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Going Plastic-Free in Asia (Part Two – all the other plastic)

My goal was to travel around Thailand for four weeks without consuming any single use plastic. It’s what I do at home, so why should anything be different whilst I was away? I’ve already talked about how I avoided using disposable water bottles, which I thought would be the biggest battle. But there were other contenders.

The plastic straw

Thai people love straws. I thought the straw problem was bad in Australia, but there is a whole other level of straw-dependence over there. Every single drink seems to come with a straw. Of course the obvious smoothies and cocktails come with plastic straws. But less obvious drinks come with them too. If you buy bottled water to take away, it comes in a plastic bag and with a straw. If you buy a tin of fizzy pop, a straw is neatly tucked under the ring pull. Even tins of iced coffee and beer come with straws. It seems that the cultural norm is to drink your drink with a straw. Everyone does it.

Except, we didn’t want to use plastic straws.

I don’t know how to say “please don’t give me a plastic straw” in Thai. Fortunately, this didn’t matter, because I’d brought a stainless steel reusable straw with me from home. It was the single most used item on the trip. Whenever I purchased a drink, I’d whip out my straw and demonstrate that I had one, and no straw would come with the drink. I’m sure they all thought I was a crazy Westerner, but at least I was keeping to the local custom!

There were a couple of occasions where the staff forgot (there were two times that I can remember) and brought me a straw. I handed them back immediately unused, hoping that the straws would be washed and reused, but of course, they went in the bin. So usually I’d watch as staff prepared my drink, and if I saw any hands heading near the straws I’d run over, flailing my arms in the air until they panicked and handed the straw-free beverage over. I may have looked mad, but it worked.

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Our stainless steel straws in all their glory!

The plastic bag

The plastic bag is the other obvious contender, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be pretty easy to avoid these. Just say no when you buy something, right? But there were a couple of complications.

The first was laundry. In Thailand self-serve laundromats aren’t very common, and instead people offer a private laundry service where you pay by weight. You drop your laundry off and pick it up 24 hours later, smelling fragrant, neatly pressed… and folded in a plastic bag. It’s not like we could not use a bag altogether, because we’d have ended up dropping our underpants and socks all the way down the street. Fortunately we had brought a calico bag with us and we were able to use this instead.

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Our freshly washed, neatly pressed laundry in the calico bag I’d brought with us. Plastic free!

The second was that Thai people used plastic bags as a vessel for food and drink. Literally. They pour cold drinks, hot soups, curry, sauces, coconut milk, you name it, into plastic bags, seal them up, and send you on your way.

plasticbagsThere’s no way I’d want to eat or drink anything served that’s been transported and stored in a plastic bag, even if I hadn’t given up plastic. Fortunately, our KeepCups served as containers for food, so the few times we bought something as takeaway, we didn’t need to use plastic bags.

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Battered, deep-fried sweet potato and banana – so delicious! We used our KeepCups rather than any disposable packaging.

The most important place to avoid plastic is at the beach. There are no bins so the options for rubbish disposal are taking it home, leaving it there or burying it. Of course, with the last two, it’s only a matter of time before it gets washed out to sea. Best to avoid disposable plastic altogether!

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Other Disposables

The main other disposable plastics that we were faced with were styrofoam trays (for takeaway food items) and plastic cutlery (for takeaway food items). We avoided using plastic cutlery by taking our own re-usable bamboo cutlery. The spoon was useful for ice cream and getting all the tasty coconut meat out of the drinking coconuts once they were empty, and I even managed to skin and chop up a whole mango with the knife!

cutleryAs for styrofoam, and any disposable food packaging, we avoided this by choosing to dine in rather than get takeaway. The food was fresher, we got to sit down and use metal cutlery and it looked so much more appetizing on a plate rather than stuffed in a plastic bag or cling-wrapped in styrofoam.

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Imagine eating any of these out of a plastic bag… and yes the option was available!

Tips for Keeping Plastic-Free

There was a lot of plastic to avoid as so much stuff was packaged this way, but keeping plastic-free didn’t mean going without, it just meant looking a little bit harder for what we wanted.

I took a reusable straw, a reusable cutlery set, a KeepCup (which is a coffee cup with a lid that can double up as a small container), a cloth bag and my water bottle. All of these were invaluable. The only additional thing I’d take if I went back is a small sealable plastic container (Tupperware or similar), because the KeepCups were a little too small for most food.

bananasAmongst all the plastic out there, there were plastic-free options, which were exciting to find! These bananas were barbequed, pressed and smothered in coconut sauce, and then served on banana leaves. Plastic-free definitely makes things taste more delicious!

Plastic Free July is almost upon us!

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This year’s Plastic Free July challenge is almost upon us, with just a little over two weeks to go. Plastic Free July, in case you don’t know what it is, is a challenge that runs every year which encourages people to give up disposable plastic for the month of July. (If you think that sounds too hard, you can also commit to a week or even one shopping trip instead.)

What do I mean by disposable plastic mean anyway?

