When I lived in Thailand, everything came in a plastic bag. Iced coffees in takeaway cups: bagged; fresh fruit from the market: double bagged. The one that always killed me was when I would stop into a 7-Eleven post-run on a humid evening, red faced and dripping with sweat. I would grab a plastic water bottle—tap water was unsafe to drink where I lived—from the glass wall of refrigerators, and as I fumbled with my cash, trying to remain respectful to the king despite my sweaty palms, the bottle would be swiftly bagged with a plastic straw (also wrapped in plastic). I would chug the bottle down outside the store and guiltily toss the empty bottle, bag, and unused straw in the bin. Approximately 25 seconds of non-use and now that plastic is just bouncing around the earth forever. Cool use of resources, huh?
Here is some food for thought right from the top: every piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists in some form today. With this absurd and alarming fact in my head, I endeavored to focus on reducing my contribution to single-use plastic waste this month.
And let me tell you: it was really hard. And uncomfortable. And eye-opening. Just as focusing on food waste forced me to slow down, an attempt at minimizing my use of single-use plastics forced me to question my habits and consume more consciously. February was not the first time I became aware of my plastic problem, but it was the first time I tried to keep it top of mind consistently, adjusting behaviors accordingly. Once you start looking, you can’t not notice its egregiousness.
Korea’s plastic problem
As I described in my post on food waste, a pay-as-you-waste system is implemented in Korea in an effort to discourage all waste production. City-specific garbage bags must be purchased (that’s the “pay” part) and used to dispose of waste. Essentially, the more waste you produce the more bags you must purchase, incentivizing less waste production. Recycling service is typically provided in the cost of rent, and is therefore seen as the cheaper option whenever possible.
Let me preface what I am about to say with this: I am just one person, and this is simply my personal experience. I am at an extreme disadvantage as far as investigating goes, since I do not speak Korean. I also live in a small town in the country, not the Seoul metropolis that people imagine when they think of Korea. But this has been my reality.
To me, it feels like there is trash everywhere in Korea. While the waste system I described sounds good and progressive, honestly none of this is what I have experienced living in the small, mountainous town of Muju and traveling within my province. It is true that I must purchase the waste-specific trash bags, but these overflowing bags are in turn left all over the sidewalk, along the rivers, and in alleyways with boxes, broken furniture, and other non-specific bags filled with trash.
Americans whisk their trash away to landfills—out of site, out of mind—and I can’t help but feel like this hiding away only exacerbates the waste problem there. To my American eye, the ever growing piles so blatantly out in the open here force me to be hyperaware of how much waste is being produced. I can only wonder if its constant presence has the same effect for locals, or if it’s overlooked as the norm.
When you go into the grocery stores it is really no surprise that people generate so much trash. To its credit, Korea does do a better job than Thailand did with the bagging situation, having banned single-use plastic bags in 2019. Large stores do not offer plastic bags as a default; instead, reusable bags or repurposed boxes (think Costco) are encouraged, and plastic “trash” bags can be purchased for a fee, and then reused as the aforementioned trash bags.
However, I am not exaggerating when I say that everything here feels like it is wrapped in plastic. There is the obvious, of course: widely consumed instant ramen in Styrofoam cups, wrapped in plastic; convenience store snacks of onigiri rice balls and kimbap (think: sushirrito); chips, cookies, candies, and snacks all individually wrapped in plastic and then wrapped again, together, in more plastic. Think of any junk food aisle: that.
But then there are the less obvious packaging paradoxes that are more frustrating for someone who can do an okay job at foregoing the processed snacks. At all of of the grocery stores in my small town, as well as most others that I have visited within the country, produce is pre-portioned onto Styrofoam trays and wrapped in a length of plastic wrap. Bananas, lemons, and broccoli are some of the produce you cannot buy just one of, package free.
And it gets worse. Individual pieces of produce are often wrapped in plastic wrap as well: one carrot, one pumpkin, one zucchini. I have heard the argument for this kind of extreme packaging extending the shelf life of a fragile cucumber, but I am not buying that something as hearty as a pumpkin needs to be plastic wrapped for safety. Styrofoam is recycled here; plastic wrap is too flimsy and useless for that, so it meets a quick death after shielding my root vegetables.
Living abroad I have had many, “Haha – why is it like this?” moments, but this is one of those times where I actually feel exasperated… like WHY? Why is there so much unnecessary packaging?!
And then I remember that this is not a phenomenon unique to Korea, or Asia for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Trader Joe’s (and I miss it, often, desperately), but this “WHY?” feeling is the same feeling that I would often get buying produce at Trader Joe’s. Or when I would get a burrito to-go: wrapped in foil, placed in a paper bag, and dropped into a plastic bag for carry-out. Or when I would order a coffee “for here” and be given a plastic-lined paper cup (I’m looking at you, Starbucks).
