Plastics – what’s the solution for the real world?

One of the things I tell my children is don’t just lecture people about your values. THINK!

For instance, we, the privileged ones, are telling all and sundry not to use plastics. But what choices do those existing on breadline have? Advocacy alone is not going to rid the world of plastics. It just generates more hot air. Thus, we need environmental stewardship to go with eco activism and I don’t see enough of that.

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Twenty six years ago, way back in 1992, I wrote a book on the Environmental Impact of Paper Recycling.

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Back then, the environment wasn’t a trendy issue, unlike today. Today, each time I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I am bombarded with messages about saving the planet.

Twenty six years ago, when my book came out, I was ridiculed. I was called a New Age hippy, a rebel without a cause, a Sloane Ranger, a fool. Back then, recycling was all the rage. I tricked my way into a paper mill to show that recycling can actually do more harm to the planet, especially when the heavy metals used in some inks get leached into rivers.

I don’t think my fairly high profile shouting made that much of a difference back then.

Today, fortunately, much of paper wastage is eliminated with the advent of technology. We seldom print out stuff. We read online. This migration is both good and bad for humanity, but on the whole, it is very good for the environment.

But what about plastics? I hear the battle cry but what’s the solution for the real world?

Here’s the view from ground floor level:

I live in a humble part of town. The people here are normal, working class Thais. They work as tuk-tuk drivers, massage girls, waiters. You can get a drink in my part of town for THB20 (less than 40p) and lunch for THB70. These drinks and food are packaged in plastic cups, plastic straws, polystyrene food boxes.

Straws and a lot of plastic cups are most commonly made from type 5 plastic, or polypropylene. Although type 5 plastic can be recycled, it isn’t accepted by most curbside recycling programmes. When plastic straws aren’t recycled, they end up in landfills, or even worse, polluting our oceans. And they don’t biodegrade. Not for thousands of years. And in the meantime, they choke wildlife, enter into our food chain and kill us silently.

This is my local drinks stall.

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In a day, during high season, she sells 300 drinks on average. That means 300 plastic cups and 300 plastic straws. Just on my road alone, there are 45 of these stalls (I counted).  Some of these stalls are a lot busier than this one. We are looking at 13,500 plastic cups and plastic straws A DAY from just one road in Thailand during high season. That’s heck lot of plastic ending up in landfills!

But here’s the fact: much of the local economy in Asia is run on this cheap, widely available plastic and polystyrene packaging. Every evening, the municipal bins are over-spilling with food and drinks packaging. Where I live, that is the biggest contributor of plastics pollution.

But on the flip side of the coin, the lady who owns the stall and her husband support their whole family (including extended family members) selling drinks at THB20 per pop. They are making an honest living and creating a better future for their next generation, though yes, at the expense of our planet.

What’s YOUR solution for her livelihood, if you are telling her not to use plastics?

It is a privilege to be able to make choices based on our values. I am privileged that I can afford to buy a Starbucks reusable flask, several cloth shopping bags and even tiffin carriers to take my takeaway meals home in. I made this cup for my friend to take green smoothies home in.

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But what about the small-time traders who are the biggest users of plastics, serving a segment of the community that exists on the breadline, for whom choice is not their privilege? What would you propose for them to use instead, if you are telling them don’t use plastic?

Here are my suggestions for food packaging (for fish and chips from the UK, and for nasi lemak from Malaysia) but I have none for drinks. What do YOU think?

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