had options, and there was no need to reach for the plastic. One alternative which comes in completely biodegradable packaging is drinking coconuts. They are very hydrating, refreshing and good for you, and in Thailand, they are available everywhere.

coconutLots of the cheaper Thai restaurants (which catered predominantly for locals rather than tourists) offer drinking water free of charge to patrons. We’d look out for restaurants with this service and try to use them where we could.

waterfreeWe discovered that a few restaurants sold water in glass bottles that are returned to the manufacturer for refilling. We did talk about buying water at these restaurants to fill up our water bottles if we ran out, but in the end we didn’t need to.

waterglassbottles

We did also see some water vending machines on the streets which filled empty containers. Our only issue was that the instructions were written entirely in Thai and we couldn’t understand how they worked. If we hadn’t found any other alternatives, we’d have popped some coins in the slot to see what happened, but as it turned out, we didn’t need to use these. It’s good to know that alternatives exist, though.

Reap the Rewards

We were completely prepared to pay extra in order to avoid using plastic; we figured it was worth it to limit our impact on the environment. Usually, a higher cost is something that we have to accept for “doing the sustainable thing”. Actually, it ended up being much cheaper! The 20 litre drums of water cost less than a dollar to buy, and many places charged more for a 500ml bottle of water, particularly outside of Bangkok. It was great not to contribute unnecessarily to landfill and keep our plastic-free pledge, and awesome to save money in the process!

Two people, four weeks away, and only one plastic bottle (reused several times before being responsibly recycled). Going plastic-free is just as possible abroad as it is at home if you put your mind to it!

Rested, refreshed and ready for 2014!

Ah. Four weeks away from it all. It was fantastic. I finally managed to slow down, take the time to relax properly and have a well-needed rest. I’m feeling so much better as a result.

That’s not to say I took time out from trying to live as sustainably as possible, keeping things simple and continuing to embrace minimalism. After all, why should holidaying change anything?

Having spent four weeks with a small backpack weighing less than 6kgs, and not feeling once like I was without something I needed, I am sold on the idea of taking as little as possible when travelling. It was such a great feeling not to be burdened by a huge heavy backpack, and it certainly made traveling around much more enjoyable. Read more

Blogging, not blogging and holidays

You may remember that I wrote a post in September about how my life was going to be ridiculously busy over the coming three months? And how I was hoping that I’d be able to juggle everything successfully? Well, it hasn’t quite been the plain sailing that I’d hoped. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and whilst I was hopeful that I could manage everything, I knew it was a long shot. In fact it’s been super hectic and stressful, and of course some things have had to give. One of those things has been the blog. I haven’t been posting as frequently as usual because I’ve been so busy.

Fortunately, the end is in sight and we are due to go on a long (four week) holiday in just under two weeks. Bliss. Of course it would probably be a little less stressful if we’d actually done something in the way of preparations other than make sure our passports were valid and book flights, but no matter. Next Friday night we will be off, and leaving all this busy whirring spinning busy-ness behind us. Read more

Spreading the sustainability and clean living word

When I started this blog, I was motivated because I felt like I was at a real turning point in my life. I was on a journey… a journey that started with a bigger commitment to being more sustainable, but became so much more than that.  It has led me down all sorts of interesting paths. I felt like I was learning so much, and I really wanted to share what I was finding out, as well as keep a kind-of record of my progress.

I love being able to share what I know, and as part of that I got involved with Living Smart, a not-for-profit organisation based in Australia that provides practical knowledge and skills for people to live more sustainable lives. Read more

Some Recommended Reading

Yesterday afternoon I dropped my parents off at Perth Airport for their flight back to the UK. They visited for just over four weeks, and it has been insanely busy. Partly because they have been staying in our flat, and my boyfriend and I stayed at his parents’ house, which means I have been making the hour-long commute (one way) between houses each day, and then taking them out to see the sights, before trekking back. This was compounded by us sleeping in a bed that was far too small for us (well mostly my boyfriend, whose ankles stick through the railings meaning it is impossible to move without waking us both up), meaning we have been running on minimal sleep. I had a lovely time, and it was great to be able to spend so much time with them, but now they’ve gone I’ve been hit by a tsunami of exhaustion. I’m tired, emotional and mentally frazzled… which wouldn’t matter so much if everything else in my life wasn’t still going full steam ahead.

