Lately I’ve been seeing a multitude of doomsday news articles related to the state of our planet and the formidable ways in which we’re messing it up. Though I didn’t need it becoming the hot new news topic to notice that beaches in Indonesia are overflowing with plastic and reefs are bleaching, I am glad that the collective is waking up to the issues at hand.
However, it’s normal to look at all this news and feel depressed beyond measure. Fear-inducing news has the power to negatively impact the part of our brain that allows for creative thinking and problem solving. But now more than ever, we need to take an active role in healing our planet, not least of all so that we can feel like we’re contributing in a positive way. One of the biggest issues we’re facing right now is plastic. Here’s what you might not have known, and how you can take action:
Recycling is Not the Answer
A study by the World Economic Forum estimates there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050. Plastic also never breaks down, instead becoming smaller and smaller micro-particles that fish mistake for food. I was surprised by this, thinking that recycling meant I was doing the right thing.
Then I watched a Netflix documentary called A Plastic Ocean and it rocked my world.
I learned that China, which once recycled most of the world’s plastics, has mostly ceased doing so in an effort to reduce emissions and illegal dumping. I also learned that much of what I thought was recyclable isn’t – like plastic wrapping on foods, plastic bags, coffee cups, anything with even a trace of food on it, and even paper. It turns out that only 9% of all plastic ever made actually gets recycled 🤯.
So where does it end up? Southeast Asia has largely become the world’s dumping ground, though it’s also a major contributor to plastic waste as well. Unfortunately, when they send trash back, it has to end up somewhere. Hawaii no longer recycles plastic, because it can’t, and landfills worldwide (especially in lower/middle income countries) are seeing an alarming increase in waste.
And while plastic is an important part of medical advancements, and a much lighter-weight, cost-effective manufacturing material in the airline and car industries, 26% of plastic (by volume, 40% by weight!) is from plastic packaging. That’s where we can come in and reduce our use and demand better practices from manufacturers.
What We Can Do
Once I woke up to the plastic problem, I started to see it everywhere. At the grocery store, I resist pre-washed lettuce, bagged hemp seeds, peanut butter, and the REBBL coffee drinks I used to love. I try not to feel terrible guilt each time I buy something with single-use plastic, though it’s hard. It might not be possible to go completely single-use plastic free on the road, and it’s a tall order to try to do it all at once, but there are some easy things we can do right now:
One of my biggest hurdles is drinking water abroad. In countries where the tap water is fine, I always drink it and use a refillable water bottle, but what about countries where it’s laden with bacteria and heavy metals? I did a fair amount of searching, and the Grayl Geopress has the best reviews and makes the most guarantees for water safety, including lead removal, which was my biggest worry.
Utensils and Cups
Another big area of waste is utensils, cups, and straws from food vendors. A reusable, collapsable metal straw is easy to travel with. Bamboo cutlery is also a lightweight, helpful option, although I prefer chopsticks that are durable enough to last a lifetime. There’s almost nothing you can’t eat with chopsticks once you master them, including salad, any noodle or rice dish, and honestly everything else I can think of.
Though bulkier, a reusable coffee cup is perfect for street smoothies in Thailand and airport coffee. You can fit all of the aforementioned products inside of an empty coffee cup, making the whole affair less of a big deal and an easy, one-piece addition to your bag.
I’ve talked about this before in another post about greening up travel, where I mentioned the importance of skipping hotel shampoo. Shampoo bars are a plastic free way to wash your hair, and toothpaste tablets, silk floss, and bamboo toothbrushes can make your oral hygiene routine plastic free.
I have sung the DivaCup’s praises before, which you can read in more detail here, but TL;DR, I love it. I’ve saved so much waste over the years with this one silicone cup, and it’s much lower maintenance than everything else I’ve tried, too!
For most of us, the biggest impact we can have is at home. For me that has meant shopping with reusable bags, including produce, and watching what I buy in terms of packaging. Germany used to have a ‘bio’ waste bin but since the US doesn’t I’m getting into composting. Since most of my household waste is paper and food scraps, it’s a natural choice.
All of this said, the biggest impact we can have is by voting, not just in the polls for candidates who care about environmental policies, but with our dollars. Since 100 global companies were responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions emitted into the air from 1988-2015, and plenty of food companies ignore the importance of plastic reduction, it’s important to support the ones that endeavor to be greener.
I hope this post was helpful and makes you feel empowered to make a difference on the micro level. When we all care more and do more to help the planet, it does matter, and it does impact the collective. After all, one little change on a macro scale has the power to start a movement.
*The REI and Patagonia links in this post are affiliate links to companies that I feel are ethical and take steps to be greener. Any purchase you make through these links supports this site at no extra cost to you.