Why we should care about single-use plastic

In recent months there have been many reports on the impact of plastic on our planet. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Another important item that got a lot of attention in British media was on from the Guardian. The online newspaper shared a study from Scientist of Orb Media who reported findings of micro plastics in samples of tap water all around the world.

In this series about the environmental impact of travelling, we discussed the impact of different modes of transport. First, we discussed the impact of taking a train vs. flying and shared tips of how to find a sustainable bus company. However, it’s not always possible to avoid flying and that’s why we discussed factors to consider when booking a flight.

In this article, we will dive into the topic of single-use plastics.

Where does all this plastic come from?

The US has the highest per capita plastic consumption rate of any country. To illustrate, the average American citizen consumed 109 kg of plastic in 2014-15. Per capita consumption is lower in Asian countries. However, the size of their populations means their total consumption is also worryingly high. Ocean Conservancy published a report called “Land-based Strategies for a Plastic-free Ocean” in 2017. They found that the majority of plastic entering our seas originates from a small geographic area.

Iceberg of plastic

China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam together dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined.

This statistic does not tell the full story though. Many Western countries export much of their waste to poorer countries. This practice is better known as the Global Waste Trade. These countries have historically received large volumes of waste from Europe and America. Yet, they often do not have the infrastructure required to effectively process and recycle the rubbish.

Why does the world use so much plastic?

We cannot deny the economic benefits that plastic has. The WEF (World Economic Forum) has acknowledged that plastic and plastic packaging “are an integral and important part of the global economy”. Plastic packaging increases the shelf-life of perishable food products, thus reducing food waste. The light weight of plastic also reduces the weight of food transportation. This reduces fuel consumption associated with food supply chains.

As of 2015, approximately 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste has been generated around the world1. Shockingly, only around 9% of this plastic has ever been recycled. Of the remaining waste, 12% had been incinerated and 79% had ended up either in landfill sites or, worse, somewhere in the natural environment.

Low levels of recycling around the world are having high environmental and economic costs. The WEF concluded that 95% of the value of all plastic produced annually is lost after a single use. Lack of infrastructure and education, as well as our reliance upon plastics that cannot be recycled, are responsible for low levels of recycling.

Another problem is that the production process of plastic consumes significant amounts of fossil fuels and produces large volumes of carbon emissions. Concluding, it is not sustainable for us to continue producing single use-plastics.

How to reduce your consumption of single-use plastic when traveling?

Our consumption of single-use plastic can rise dramatically when we travel. Travelling in Asia often means eating out for every meal. Lots of street food is served in a plastic container and oftentimes handed to us in a plastic bag, and yes, with plastic cutlery. The absence of potable water also leaves us reliant upon bottled water.

Luckily, there are some easy amendments we can make to our packing lists to reduce our reliance upon single-use plastics:

1. Avoid buying bottled water

Avoiding bottled water is an easy yet important step we can take as a traveller. Yet so few of us make a conscious effort to reduce our consumption of single-use plastic bottles.

Asia is generally hot and humid and we find ourselves having to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. If we aren’t careful, we can soon find ourselves buying many bottles of water each day. This is not only expensive, but also has a huge environmental impact.

Luckily there is an easy solution to avoid being reliant upon bottled water. Buy a reusable bottle before you come to Asia and take every opportunity to fill it up from water dispensing machines. Also, try to book accommodations that provide (free) fill ups for drinking water. Stock up before you head out to explore in the morning and you’ll save both your money and the environment.

Even more practical, invest in a bottle with an in-built filtration system. There are many water bottles on the market designed to enable us to drink unpotted water safely. When carrying one of those bottles, you can confidently drink tap water wherever you are in the world.

2. Travel with food containers and cutlery

It’s commonplace to eat most of your meals out in Asia. Street food is both delicious and cheap. But it’s often served in plastic packaging with plastic cutlery.

Invest in a small reusable food container and a set of reusable cutlery before you leave home. These products do not take up much space in your bag and can be used over and over again to carry and consume your favourite street food.

If you like to drink coffee on the go, we also encourage you to invest in a reusable coffee cup. It’s possible to buy silicone cups that are light-weight and collapsible. Again, they will take up hardly any space in your bag but enable you to avoid single-use coffee cups during your trip.

3. Fruits are fresher at markets

Mini-markets are very convenient for buying food on the go whilst you’re travelling. But unfortunately, Asian retailers are seemingly obsessed with wrapping fresh produce in plastic.

Fresh fruit, Asian market

It’s not uncommon to find oranges, bananas and apples individually wrapped, despite them having their own natural protection in the form of a skin!

Try to buy your fruit and vegetables from local markets instead. Products from local markets are generally not wrapped in plastic and you’re also likely to pay less than you would in a mini-market. And after all, who doesn’t like to shop at local market when visiting a foreign country?

Pro tip: Don’t forget to carry reusable bags to bring your purchases home!

4. Avoid single-use straws

This is another really simple step we can all take, without much effort. When you’re buying a drink, tell your server that you don’t want a straw.

Our hands and mouths are more perfectly shaped to drink straight from a glass, so there is no need for us to drink through straws! If you still prefer to use a straw, consider carrying a reusable bamboo straw with you. You can buy metal or bamboo straws before you leave on your trip, but you can also often find them in souvenirs shops during your travel.

As the famous quote goes, ‘“It’s just one straw,” said 8 billion people’…

What steps are being taken to reduce plastic consumption?

Countries around the world are becoming more conscious of their plastic consumption. 70 countries have already banned the sale of lightweight plastic bags today and another 33 counties impose charges for plastic bags.

An important initiative introduced in China is a standardised approach to recycling. This has been introduced in 46 cities across the country. The government hopes this will enable the country to achieve its target of recycling 35% of waste in these cities by 2020.

The Indian government has taken an even more aggressive step to reduce consumption of single-use plastics. In 2018, they banned the manufacture, supply, storage and use of plastics in 25 of the country’s 29 states. Per capita consumption of plastic is relatively low in India, yet the size of its population means overall plastic consumption is high.

Slow progress is being made around the world to encourage people to start reducing their plastic consumption. Yet we are still a long way from being able to end our use of plastic once and for all.

No one has yet designed a viable alternative for plastic in many of its uses. And as long as we don’t find one, the world will remain reliant upon plastic in its myriad forms.

How will you reduce your use of plastic the next time you travel?

Now, we’ve shared our favourite tips for reducing our reliance on single-use plastic when travelling, we are curious to hear your favourite tips.

Let us know in the comments section what changes you are going to make to your packing list and how you are going to avoid single-use plastic during your next trip.

In our next and final blog post in this series, we will explore the innovative ways in which countries in Southeast Asia are protecting and healing the natural environment.

References

  1. Geyer, Roland & Jambeck, Jenna & Law, Kara. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. 3. e1700782. 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.
Maarten Cox

Maarten Cox

When not at the beach, you'll likely find Maarten surfing in the ocean. With a special place in his heart for Asia and ongoing work on his blog, GeckoRoutes, Maarten's biggest passion is to explore every corner of the earth while meeting new people, which fuels his adventures.
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