This isn’t a blog post about woe is me, though. All I need is sleep, time to unwind, the chance to relax and to eat some nourishing meals and I’ll be ready to go again. I’ve had an awesome month; I’m blessed that my parents were able to come to visit, and for such a substantial amount of time. No complaints here : )

In order to get these things though, I need to prioritize my workload. I was really hoping that I’d be able to keep blogging whilst they visited, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. Now that they’ve gone, I have a number of looming deadlines to address, and that doesn’t include blogging. I really want to write but I don’t have the time to do justice to the millions of thoughts that are whirring away in my mind. I have still had time to read the posts that others are writing, so I thought that rather than write a rushed, garbled post of my own, I’d share some posts I’ve read over the past month that I have enjoyed. I get so much enjoyment/knowledge/motivation/inspiration/etc from the bloggers that I follow and so I wanted to share in the hope that you might enjoy them too. Far better to share inspiration than write a blog post about not writing a blog post – who wants to read that?!

My recommended reading list

  • EcoGrrl wrote a great post about how conventional beauty and advertising sell women the message that they aren’t good enough in order to shift their chemical-containing products. She’s taken so much time to research this and all women should read it:  Tuesday Go Ponder: Redbook’s Bevy of False Claims, Misleading Ads, and Shaming Women. [NB This link has been removed as it now points to a wrinkle-busting scam, and I can’t find the updated link. If you find it let me know!]
  • Journey to Ithaca shared a great post entitled Thoughts on “Rants”. I probably don’t need to explain what this is about. It begins with the line “I used to be a ranter”, and is thoughtful, well written and definitely has a lesson or two in there!
  • Westywrites is starting preparation for Plastic Free July next year early – 8 months early! She has so much energy and passion for the subject – check out Plastic-Free Me: An Introduction if you’re interested in trying to be more plastic-free (or any of her subsequent posts). Her enthusiasm is infectious!
  • I’ve also been following blog posts by A Girl Called Jack, who blogs about feeding a family for less than £10 but is also a campaigner for Oxfam and Child Poverty Action Group. That description doesn’t actually do her any credit – she’s opened my eyes to all kinds of issues, like foodbanks, benefits, poverty in the UK, how completely immoral the Daily Mail is (and I thought I knew this, but no, turns out they are worse than I could ever have imagined). She’s made me question my own feelings and actions regarding food, poverty and sustainability – in a good way – and I’m still processing all my thoughts.
  • Lastly I wanted to share with you Make it Your Job, a blog post considering why we get resentful and angry. It is the most recent post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, a minimalist who embraces simple living. I think every post he writes is super inspiring.

Of course there’s many more amazing blog posts and writers out there who I love, but I don’t want to overload you all! I hope you enjoy some (or all) of these posts. I’m off to get on with my to-do list!

Friday night movie – the Clean Bin Project

I went to see another “eco” movie at a community screening on Friday. This time I saw the Clean Bin Project. It’s about a Canadian couple, Jen and Grant, who pledge to buy nothing for a year, and each collect their landfill waste for 12 months to see who has the least impact. The goal is zero landfill waste. The movie isn’t really about the competition, but rather the journey, and the issues with waste and landfill. There’s some great interviews with some really inspiring people involved in spreading the waste message, too. Read more

My public holiday nightmare… and some advice needed

This Monday was a public holiday here in Perth, and we had plans to take in Kings Park and the wildflowers and go for a leisurely walk around Lake Claremont, relaxing and generally enjoying the extra free time.

Until, on Sunday night, my boyfriend pulled a bag out of the wardrobe. “Do you think this is mould?”, he asked, showing me some white marks. Hmm, it did look like mould. We pulled a few more things out. More mould. The further we looked, the more we found. Arghh.

And so it was, we were able to make the most of the glorious weather that is so long overdue… Read more

Play again? (7 Ideas for Reducing Screen Time)

Last Friday my boyfriend and I went to an Ecoburbia community movie screening to see the documentary “Play Again?” The tagline of the movie is “what are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature?” It follows 6 teenagers who usually spend 5-15 hours a day behind screens, and takes them on their first wilderness adventure. It also features the commentaries and observations of a number of experts including journalist Richard Louv, sociologist Juliet Schor, environmental writer Bill McKibben, educators Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, neuroscientist Gary Small, parks advocate Charles Jordan, and geneticist David Suzuki. This is how the offical Play Again website describes the film:

“One generation from now most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature. New media technologies have improved our lives in countless ways. Information now appears with a click. Overseas friends are part of our daily lives. And even grandma loves Wii.

