Zero wasting in a plastic city
I am currently in Bangkok, interning for two months before Uni starts again. I’m living with my cousin sister – Saudamini and without her I would definitely feel a bit lost and uneasy in this maddening city! While I have always come to Thailand on vacation, this is the first time I am here to work. This trip has allowed me to see the city through a different lens – the lens of an environmentalist (If I am allowed to call myself that?)
Over the last 2 years I have consciously tried to control my personal consumption levels and with respect to that Bangkok is definitely one of the most frustrating cities I have ever visited or lived in. A nightmare for those trying to live a zero waste lifestyle. Water from a plastic water bottle can not be drunk without a plastic straw and must be put in an individual plastic bag! The amount of plastic used in this country makes Thailand among the top 5 most polluting countries in the world. Bangkok makes you feel like you’re being choked by plastic from the moment you open your eyes in the morning to the time you put your head down at night.
So how have I managed in the last 3 weeks? It hasn’t been easy. It took me a while to learn that you have to be on high alert for unwanted plastics entering your life 24/7 and it can get PRETTY stressful but here are some of the things I have learnt and some solutions I’ve come up with
There is no such thing as filtered (non bottled water) in Bangkok and I learnt that that hard way around. The first few times I went to eat at restaurants, the waitress/waiter would open a bottle and bring it over to the table before we even sat down at the table. The few times I did ask for non bottled water I got puzzled looks and then a straight up “NO!” . Now, I have learnt! Every time I’m heading out for a meal, whether it is to eat at a local street food stall or a fancy restaurant, the same rule applies! Always carry my water with me!
Ive come to learn that the Thais do not have a tradition of cooking at home. Mostly people eat out and on the go! This is a great way of creating ample job opportunities in the communities but not so great for the environment. since people eat out all the time , the use of disposable plastic cutlery is very high. These single use items are used for minutes and then tossed over in over flowing bins. On my walks around the city I have noticed these often lying dangerously close to storm drains – if a slight breeze kicks up or a light shower happens to come down over the city – these flimsy pieces of plastic are headed straight to the ocean!
The straws deserve a special mention and a section to themselves. These monstrous single use pieces of plastic are EVERYWHERE. I have not walked for even 100 meters through the city roads and not seen one. I decided to actually measure this by picking up every single straw I see on my way walk back home from the train station in the evenings. in the first week itself I collected over 100! and the worst part was that atlas 75% of those straws were STILL in their original packaging. That means they were given to customers who did not even intend on using them. The problem with this lies at a few levels -first – the cashier hands out straws to EVERYONE at stores like seven 11 – whether you’re buying water, soda, milk, juice etc. and second- people accept the straws without any questions asked! so, to put it simply, people are mindlessly handing out straws and people are mindlessly accepting them! Its ridiculous ! you can’t get served water in a restaurant without a straw sticking out of your glass. If you think you can go out for a peaceful relaxing meal without any worries – you may be mistaken – its likely that your time will be spent staring at the bartender and the server to make sure they don’t put a straw in even after you’ve told them 50 times already!
4. Plastic bags
It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying one thing or 10 – you will be given a plastic bag or two to carry your things. This one is easy – just carry your own! Ive noticed that often things are put in multiple bags – 5 smallers bags will then be put in a bigger plastic bag to make carrying it all “convenient”. On average 500 billion to a trillion plastic bags are used globally per year! It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying something from a local grocery store or a high end store in Emporium – You DO NOT need that bag. Just refuse it until larger corporations start understanding that consumers DO NOT need them.
The first few days in the city I thought I wouldn’t survive. The stores I did go into had most vegetables and fruits shrink wrapped INDIVIDUALLY. If that was bad – theres a culture of cutting up fruits and then packaging them for sale. Since people are always eating on the go , the latter appeals to a large chunk of the population. Even road side vendors keep fruit pre cut in smaller plastic bags. It was only during my second week that I learnt about “wet markets”. These are the wholesale, bulk markets that sell fresh produce – veggies, fruits, meats, fish and all sorts of other edible things! This is somewhere you can go with all your bags and boxes ready to shop your heart out. Eggs and meats can be bought and stored in your own containers and veggies/fruits can be bought without the packaging.
While the above may seem like the points people have been talking about for years (carry your own bags, take your own water bottles etc etc) it really does apply in a country like Thailand. As much as this country can be frustrating with its high dependence on and obsession with plastic , it also does provide a range of opportunities for you to be find alternatives in a creative manner! Road side vendors making fresh food or cutting up fresh fruits would be happy to put the food into your containers – all you have to do is make the effort and ask! SPEAK UP and don’t be shy!
I have another 5 weeks to go and I’m looking forward to figuring out other hacks for living sustainably!