Douglas Thompson's Blog

01 September 2016
My War On Plastic
(and what you can do as a responsible traveler)

Plastic is an annoying reality in modern life. And it is especially annoying in Thailand, where practically all consumer products--particularly food--are excessively packaged in plastic. If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I especially enjoy cheese. Nowadays, I do not buy cheese unless I can buy the whole cheese (except for Parmigiano, since a whole cheese weighs almost 40kg and costs around $800.) Buy a wedge of cheese in a Thai supermarket and you will find that it is wrapped in about one meter of cling film that is fastened with the price label pasted over a blob of tape. To remove it without mutilating the cheese requires some precision cutting with a scalpel. Cut meat comes in plastic trays. Remember "butcher paper?" Fruit comes in "jewel containers." Then, there are all the bottles of water, detergent, shampoo and even ketchup.  Even onions and potatoes come neatly packaged in a mesh bag made of plastic. Ice, vegetables and already-cooked food comes in a plastic bag or container. Not only does your tooth paste come in a plastic container, it may actually contain plastic. (Crest toothpastes and numerous skin care products contain "microbeads" of PVC--the same blue plastic that is used for making pipes).

What is so ludicrous to me is that the supermarket where I shop is probably one of the worst packaging offenders, yet gives extra points in their loyalty program to customers who arrive with a cloth bag. I suppose this is to help them feel great about what they are doing for the environment when they fill their cloth bags with stuff wrapped in layer upon layer of plastic.

A couple of years ago--as a test at first--I decided to save all the plastic that packed the the things I purchased during a week and found that it nearly filled a 26x34 inch trash bag--and I live alone. Then I started separating glass and paper from my trash. The paper and plastic go into separate bags, which I mark with a label in Thai and English, then deposit in the stairwell where the trash containers live. My plan has been to set an example for my neighbors. All garbage gets picked over thoroughly by human beings, and much of everyone's trash gets recycled anyway. But I wanted to make a point about the quantity of waste being discarded, and raise the consciousness of the others on my floor who make multiple trips to the stairwell each week. It has begun to work and I am seeing more (plastic) bags filled with empty plastic and glass bottles in the stair well, and occasionally cardboard boxes filled with discarded paper. I also compost on one of my 10th floor balconies, but that's a different story.

Before I traveled to Bhutan last month I received an email from one of our customers who asked whether plastic bags were still banned there. He is planning to visit Bhutan later and wants to travel responsibly. (Bravo!) Honestly, I had not heard about a plastic ban in this pristine Himalayan Kingdom, but it made sense. Unfortunately, the ban was impossible to enforce. Before my trip, however, I decided to enforce it myself. Not wanting to be an irresponsible litter bug, I took a bag with me into which I put all of my plastic trash to bring back to Thailand with me to recycle. I also took a non-plastic water container so I could avoid the consuming the plastic bottled water in the car. Personally, I suspect that there are probably health risks in consuming water from plastic bottles anyway.

A good friend who has managed one of the world's finest hotels in Siem Reap recently told me that 450,000 plastic bottles are used in Cambodia every month. Thirsty visitors contribute significantly to this unnecessary waste. He reminded me that, as an upstanding member of the tourism industry, I had a responsibility to help reduce the amount of plastic waste that my own guests are contributing to the environment of the places they visit.

What happens to much of the plastic we discard? While there are well-established recycling facilities in developed countries, much of the developing world either burns their plastic, which contributes to greenhouse gases, piles it up, buries it, or dumps it into the ocean. An August 29th story in the Huffington Post suggests that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. (It also suggests that eating chicken contributes to climate change, which is another story.) Click on the photo on the right to read the story. It's already a fact that even minute particles of plastic are finding their way into the oceans' food chain. Sea birds and other animals like turtles and otters are being found with the plastic rings around their necks or bodies.

The author of the Huffington Post story also believes that much of the plastic we leave behind after Earth can no longer sustain human inhabitants will become fossilized. Maybe explorers who visit Earth millions of years from now will learn many of the same kinds things about our extinct species just as we have learned from studying the fossilized bones of other major species that were wiped out before we came along.

So what can you do as a responsible world traveler to leave a smaller footprint? It's really a no-brainer. If I could figure out ways NOT to leave plastic trash behind in Bhutan, you can figure out how to not leave it behind in Cambodia or Myanmar or Vietnam. Responsibility begins at home. Buy fewer plastic-packaged products. Shop with a cloth bag. Don't buy beverages with plastic rings. (A craft brewery in Florida has invented a 3-D printed alternative that is bio-degradable and can be eaten by fish and birds. Why can't Anheuser-Busch do the same?) Urge your local legislators to ban retailers from using plastic bags. California is the first state to outlaw single-use plastic bags. San Francisco's regulations are even stronger--check-out bags must be made of 40% recycled paper or are "designed for at least 125 uses and are washable." And don't buy products containing microbeads. You can get a list of products containing microbeads in your country here: https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/product-lists

When you travel, take your own reusable beverage containers and avoid plastic bottles or beverage cups. Most important of all, take our trash home with you. You would not want foreign tourists leaving their trash on your doorstep, so don't leave yours behind to become someone else's problem. You are better than that.

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