But what are we missing when we are behind screens? And how will this impact our children, our society, and eventually, our planet? At a time when children play more behind screens than outside, PLAY AGAIN explores the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds. Is our connection to nature disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?”

It was an interesting movie and it was great to see six kids getting back to nature for the first time. There were some interesting observations from the teenagers – like the younger boy who observed that “outdoors was more realistic”, and the older teen who noted when playing team games that in the virtual world he was the commander and could manage and control teams successfully, whereas in real life it wasn’t so easy.

Another comment that stuck with me was when the teenagers were making bows and arrows, and the younger boy told the camera that on computer games it was really easy to shoot and hit a target, whereas in real life it was actually quite hard. That’s the thing about real life, isn’t it? There’s a lot of loss and struggle and disappointment that go between the successes and triumphs and wins.

Although the movie dealt with the issue of screen time in regards to children, these issues actually affect all of us, and it’s interesting to reflect on how much screen time we use as adults. Especially since the dawn of smartphones, I think most people would agree “too much”. Even if they don’t, I’m pretty sure those health experts would have a different opinion!

It made me think about how we use screen time in our household. We don’t have a television, we share a single laptop and we both have smartphones. Through our phones we have access to screens all day every day, and we use them for significant amounts of time. I’ve been feeling like we use them too much and should cut down but hadn’t really done much about it. This movie was a reminder that there’s a real world surrounding the virtual one, and we should re-connect with it more. So here are some ideas I’ve come up with for using screens less.

Ideas for reducing screen time:

1. Get a watch (or a clock)

I don’t wear a watch and we don’t actually have a clock in the house, so I use my phone to tell the time. But once I pick it up, it’s so easy to ‘quickly’ check Facebook/the news/my email, and before I know it I’m engrossed in the virtual world. I got some inspiration from another blog post I read, and I’ve decided that we will get a clock so we know what the time is without the need for screen time.

2. Remove phones from the bedroom

This is one thing we actually changed before watching the movie. My boyfriend used to use his phone as an alarm, but would also end up straight on social media within two seconds of waking up every morning. It’s also a temptation for those nights when it’s difficult to get to sleep and can be a luring distraction –  but it’s not going to help with sleep! For that reason, plus the fact that sleeping with our mobiles next to our heads is probably not that good for our health, we got a new alarm and have removed the phones from the bedroom.

3. No screens at mealtimes

This may seem obvious, and if my boyfriend and I are eating together at the table we never have our phones there. It’s just plain rude. How much nicer to actually talk to each other?! However, if I’m alone it’s super easy to grab lunch and head straight back to the computer and eat in front of it. How many people have lunch in front of their computer screen at work? So now I have a new rule – no mealtimes in front of screens. It means I give my eyes and mind a rest, have a proper break and also appreciate exactly what I’m eating. How easy is it to polish off a bowl of food without even noticing when you’re engrossed in something else?

4. Resist the urge for instant answers

The thing about the internet, it can answer all of our burning questions almost instantly. Which means whenever we want to know ANYTHING we can simply look it up online and the answer’s there. No need to wait. I’m not sure this is a good thing. Isn’t patience a virtue?! Is it possible to write those burning questions we want to know down, and check them all together at a later time? I don’t know. I’m as guilty as the next person of needing to know answers immediately whenever burning questions present themselves. But once I’ve connected, I’ll look at other things too, and before I know it time has slipped away. So I’m planning to try it out.

5. Limit the number of check-ins

Have you ever checked your e-mail, Facebook, twitter and whatever other social media you use to find that you have not had one single new message/update since the last time you checked? Do you ever check them just for the sake of it, even if you suspect nothing has been updated? On a typical day I check everything in the morning, at lunchtime, and again in the afternoon. (Most people who commute by public transport seem to use their time in this way.) I might also check last thing at night. I think it makes replying and responding manageable. I wonder though, whether it would make any difference if I just checked twice a day? What if I took a book to read instead? I always say I don’t have enough time to read and I always have a pile of library books that invariably get returned half-finished or untouched. If I cut down my screen time, I’d have plenty of time for other things I think I can’t squeeze in.

