Sailing the Plastic Sea: Travel and Environmentalism

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Travel has made me an environmentalist.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. I’ve long been concerned about the state of our planet and what humans are doing do it. I dragged my conservative father to our town’s quaint one-screen movie theater to watch An Inconvenient Truth when it first came out. In my pre-nomad life, I recycled religiously, I packed my lunch in Tupperware and brought my own coffee cup to work to avoid the styrofoam there, I toted my reusable bags to Whole Foods and CVS. It wasn’t perfect, but compared to most plastic-happy Americans it was pretty damn good.

Or so I thought.

Then I arrived in Southeast Asia and my worldview changed.

Travel means seeing the good and the bad, and all the plastic trash

Trash decorates the countryside and the beaches here like garlands on a grave. Mineral water bottles drift down the streams in Bali, cows pick through heaps of tattered bags in Cambodia, cups and straws float in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand. It’s so striking because in America this waste is all hidden from us, tucked away from our prim eyes in a far off garbage heap somewhere. But here it’s unavoidable.

And the problem shows no sign of abating. Often when I order an iced coffee to go here, my cold sweet drink is handed to me in a plastic cup with a plastic straw tucked into a little plastic bag with handles. For something that takes me ten minutes to drink, that’s three pieces of plastic that will still be here in a thousand years.

Not that America is better – the outcry when Dunkin Donuts was told to stop putting a styrofoam cup over a plastic one for iced coffees was nearly the second American Revolution. “But the condensation!” cried the opponents. Ah yes, condensation, that pressing issue of our time. The only way to stop the horror of briefly damp hands is to keep those landfills filling.

When you can’t help but see a problem, you can’t help but do better

I’ve become so much more conscious of every little piece of plastic I use here. Seeing the remnants of our vast human carelessness has given me new eyes. I’ve bought a bamboo straw and bamboo toothbrush. I’ve learned how to say “I don’t want” in Thai so I can turn down plastic bags in 7-11 and plastic straws in my mango smoothies. I clip my Lifestraw filter water bottle to my backpack to avoid going through multiple bottles of water a day, leaving the empty shells to float off in the sea.

Life straw water bottle in Southeast Asia to reduce plastic use
Lifestraw filter bottle love.

But it’s a losing battle no matter how many plastic straws I turn down. The world keeps pumping out more and more plastic to choke our cities and our oceans. China has stopped taking American plastic for recycling, so cities are cutting back their programs and our plastic use continues unabated. And with corporations so unwilling to abandon their reliance on cheap plastic for everything, living a zero-waste lifestyle is almost a full-time job (making your own yogurt and shampoo and cat food).

Doing better for the earth and our kids

It saddens me, this garbage-filled world we’re leaving to my nieces and nephews and their children. I want them to grow up in a world that’s clean and bright and beautiful just like they are. They deserve better than what we’re handing off to them.

I was confused at first when I saw travel bloggers who all seemed to carry the same bamboo straw and reusable cup. Do only eco-warriors travel? I wondered. But now that I’m in a place where the consequences of our wasteful and thoughtless addiction aren’t hidden, I know better. And I try to do better, in the little ways where I can.

Upcycled toilet at Suan Sati yoga retreat in Chiang Mai Thailand

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