Crossing land borders in South East Asia has been unusually stressful this trip thanks to the big bag of white powder I am carrying in my rucksack. No we are not funding our trip by an ill advised foray into drug smuggling but trying to travel plastic free. Plastic free means no plastic toothpaste tubes so we have brought a sack of home-made tooth powder with us. While carrying tightly wrapped packs of dentifrice may be innocent, it sure doesn’t look it and I dread the day I have to explain to some grim-faced custom official. The response I fear involves rubber gloves.
So why do it? Well we are visiting wild and remote places, the kind of places you have to walk to. Places with no garbage collection service and your rubbish goes onto the village dump just out-of-town. A system that has been in place forever and that used to work. In the old days of course most trash was biodegradable, animals would eat it or it would compost down, it was safe to burn and the ashes could be used as fertilizer. The system was not perfect, but people have lived like this for centuries and maintained sustainable landscapes. The introduction of plastic rubbish has changed everything.
Plastic rubbish remains intact for hundreds of years. It cannot be eaten, does not dissolve and it is difficult to burn. When it does eventually break up or degrade, it only breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. Disposing of plastic is a big and expensive job. It has to be collected up and buried in landfill or incinerated. Some plastics can be recycled but only a small percentage are. Whatever your method of plastic disposal, it requires amongst other things a decent infrastructure, some roads, machinery, power and vehicles. You don’t get all that the places we go.
So now the ditches alongside the rice paddies are choked with plastic crisp bags, the beaches littered with plastic water bottles and plastic bags cover huge swathes of land. Evil smelling bonfires of smoldering plastic trash are now as much a part of the backpacker experience as tinkling temple bells. These filthy fires add to air pollution and global warming and worse – certain types of plastic, when burnt, release dioxin, a known human carcinogen and one the most potent.
We don’t want to leave a pile of everlasting trash in the places we visit so we boycott plastic disposables. Here’s how:
Our plastic free backpack list
We use a Steripen to purify our own water and so cut out those pesky plastic bottles. This fantastic bit of kit works by UV light, weighs next to nothing and is tiny and purifies water in 90 seconds. if you bought only one thing….
Of course then you need to take water bottles
Because so much street food comes in disposables we take
We say no to plastic straws in drinks, which leads to some interesting mimes. Next time we will take our own straws
Our wash bag looks like this….
We use hydrogen peroxide for treating wounds and mouthwash
And the heroin tooth powder for cleaning our teeth
I make my own creams and lotions WHILE travelling -check out Making cream in Bangkok
We use a solid shampoo cuts down on more bottles. Lush (www.lush.com ) do some but we use bar soap – it works fine
We shop at local markets and bakeries for unpacked tasty plastic free snacks and we take our own bags to put them in including a reusable carrier bag.
We use re-chargeable batteries for all the techie stuff.
Follow the links to see where we got our stuff ( all over the place)