6. Allocate screen-free time

I’ve suggested this to my boyfriend in the past and he thinks it is a good idea – yet we’ve never put it into practise. Does that mean we find it too hard? Surely we can commit to something? Not being able to makes me feel like some kind of addict! It also seems pretty ridiculous. It’s not like we spend all our time in front of screens, either. The movie inspired me to finally come up with a screen-free time at home when neither of us are allowed to go near any sort of screen. I’ll let you know how it goes!

7. Start a diary

The other thing that I realised when writing this was I have no idea how much screen time I actually use. I’m pretty sure it’s too much. I want to cut down, but to what? What is realistic? Am I more hooked than I think? I’m pondering keeping a screen diary for a week to find out how much I actually use. It will probably be a revelation – but am I too scared to find out?!

So there’s my ideas… now I’d love to hear yours! Feel free to share any thoughts you have in the comments below.

Moving into fifth gear…

For a few months now, my life’s been ticking along nicely. Projects and other things that keep me busy have come, and gone, and the various plans and schemes that I’ve dreamed up have been swirling around in my mind, and on paper, but haven’t grown more than that.

Then in the last couple of weeks, everything seems to have picked up speed. Potential plans have firmed up, new opportunities have presented themselves, and projects that only seemed like distant dreams have come together all at once.

Suddenly everything seems to be going very fast. Read more

Why I volunteered to spend my weekend washing up for other people

Okay, so maybe I’m misleading you. It wasn’t the whole weekend. In fact, it was for a little over three hours on Sunday – but that doesn’t sound nearly so sensational, does it?!

I was volunteering with the Earth Carers – the fantastic group of people who came up with the Plastic Free July campaign. One of the local councils in our area was organising a family fun day called “Celebrate Lake Claremont”, and the Earth Carers decided to run a washing-up station next to the coffee stand so that all the coffees sold would be in ceramic cups – which we would wash up – rather than disposable takeaway containers. They ran a similar stall at the Mosman Park Eco Fair back in June which was a massive success and eliminated disposable coffee containers completely at that event. This was the inspiration to try to offer free washing-up stations at other events… and this one was next.

We do what we can on an individual level. My boyfriend and I haven’t purchased anything in a single-use disposable food container of any kind since July 2012. But we’re just two people. There’s only so much that we can reduce with our own habits. There’s a whole world out there that needs educating, or inspiring, or motivating to change too. So what better way than to get out there in the community and make it super easy for the people at the event to lower their impact?

You’d think that everyone would be totally supportive of such a service. We rock up for free, bringing our own standard barista-sized ceramic cups, and wash them free of charge for the consumers before returning them to the coffee stand for re-use. What’s not to love?

There was actually a bit of wavering at the start though, because someone questioned whether it was hygienic. Yep, you read that right. There was actually the suggestion that washing up coffee cups using ordinary water and washing-up liquid might not be hygienic. We weren’t washing up anything else. Just empty coffee cups. Can you believe it?! We couldn’t either.

So we set up a system to maximise the cleanliness of our cups. We had a four-bowl dishwashing system, with the cups moving from the bowl on the left through the middle bowls to the bowl on the right, and the water getting hotter with each bowl. The last bowl, with the water at 70°C, was for the final rinse. We didn’t make it up either – apparently this is a recommended practice for washing-up stations (we asked Google, although I can’t actually find the link now to share with you).

washingup2

In the three hours we washed up about 100 cups, probably more. Whilst it doesn’t even make a dent on the number of cups being sent to landfill (it is estimated by KeepCup that 1 million cups end up in landfill EVERY SINGLE MINUTE), it is far more than I am stopping heading to landfill with just my own individual action of using a reusable cup.

This is why it’s so important that as well as doing the best we can on an individual level, we try to get out there and inspire change at a community level. We can achieve so much more. It may be small, but it was still 100 cups that would have ended up in landfill without our intervention. It is more than just numbers though – it’s all the people we spoke to and explained what we were doing and why, who will take that message with them. We’re helping the idea to spread and the word to grow. Imagine if every community event, or every other event, had a washing-up station and a zero disposable waste policy? Imagine how many we’d reduce then?

If I want to see change happen, I personally need to do something about it. I can’t just sit around lamenting that other people don’t do enough. I need to get out there and do what I can to make it easy for other people to do more. Which is why I gave up my time on Sunday to wash up other people’s dishes.