This is the stuff you use just once, or a couple of times, and then throw away. Obvious items include plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles, plastic food packaging in general (cellophane wrapping, polystyrene trays, plastic tubs, bottles and yoghurt pots, even tetra-packs) and a lot of cosmetics and toiletries packaging. But there’s loads of less obvious stuff out there too. Like, for example, when you buy a new pair of socks and they are hanging on the rack with a little plastic hook? That little hook is gonna go straight in the bin.

What’s the purpose of Plastic Free July?

Well, there’s actually a few. On an individual level, it makes participants vastly more aware of how much disposable plastic is in our lives. It also encourages people to look at what plastic they use and see if they can find alternatives to any of it, so maybe after July, some new habits are formed.

But also, by bringing your own bags to the shops, or taking your own containers to the fishmonger, or refusing a straw, people can also send messages to retailers and businesses, and also their staff and other customers. This sends the message to the wider community that there is another way, and create awareness at this level too. The more people that demand change, the more businesses will listen.

Of course, it also means vastly less plastic is consumed in the month of July, which means less plastic going to landfill and less plastic ending up in our rivers and oceans where it harms wildlife. And less fossil fuels are wasted making new disposable plastic that is destined for the same journey.

Plus it’s a great way to find out about businesses that are already doing great things to help the environment – either cafes with zero waste policies, or companies that make stainless steel water bottles or reusable cloth vegetable bags – and also charities, community groups and other organisations that are campaigning for change.

So Plastic Free July is about creating awareness, reducing waste and inspiring change.

Why am I so passionate about Plastic Free July?

I took part in Plastic Free July last year for the first time, and it was a life-changing experience. Seriously. I always thought of myself as pretty green and sustainable, but once I started looking at how much plastic I was consuming, I realised there was so much more I could do. So after July I committed to permanently avoiding buying disposable plastic packaging.

But it wasn’t just that. Once I started looking at all that plastic-wrapped food, I realised that it’s all processed, and mostly junk. The more processed the ‘food’, the more plastic packaging. Once I stopped buying that stuff, I instantly felt better and healthier, and it made me start to look at what I was eating to make the connections between food and health. We all know that you need to eat well, but often we choose to ignore it when we’re busy, for the sake of convenience. Taking part in Plastic Free July made me reconnect with the issue. I also learned to cook new things so I could make fresh, wholesome versions of the things I could no longer buy, so I didn’t have to go completely without.

The same goes for skincare. I used to buy products that were readily available in the supermarkets, and never really considered that they contained preservatives, irritants and carcinogens. Yep, carcinogens. (If you wanna see what’s in the products you’re using, check out the Skin Deep database here which contains 64,000 products. It’s an eye-opener.) Once I started looking for cosmetic products in glass I began to find natural products that didn’t contain any of that nasty stuff. Now I know the alternatives I wouldn’t dream of buying those mass-produced synthetic chemical cocktails to put on my skin. (I’ve also started learning how to make my own.)

The Plastic Free July challenge also led me to small, independent businesses and local producers, and changed the whole way I shopped. Which is great because I’d much rather be supporting these types of businesses rather than the big multinational companies with their inferior products and questionable ethics. I just needed that extra push, I suppose.

What else? Well I learned a great deal about waste and pollution, and found out about a number of charities and individuals doing amazing work, including 5 Gyres, who campaign against plastic pollution, and the fantastic Beth Terry, who gave up plastic completely in 2007, and whose blog contains a wealth of information regarding plastic-free living.

Through Plastic Free July I was also able to really connect with my local community, and meet so many people who live just down the road and have the same concerns as me. It’s great to know I’m not the only one that cares – and sometimes it can feel a bit like that!

So there’s a lot more to Plastic Free July than giving up a few plastic carrier bags!

Want to get on board?

Sign up! You’ve still got two weeks to prepare for it, and if you want to know more have a look at the Plastic Free July website which has loads of information, links and suggestions for dilemnas you may have. You can choose which challenge you want to sign up to, and if there’s something that you absolutely cannot avoid that comes in plastic (like medication!) just keep the packaging in a ‘dilemna bag’ for the end of the month.

And if you’re still not sure, have a look at the website anyway… you’ve still got a couple of weeks to change your mind!

Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

I don’t like plastic. I avoid buying it and I talk a lot about plastic-free living on the blog, so I thought it might be useful to provide some background information on plastic, and some of the reasons why I decided to give it up in the first place. There’s so many reasons why plastic is bad (for our health, for the environment, for our sanity) and I’m not going to talk about them all now. I’ll stick to just one – waste.

Plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, either oil or natural gas. It doesn’t just come from the magic ‘plastic factory’. And the problem with this is that once the non-renewable fossil fuels run out, we don’t have any more. But it’s not even the running out that matters. The problems will begin when production hits its maximum rate, because after this oil prices will increase and production of oil-based industries (transport, agriculture, production) will begin to decline, and continue to do so. And if you think that’s way in the future, think again. It’s happening now. Some people think it may have already happened (in 2006). Have you noticed the prices of fuel at the petrol pumps seem to be on an ever-upward spiral?

oil production

This graph shows the discovery of oil deposits and oil production over time. I found it on Wikipedia but if you search the internet for ‘oil production’ images you’ll find hundreds of similar graphs.