Remembering all of these instances from home keeps things in perspective: it’s not just Korea that has a plastic problem. It’s all of us. In reality, the much larger, more throwaway United States has a bigger problem and, therefore, a bigger opportunity to correct it.
What to do?
Lest this entire blog post consist of my griping, I do want to focus on what can be done, both by me here and you, wherever you are in the world. The first thing I challenged myself to do in the quest for less plastic waste was to slow down and think about my purchases. This month was not the first time I had ever considered plastic to be a problem, but it is the first month that I really took the time to rethink my own automatic behaviors. Much like cutting off the broccoli stems—check out my post on food waste to get that reference—there are plastic-covered habits we all have simply because we have always done them that way.
So, I challenge you to slow down and reevaluate your own habits. Can you take your coffee for-here instead of to-go? What about your lunch? You can absolutely bring reusable containers to solve the same problem, but why not treat yourself to 20 minutes of you time? (Hint: this is a perfect time to get some reading in if you have set a reading goal for the year).
In rethinking your habits, also rethink the business practices of the places you frequent; vote with your dollar! If you know Starbucks will give you a to-go cup regardless, support a local coffee shop instead. Chances are, you will get a better, plastic-free cup of a coffee while supporting your neighbors. You could even go wild and get a French press to start brewing your own plastic-free coffee at home! Before you know it, you will have formed a smarter, more intentional coffee habit.
Another lifestyle habit to get into is to plan ahead. To avoid the temptation of a quick and easy plastic wrapped convenience store lunch, this month I tried to plan my snacking ahead of time. This meant bringing a PB&J along to the gym (in the year-old reusable sandwich bag I brought from home that is still going strong), in anticipation of the inevitable post-gains hunger. Bonus: buying snacks in bulk, and always having a small container of them on hand, is a healthier choice that saves you money.
As far as avoiding supermarket plastics in Korea goes, I have been unsuccessful in finding a way to avoid them, so long as I want to continue eating. I have defaulted to always picking what I can from the discount section first, with the intention of at least salvaging some food —making an effort to reduce food waste—even if that still means using more plastic than I would like. This whole experience has gotten me curious and excited about utilizing reusable produce bags and bulk bins when I get back to Portland (stay tuned for that future blog post).
Despite this “failure,” a valuable lesson can be gleaned nonetheless: sometimes in making sustainable choices you can’t address every problem at once, or in addressing one problem you ignore another. It can be infuriating, but I urge you not to get frustrated. It all starts with a shift in mindset; each of these suggestions follows the common philosophy of living a simple life: be intentional. Let that—and not your fear of doing it “wrong”—guide you.
I am a strong advocate for the idea that change happens as a result of many people taking small steps. However, I can’t ignore that large changes can come from big actors, like governments and companies, stepping in as well. Countries like Korea, Bangladesh, and Italy (and eight US states, including Oregon) have implemented plastic bag bans; to my surprise and delight, Thailand enacted a bag ban at large retailers, like 7-Eleven, at the beginning of 2020!
American Airlines started phasing out single-use plastic straws, flatware, and drink-stirrers from their flights and lounges in 2018. United and Alaska both have similar in-flight bans. Even McDonald’s switched to paper straws in its UK and Ireland stores (though these straws are not recyclable). This looks good for companies—look, we are eco-friendly!—but don’t overlook the industries these companies reside in and the major contributions air travel and meat production have on the climate crisis. Remember what I said about solving one problem but ignoring another? Here we are again.
While some countries and companies lead the charge, and others greenwash or face unexpected repercussions, one thing remains constant: you are responsible for your own behaviors. If your state, or country, has not issued a bag ban, no problem—you can lead the charge and use a reusable bag anyways. Say no to the straw: biodegradable or not, you probably do not need it. Rethink the habit, and create a new one. Individual actions make a difference and start a conversation.
March: Digital Declutter
While January and February both focused on gigantic, systemic issues with far reaching effects, March’s simple living intention is going to shift inward. Inspired by an episode of The Sustainable Minimalists Podcast, I am going to take this month to embark on a digital declutter. I am going to focus on my personal social media and phone use, declutter my photos, files and digital life, and take a step towards living more simply in this realm; my intention is to free up mental space, time, and build better habits than scrolling, clicking, and liking.
If you are interested in learning more about the plastic problem, some places to start might include:
- Watching this YouTube video One Month Without Single Use Plastics by One Small Step;
- Watching this short YouTube video on the pros and cons of banning single-use plastic bags also by One Small Step;
- Reading Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry (full disclosure: I am still on hold at the library);
- Checking out 100 Steps to a Plastic Free Life from Beth Terry’s blog, if you don’t want to read the whole book.
If you are interested in doing your own digital declutter, I would recommend:
- Reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport.