Recently I moved from a quiet village in the Netherlands to Beijing in China. Although I have been here before, the city is developing so fast that it still takes time and energy to adjust. Summer is very hot here, around 30-35 degrees pretty much every day. For someone used to western/northern European temperatures, this is quite challenging. Add to that the pressure from work and the many cultural/linguistic differences, admittedly living plastic-free is not always on the top of my priority list. I do my best however and try to avoid plastic as much as I can. For those of you who too have moved to a new place and are dealing with many new things at the same time, here are some tips to still stick to a plastic-free lifestyle as much as possible.
Be prepared: Bring your own water bottle, shopping bags, produce bags, food containers
Although I almost exceeded the 23 kg limit for my luggage on the plane, I still decided to bring several reusable shopping bags, a handful of produce bags, as well as several stainless steel containers and of course my water bottle. Whenever I leave the house, I always brings these with me. Small effort, big savings.
When in Rome…
There may be solutions that are not available in the place you previously lived. By observing locals, or simply asking what locals do, you can find new solutions to old problems or solutions for new problems.
To take an example from Beijing, it is not advisable to drink tap water because of the water’s questionable quality. When walking around our compound, we saw how people filled big reusable water vessels at a water vending machine. Much more environmentally friendly than buying bottled water.
Find a market
Markets are great places for plastic free food. We are lucky to have a grocery store downstairs, but for eggs we go to a local market. It’s a bit of a walk, but well, a bit of exercise doesn’t hurt. I also buy sesame oil and sesame sauce here and return the glass bottles. Same for egg boxes. I find that salespeople at markets are often more accommodating regarding my plastic-free requests. If you don’t know where to find a market, use the internet or simply ask your neighbors.
Ask for plastic-free alternatives
Sometimes it’s difficult to find plastic-free items. An example here is tofu. This always comes in plastic, even if you buy it fresh, non-prepackaged. I noticed however, that people are very willing to help if you explain what you want (tofu in my stainless steel food container rather than in a plastic bag). Sometimes you need to be persistent (“but the bag is free, we don’t charge for it!”), but as long as you remain calm and polite, I find that people often help out.
During my previous stay in Beijing I had a deal with a local fruit store that they would keep some avocados unwrapped. They used to wrap these individually every morning… Sometimes such requests resonate with other customers who then also start paying attention to the problem of plastic, for example by saying no to plastic bags.
Learn some basic vocabulary
If you move to a place where you do not know the language, make sure to learn some basic words so that you can explain that you do not want to have that bag. This does not have to be very complicated, a simply “no thank you” can make a world of a difference, as well as the word for “environmentally friendly” or something similar.
Refuse and reduce
Some products that are easy to find plastic-free in some places are impossible to find in others. An example here in Beijing is washing powder. It always comes in plastic. Of course I could go to the expat supermarket and buy washing powder in a cardboard box that is imported from Germany and pay six times as much for it, but this doesn’t make much sense to me especially since such stores are an hour away from where I live. Previously, I have used other solutions like baking soda, but this is also not available plastic-free in a nearby store. Same for simple, regular soap or soap nuts. So instead I opt to use less. Same for dish wash detergent. I try to use less and buy bigger bottles, which makes for less plastic per unit product. For other products, such as avocados, I simply stopped buying them. Better from an overall environmental perspective too, because they are usually imported from elsewhere.
Be nice to yourself, but don’t give up
It’s easy to despair when you seem to be the only one caring about the plastic problem. Sometimes it takes quite some effort to go to the market and buy everything plastic-free. I feel the same. Be nice to yourself, do your best and forgive yourself when you are too tired to care about plastic. When I have had a stressful day at work or am overheated because Beijing’s climate, I am too tired to cook a proper meal and simply get take-away snacks. Not very healthy and not very good from a plastic-free perspective because these usually come in plastic bags. Not ideal at all, but this is unfortunately sometimes my reality. Nevertheless, I do not give up and stick to my plastic-minimalism as much as I can.
What are your tips for living plastic-free in the first weeks after relocating to a new place?