How I woke up to plastic

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Plastic damages our environment. It makes living a happy live nearly impossible for the countless creatures in the oceans. This week Jan from Ireland (but currently living in the Netherlands) shares how she realized we must #StopThePlasticWasteStream. Plastic creates huge problems, all around the world. Thankfully, we all can do something about it by not buying any plastic and not throwing any plastic away. Start with one day a week. It will be an eye-opener. Do you want to share your plastic story too? Please get in touch with us through social media or by leaving a message below. Thanks!

My desire to reduce my plastic footprint began when I woke up to its devastating impact on the natural world.

The day before Christmas Eve last year, I was on a little wooden ferry boat approaching Koh Rong Samloen, a tiny island off the coast of Cambodia. The island I saw before me was a beautiful paradise – luscious jungle lined with a white sandy shore. My eyes, used to a gray human-constructed cement world, were soaking in the sight of beautiful untouched nature. I could see only slight traces of human construction, a few wooden huts dotting the beach and the small rickety wooden pier that our boat would arrive on.

Paradise Island

As I walked along the pier towards the beach, I noticed hundreds of shoals of colourful fish swimming in the shallows. Entranced by the synchronised movements of the fish, I watched as they navigated around the swirling remains of a plastic bag. As I stepped off the pier onto the beach, I avoided standing on a polystyrene container with one foot and then narrowly missed a plastic fork with my other. As I walked along the beach, I saw that the white sand was thoroughly decorated with plastic. There were plastic straws, plastic cups, plastic bags, plastic bottles, polystyrene containers, plastic toys, elastic bands, plastic lids for cups, plastic spoons/forks/knives, plastic fishing nets, and miscellaneous broken pieces of polystyrene and plastic everywhere.

I looked down at the plastic bag I had clutched in my hand. Inside sat my lunch, each sandwich carefully placed in separate polystyrene containers, my tea in a little plastic bag tied with an elastic band, a straw, all waiting to serve my convenience, and to stay on this island forever.

I found out that there had been a Full Moon party a few nights before. Each month, a boat filled with neon-painted tourists conducts a tour of the beautiful ‘untouched’ islands, a round-trip that brings them back to the mainland by the morning. The tourists have their ‘full moon experience’ and the tour operators make some money. Neither the tourists, nor the tour operator appeared to take responsibility for the plastic trail left in their wake. Did I take responsibility for my waste when I came here with my plastic-wrapped lunch? The question of responsibility is conveniently hazy once you’ve deposited your waste in the bin. Was the waste I produced still my responsibility when it was emptied from the bin in my room into the growing pile of waste hidden behind the resort? I was starting to realise it was.

In our capitalist world, we are encouraged from every angle to consume. “Consume, consume, consume,” chants the subconscious motto as we go about our day, ingrained in our brains from an early age. This superficial money-driven world forever seeks to move onwards and upwards. In order for it to move onwards and upwards, the people in that world have to keep spending money and consuming. It makes sense that our attention is never drawn to the waste produced by this consuming lifestyle. If people saw the physical waste trail left behind them, they might well be horrified by it and decide to consume less from now on. So our waste is taken from us, hidden in the earth, and behind pleasant buzzwords like “recycling.” If our trails of waste are swept away every morning, the shopping streets are clear for us to swarm towards.

On Koh Rong Samloen island, I was unintentionally presented with an honest view of the waste that I, and other humans like me, produce. A waste-disposal truck does not arrive to the island to move the waste from a pretty place to a hidden place. Plastic plates, cups and cutlery probably came to Cambodia’s shores to accommodate the new generation of Lonely-Planet wielding tourists, like me. Tourists are advised, “Don’t risk food poisoning! Use disposables!”

My Christmas on the island was unforgettable. It was the most beautiful natural place I had been, but I felt guilty for being there. When I swam in the sea, I rescued little fish that were trapped in plastic bags. When I walked along the beach, I picked up little plastic objects and toys I found to give to the kids who lived at the resort I was staying in. We decorated a make-shift Christmas tree with various plastic objects. I considered picking up some rubbish. But then I imagined the Full Moon crew arriving the next month to re-decorate the beach with plastic, so I didn’t do anything. I felt a little overwhelmed, torn between enjoying my holiday and mulling over newly-awakened moral questions. Now, with insight, I know lots of things I could have, and should have done.

I returned to my life, post-holiday, with a seed of waste-awareness firmly planted in my mind. I read about waste, watched some documentaries and learned about the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I thought of all the plastic debris sitting on the shore of the island, waiting for a wave to pull it out to the ocean, and I couldn’t help but cry.

