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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.

straws

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.

laundry

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.

deepfried

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!

pineapple

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.

food

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!

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!