Why I keep my plastic with me wherever I go.
I have lived in paradise: pristine white-sand beaches, topaz waters, coconut trees, hammocks and a gentle breeze. A world underwater unlike any other, teaming with beautiful fish of every shape and color unimaginable.
On a typical morning I would wake up and walk to the water’s edge to baptize myself anew amongst tropical fish, crystal water, and poopie diapers.
Yep. Dirty, plastic nappies.
I was living on Mabul, a tiny Malaysian island in the middle of the Coral Triangle (the most biodiverse underwater region of the world), but surrounded by the worst garbage problem I had ever seen.
It was actually my second time there. I liked it so much I came back after two years away. Why did I like living amongst so much rubbish? Well to start with, the diving was, and is, spectacular and they have Roti Canai (imagine a donut married to naan). But I couldn’t shake the stark contrast between the trash and the beauty of the environment.
When visiting the island for the first time, many tourists condemn the locals for treating their environment so poorly. Because I got to stay on the island for three months I could see that, by and large, Malaysians use as much plastic as we do in the United States. The principle difference I could see was that the country had little to no public sanitation service. On a tiny island this means all the trash generated just piles up in the environment.
Back in the United States, our trash gets whisked away to a land-fill, or to a recycling center.
In California, many of the types of plastic (those little numbers in the middle of the recycle logo) aren’t recyclable and end up in the land-fill anyways. For example, the recycling rate of all PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles—the most common water bottle—was 31% in 2013. So I figured a lot of the plastic I was using was ending up in the environment. That’s when I started tracking my plastic; meticulously keeping all my plastic in a bag until the end of the month. Two years later, I still haven’t had a plastic-free month.
It’s not easy. Plastic is everywhere you buy anything. The biggest impact on my plastic consumption was the simplest: I got a reusable water bottle and simply refused to buy or use disposable water bottles. If I forgot my water bottle, I went without water. I quickly learned to bring my bottle with me as a matter of habit. I kept the same mentality with using reusable grocery bags, only accepting paper take-out containers, carrying my own spork, refusing straws, and trying my best to reject any other plastic I found in my bag at the end of the month.
Shopping plastic-free online has been a bit harder. Amazon has a service called Hassle-Free Packaging that ships products with a lot less plastic. But I don’t like to use the service because it’s a small subset of their product catalog and they don’t make it easy to filter your searches as Hassle-Free. Lifewithoutplastic.com is a great concept and we are ideologically aligned, but they don’t offer many products that I like. Mostly, I’ve given up on ordering products online, at least until some better alternatives turn up.
I haven’t gotten my zero-plastic month yet but I think it’s better to do a little than to do nothing. I also enjoy a new perspective on how ubiquitous plastic usage is and how hard it is to live without it. I still believe that we’d do better with less of the stuff around so I think I’ll keep at my plastic tracking, at least until I hit my first plastic-free month.
Author: Dan Vallentyne
Apprentice Editor: Lee Lomas/Editor: Travis May