When I go to the supermarket now, I can see the plastic. I am aware of it, when before it was invisible to me. I can’t help but feel guilty when I buy something wrapped in plastic, so I try to avoid it when possible. I smile at the sometimes disgruntled look of the shopkeeper as she eyes my apples rolling around the conveyor belt loosely. I have found that I can buy every food I truly need without plastic. For other things, I have to be more imaginative – like making my own tortilla wraps with a bag of flour and some water, instead of buying them pre-made. An unforeseen bonus for me is that my diet has become much healthier since avoiding plastic. Most processed food can only be bought in plastic. Making food yourself ensures that all of the preservatives and the other strange chemicals found in pre-made food are not swirling around your body, doing weird things to your nervous system. I hope that I will be able to relearn the lost skills of our ancestors, and be able to grow most of my own food some day.

The only thing I have had to sacrifice from time to time is my ‘convenience,’ which I am happy to do. It has only led me to slow down and to realise that I did so much rushing around before that I never had a chance to even notice what I was doing. A cup of tea is only worth drinking if you can sit down with it and fully enjoy it. Drinking tea from a disposable cup while walking is a truly terrible experience in comparison.

This one seed of waste-awareness has led to many other seeds of awareness being planted in my mind. There are many destructive things that we do as a result of habit in our lives, and we don’t stop to question why we do them. It is not really your fault or mine. I don’t believe that we set out to cause harm by being alive. We are taught by a system that depends on keeping us busy and ignorant. A strange and abstract system that exists, but doesn’t have to, if you sit down to enjoy your ceramic cup of tea and think about it.

Have a happy Plastic-Free Tuesday!
Jan Campbell

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3 Comments

  1. Marlies

    Dear Jan,

    What a great story! And I think very recognizable for anyone who has started to open their eyes to the plastic problem and tried to get more educated and aware of it.

    I also recognised myself in the additional seeds of awareness planted along side of cutting down on plastic. I’ve become decidedly more zero-waste generally, despite ‘only’ setting out to cut out all single use plastics. I am nearly at that point actually, and in much shorter time than I thought I would be. Also, besides the first few weeks when I really had to looks at things differently, it has not been so hard either. I now wear my ‘plastic glasses’ to look at most (new) places and see immediately what’s plastic or not. Makes shopping easier in a way, fewer choices :-). Yet, besides plastic, I find it interesting that I’ve unexpectedly come to pay more attention to saving water, saving energy and putting chemicals down the drain as well. All of it starts with rethinking and challenging consumption generally I think, as you rightly say! I hope that by getting people into a relatively simple thing as Plastic-Free Tuesdays the whole process of rethinking is started for more people.

    As said, thanks for sharing your amazing story. I’ve become shocked to read the stories from people in the Asia-Pacific area or small islands, they have so much plastic on their beaches! It seems much more than on the Dutch beaches, or European beaches generally. I am sure this is not because locals are so much more pollutive over there, it’s a large part that they get stuck with our waste either over land through irresponsible consumptive tourism or through the currents of the sea. It’s just sad. Also for wild life on islands not inhabited by humans at all, plastic travels anywhere. 🙁

    I hope many more stories like yours will follow here. And I love to hear more about your efforts as well! 🙂

    Marlies

    • I couldn’t agree more with both of you. Reducing my plastic footprint has been such an enriching and rewarding experience. Cutting down plastic consumption and waste has been an eye-opener. This is why we launched Plastic-Free Tuesday. I hope that through one day of no plastic consumption, no plastic waste many more people will become aware of the problems of plastic pollution and I truly believe that once you have used the “plastic spectacles,” life will never be the same again. Let’s do our best to get more people on board. Thanks Jan for writing such an inspiring and thought provoking story!

  2. Marlies and Annemieke,

    Thanks for your replies 🙂 I love your term “plastic glasses!” It’s exactly it, being able to see the plastic. And funny how becoming aware of plastic seems to naturally lead onto different awarenesses as well like saving water etc. I now try to avoid paper waste too, like bringing old egg cartons to the market to fill with eggs. I’m hoarding all my old paper waste to turn into handmade paper for my art 🙂 It’s so satisfying to hardly ever fill my bin. I think Plastic Free Tuesday is a wonderful idea for getting people to ease into the idea of living plastic free – once people see how easy it is to avoid plastic for one day, they will want to avoid plastic everyday! Jan

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