Being born and raised in Austria, I have never questioned the reason for recycling. As children we were already told to separate plastic, paper, organic and residual waste. And everyone tries their best to recycle. If you do not, you might even risk running into your neighbours who will tell you off. Or, you might find sticky notes on your mailbox reminding you where your waste should go. The same was true when I lived in Germany. For me it was always normal to bring my own bag or basket to the grocery store.
When I moved to Asia, I realized that the world of recycling is actually limited to a very small number of countries which really take it seriously. What I find most shocking is the use of plastic in the name of general or food safety. In supermarkets in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, dairy products (which are in plastic packaging anyways) have to be put in different – of course plastic – bag than meat or cleaning produce, for example. On an average grocery shopping trip, you might end up with about 20 plastic bags. When I ask the shop assistants to put everything in one bag, they tell me that their corporate guidelines do not allow them to do that. The reason: the food might go bad (I wonder how, if it is already packaged anyways) or the bag might tear. I always reply that it is my problem if it tears. But because I could theoretically sue the supermarket, they are not allowed to let me leave with one plastic bag only.
However, this plastic phenomenon is not limited to Asia. Last week, I was shocked to see the plastic packaged fruits and vegetables in Austrian supermarkets. When I grew up, the fruits were lying loose. Even the organic products are covered in plastic now. Furthermore, in some countries like the UK, recycled paper bags are not allowed to touch the produce. Again, in the name of food safety, the recycled paper bag has to be covered with plastic on its inside. Which logic is there for the recycled bag then if it requires me to use plastic again?!
And you can see the effect. When I went diving in Phuket in 2012, Phi Phi island was relatively clean. When I went back last year, styrofoam and plastic were nothing out of the ordinary in the reefs. Every time, when I see videos by other divers with more plastic than fish in the ocean, it makes me really angry and sad. Especially when I hear that a lot of governments across the world put less and less emphasis on environmental affairs, recycling and climate change.
If you have not heard about the “Great Pacific garbage patch” as yet, please look it up online. The size of this “plastic continent” is estimated to be bigger than Mexico. Not only is this non-degradable waste floating in the oceans, micro-pieces of plastic are eaten by fish and, eventually, will end up in our bodies.
OK, I have complained a lot here, but what can we do? It is actually not that difficult: I always bring a bag with me for grocery shopping and I refuse plastic cutlery and straws. Unfortunately, it is often not understood why I refuse straws. But still, I am annoying and insist on it. The problem with straws is that they are recyclable in theory. However, they often fall through the recycling machines because they are too lightweight. It takes 200 years to break down plastic straws. (And even then, they are not completely gone.)
These are really, really small changes, I am not asking to completely change your lifestyle and make life difficult for you. But refusing straws or bringing reusable bags is easy. What are you doing to reduce plastic waste? I hope I am not the only “annoying” one here. 🙂