There are, of course, people who claim that peak oil (which is what it’s called, by the way – the point of maximum production) will never happen, or at least for a long long time. But whether they’re wrong or right isn’t the point. Both sides agree that oil and fossil fuels in general are a valuable resource that we rely on to keep civilization going. In fact, we are completely dependent on them.

So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?

There’s no doubt that plastic can be useful, for example in healthcare, medicine and construction. The problem is that it’s become totally ubiquitous and is used for everything – and a lot of these uses are completely unnecessary and a waste of a valuable resource.

The other important thing to remember is that every little bit of plastic ever produced since that first piece is still around. This stuff doesn’t decompose, instead it creates huge amounts of landfill – or worse, makes its way to the oceans where it’s unwittingly ingested by unsuspecting sea life.

So why not cut down the amount of rubbish we sent to landfill and save the fossil fuels for the stuff that we actually need like fuel? Why not stop using fossil fuels so wastefully to make disposable items that we’re just gonna throw away?

But what about plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling is a bit of a con. It makes us feel better about our consumption, because we can put our empty plastic containers in the recycling bin and feel that they will be magically transformed into new plastic containers. But that isn’t what happens. Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled. This means it’s made into a product with inferior quality or functionality. Secondly, not all plastic is equal, and different plastics are processed differently. For some types it is very difficult to make back into useful products. Thirdly, just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it. What happens to your plastic depends on the number on the bottom, written inside what is thought of, ironically, as the recycling arrow.

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Some of the numbers you find on the bottom of plastic containers, which tell us what type of plastic the container is made of and whether/how it will be recycled.

There are 7 types of plastic, which are numbered 1 – 7, and not all are commonly recycled. (Technically 1 – 6 are different specific types, whereas 7 is a collection called ‘other’.) It’s easy to assume that if there’s a recycling arrow on the bottom of a container then it will be recycled, but actually only types 1 and 2 are commonly recycled. My local council collects types 1,2, 3 and 5. Any other type of plastic collected in my area is heading to landfill. You can check with your local authority to find out which types they will recycle.

Think it’s not too much of an issue? Here’s some figures for you.

  • In the USA in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated and only 8% of plastic was recycled. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Just under half of this plastic (14 million tons) was food containers and food packaging. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • In Australia in 2007, almost 4 billion lightweight single use plastic bags were used. Almost 3 billion of these came from supermarkets. Source: Australian Government
  • In Australia in 2002, 50-80 million of these bags became litter in the environment. Source: Australian Government
  • The amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag could drive a car 11 metres. Source: Australian Government
  • In the UK, 3 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year. 11% of household waste is plastic, and 40% of this is plastic drinks bottles. Source: University of Cambridge
  • In the UK in 2005, 414,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled (around 20% of total plastic waste). Of this, 324,000 tonnes of plastic was exported to China, over 8000km away, for recycling. Source: WRAP UK

So a large part of this plastic problem comes from food and drink packaging, which has been driven by our desire for ‘convenience’ and made us into a ‘throwaway society’. But it doesn’t need to be like this – a lot of this packaging is avoidable, and with very little effort. Whilst I don’t want to list of all the things you can do (it would triple the size of this post! – so I’ll save it for another time), most of the solutions are really quite simple. Taking your own bags to the supermarket reduces the need for disposable plastic bags; using tap water (you can treat it with a water filter to remove the chemicals) and carrying a water bottle from home stops the need to buy bottled water; and buying your fruit and vegetables loose rather than prepackaged in cellophane wrap and polystyrene trays cuts out heaps of wasteful and unnecessary packaging. And just refusing to buy things that are ridiculously over-packaged.

Let’s face it. Plastic is rubbish.

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Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

How to…Line your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, using each for only a few minutes. When you think that plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it seems pretty crazy to be using such a valuable resource to make something that’s only going to be used for such a short amount of time, and then thrown away.

A common argument – or even justification – for using these plastic bags is, oh but I do recycle my bags, I use them to line my rubbish bin. Thing is, that’s not recycling. It’s barely even re-using.

It’s still sending to landfill, just with other rubbish inside.

I have to confess, before I signed up to Plastic Free July I used to take the odd plastic bag from the shops when I needed to line my rubbish bin. I certainly wasn’t going to pay for virgin plastic to line my bin in the form of fancy bin liners. And what is the point in buying compostable corn starch liners when you’re sending them (and their contents) to landfill, where they won’t break down? Landfill sites essentially bury the waste and prevent exposure to air, moisture and light – and also the microbes that can break them down.

And then someone said to me, why don’t you line your rubbish bin with old newspaper? Such a simple and obvious solution! I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

How to Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

All you need is a few sheets of old newspaper. I use three sets of two sheets, and sometimes I’ll fold some additional ones to put in the base. It takes about a minute.

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When the bin is nearly full you simply roll over the tops to make a parcel and dump in your outdoor rubbish bin. The great thing is that newspaper is usually made from recycled paper so has already had a previous life (or several lives) before you send it off to landfill.

What are you waiting for?!