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Drowning in a sea of plastic

by Michael on May 18, 2012

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One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 ”Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

MissElaineous May 19, 2012 at 12:05 am

Fascinating and sad simultaneously. Thanks for sharing this perspective. Eat, Pray, Recycle?

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Larissa May 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Something like that but even recycling is not the ultimate answer. It’s the supply side that needs to be fixed.

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Me May 20, 2012 at 3:45 am

Not just the supply side, but the demand side. If we, as consumers, don’t demand it, they, as suppliers, won’t supply it! Speak with your wallet!

Buy quality goods and repair them when they are damaged. Find yourself a tailor, shoe repair person, small appliance repair shop, etc. Build relationships in your community and shop local. We are the solution!

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Larissa May 20, 2012 at 5:28 am

Thanks for checking in, “Me”. On a smaller scale we suggest buying a reusable water bottle.

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Alexandra May 20, 2012 at 6:27 am

It is almost comical the amount of plastic they give you in parts of the world. My favorite is when you buy a plastic bottle of water/soda and they put that in the bag along with a plastic straw wrapped in plastic in it’s own plastic bag… than look at you with confusion when you just take the bottle of water. I personally found Vietnam the worst. It’s like they think if the throw it in the river it will just magically disappear. In Bali it horrified me that the offering that are set out daily have individually wrapped pieces of candy. I think the gods would rather just have the pretty flowers ;)

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Michael May 20, 2012 at 6:44 am

Hi Alexandra,
You picked some really good examples. Another one is when a plastic container for detergent or something like that comes with a built-in handle but it’s also tossed in a plastic bag that has…a handle.

Thx for checking in.

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Barb May 21, 2012 at 9:49 am

Hi Michael & Larissa,
Very informative. At the best, we should learn a little while on the road. And, blogging abouit it doubles the impact.
In the US, my recycling was limited to the aluminim cans and cutting the 6 pack holders. I have gone a step beyond since living in Europe.
Just small drops; there is always much,much more to be done.

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Michael May 21, 2012 at 9:58 am

It seems like Europe has been ahead of the US in this area but some parts of the rest of the world are still lagging. It’s seeing all the trash on the beaches that really hit us.

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Jim @NeverStopTraveling May 21, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I know this is totally off-topic from this (very good) post but I just read your post “The child vendors of Angkor Wat” on Philly.com and want to tell you it’s excellent. Hope to catch up with you again sometime in the future.

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Michael May 22, 2012 at 4:24 am

Thanks for your comments Jim. Here’s the link to the story about the moral dilemma we faced when approached by the child vendors of Angkor Wat: http://www.changesinlongitude.com/angkor-wat-child-vendors/

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Mar May 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I agree that plastic should not be used because it has a petrochemical base. But what do I do with the trash I want to throw out. We used to get paper bags to wrap garbage in. But we also had a more frequent garbage pick up. Now we don’t get paper bags at all except at Trader Joe’s, but I save them to recycle paper.

I stood behind a woman who brought her own cloth bags to the supermarket. I asked her what she did with her garbage. She told me that she bought plastic bags for the garbage. Duh! I use the plastic bags from the supermarket. In fact, I am hoarding my plastic bags for the day my state bans plastic bags the way California has. Has anyone an answer to my dilemma?

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Michael May 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

What did you do before plastic bags became so prevalent?

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Mar May 29, 2012 at 7:42 pm

I believe we used paper bags. But stores don’t carry paper bags except for Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Many people do not like paper bags because they fear a roach problem from bags being stored in warehouses. I don’t subscribe to a newspaper anymore so I don’t have newspaper to wrap it in. That is not a solution because unless garbage is wrapped in many layers of paper, meal worms start to grow rapidly and that can be a disgusting sight as I learned many years ago when our garbage was only picked up once a week.

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Lissie July 15, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Exactly my issue! I use my plastic bags – my brother lives in Ireland where you have to pay for supermarket plastic bags – and yes he too pays for rubbish (plastic) bags!

I don’t really think you can compare WA with the lowest population density in the world, and one of the richest, with Indonesia. Most of the rubbish probably doesn’t come from Bali. In Perth the beaches are cleaned every morning – large tractors are used, its an expensive, 1st world exercise.

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Michael July 15, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Hi Lissie,

That’s interesting news about Western Australia. If they can’t get the exprensive machines in Bali perhaps they could pay people to clean the beaches. It would help the local economy by providing immediate jobs while also aiding tourism.

Cheers,

Michael

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