There is little reason to write too much about the massive burden that plastic in all its forms is placing on our planet; everyone knows this, it’s that we have become so reliant on this damaging material, that knowing how to stop using so much of it is one of the greatest challenges presented to the modern world.
At home in a familiar environment we have a certain amount of control over how and when we use plastic, and how we dispose of it, but when travelling, reducing plastic usage or finding ways to best recycle what we do use can be a difficult task.
And it all starts when you board your flight.
Airlines and plastic
The large amount plastic used on flights, particularly long-haul flights is difficult to ignore. Plastic cutlery, containers, and the sheer amount of single-use plastic cups.
Everyone appreciates a free drink or two on a flight, it seems to make the experience that little bit more enjoyable. If your cabin crew staff offers you a second or third drink, with your meal, they rarely refill your original plastic cup, and during the night, cabin crew will often walk up and down the aisles offering ready poured plastic cups of juice and water to combat the dry cabin air. Thus the average passenger will end up with a large stack of used plastic cups. That is a lot of plastic cups per flight. And there are a lot of flights. It would be a logical step for airlines to hand out one plastic cup for use throughout the whole flight, unless the passenger is changing from, say, a tomato juice, to a beer.
The Huffington Post has tried to answer why so many plastic cups are used on flights, and not just reused, but airlines were reportedly reluctant to reply.
Research suggests that some airlines pressure wash and then reuse plastic cutlery, and some airlines for example Virgin and Cathay Pacific do recycle plastic cups and other articles – certainly a step in the right direction. But other research suggests that regulations in some regions such as the EU require all airline waste items from outside of the region to be incinerated to avoid contamination. So if an airline can wash and reuse an item such as a spoon, then presumably that item is not longer regarded as waste. And if single-use plastic can be banned on airliners then all crockery and cutlery would have to be treated this way, washed and reused. This is reported to be in the plans of the EU, and Ryanair and Alaska Airlines are two airlines that are reportedly planning a switch to biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery, and a ban on plastic straws and stirrers.
In my research I found an article that treats the idea of an airline reusing hygienically washed plastic cutlery as a negative, which is an odd stance; when we eat at a restaurant we don’t expect to be given brand new, never used cutlery. Reusing is undoubtedly a positive development.
Bottles and street-food cartons
How much plastic we consume getting to a destination is important, but when the time in-flight comprises of only a small proportion of our total time travelling, thinking about our impact in our destination is even more so.
Living in a place with readily available potable tap water, as many of us are lucky to do, it is easy to limit the amount of plastic bottles used, and rarely buy bottled water. If bottled drinks are required, and routine recycling collections are the norm, or communal recycling points are commonplace, disposing of used bottle so it will be responsibly recycled is an easy task.
But when travelling in an unfamiliar place it is difficult to know what to do with a used plastic bottle or a plastic container that your street-side Pad Thai was served up in. If in doubt, look around for recycling bins. See what the locals are doing, check if there are any recycling bins, ask at your accommodation.
The Tropics and straws seem to go hand in hand. Fresh coconuts are tricky to drink from without a straw, cocktails are usually drunk with a straw, unfortunately there is a trend in Southeast Asia to drink canned and bottled drinks with a straw. But the reality is that plastic straws are very damaging to the environment. Due to their small size they are rarely recycled, often blow around ending up in waterways and the ocean.
Paper straws not plastic straws
On a recent trip to Cambodia I noticed for the first time that some businesses have ditched plastic straws in favour of paper straws.
The Pavilion in Phnom Penh serves cocktails and fresh coconuts with paper straws, and the Sailing Club in the coastal town of Kep does the same. Instead of plastic refuse bags, the adjacent 1960s art-deco hotel, Knai Bang Chatt also uses washable linen bags in all waste bins in the rooms. Both hotels have refillable glass water bottles in the room, and the Pavilion is part of a city-wide network of premises where it is possible to refill your water bottle with clean, treated water, free-of-charge.
In October (2018), I saw that some shops in the capital Phnom Penh are not giving plastic bags or drinking straws unless requested. In a country where plastic bags and other plastic waste all too commonly lines the roads and litters the countryside, these are really important steps. The Pavilion, Knai Bang Chatt and these small shops are leading the way, hopefully other businesses will follow.
In neighbouring Thailand, there are undoubtedly similar initiatives, but the ubiquitous 7-11 store always tries to give me unnecessary bags and straws. If I buy a single drink, the staff will try to put it in a plastic bag with a straw, even if I only buy a bottle of water, until I reply with “mai ow lord, mai sai toong, krap” meaning I don’t need a straw or a bag. With the 7-11 having such a large presence in Thailand, I wish they could take the lead in plastic bag and straw use, because seriously, handing out a straw and a plastic bag with a bottle of water is just ridiculous.
Some steps to make your travel experience less plastic-reliant:
- Take a reusable water bottle or flask, or if you forget, buy a bottle of water after security. Fill this up on the flight so you can limit the amount of plastic cups used throughout the flight when staying hydrated.
- Street-food should be a big part of travelling in many countries, particular in Asia. Try to stick to street-food that you can eat at tables at the stall, where they use washable cutlery and crockery.
- Use a reusable bottle and try to fill it up at your hotel or guesthouse if they have filtered water, or if in a country where tap water is potable. If you don’t have, buy a big bottle of water and keep the bottle using it several times by refilling. Check the quality of the plastic though as some low-grade plastic bottles may not be suited to re-filling many times.
- To get an idea of what to do with your recyclable waste, look around to see how the locals dispose of their rubbish. In China it is common for rubbish bins in the street to be divided for recyclable and non-recyclable materials. In Asia in general, it is common to see people collecting recyclable materials from rubbish bins to sell at depots.
- If your hotel or guesthouse is not employing the best practice relating to plastic usage or recycling, give them some suggestions, either in the feedback form, verbally on check-out, or online. If enough people express an opinion, they may find reason to change.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other ideas on how to reduce your plastic footprint whilst travelling.