Plastic Attack in Thailand
The other day, I awoke in Chiang Mai ‘s morning haze and strolled the cobbled streets to a nearby market, where I knew I’d find the best breakfast around. I bought a lump of sticky rice, a slice of salted fish, and a zesty nam prik ong (spicy tomato pork relish), which came with an array of fresh cucumber, eggplant, cilantro and wingbeans for dipping. I’m not a Cornflakes gal, and I’m not afraid of fermented fish before noon.
I took my stash around the corner to a quiet temple with picnic tables beneath squawking mynas and an awning of leafy trees. As I sank into the goods, I began counting plastic bags: one for the rice, another for the fish, a third for the veggies, a fourth for the relish and a big one to carry my load. Had I purchased a juice, I would have received a plastic bottle, a plastic straw and yet another plastic bag.
Welcome to Thailand. I can always tell I’m in this country by a quick glance at the sewers clogged with polyethylene and the ditches blooming in fluttery white and blue. Our planet is choking on plastic, and Southeast Asia’s urban eating habits don’t help. Much of the mess around us comes from food-supermarket acquisitions to street-food meals.
Let’s say you rent a condo in Chiang Mai (as my husband and I did a while back) and you don’t feel like cooking (as we frequently didn’t). You (or we) head to the night market and return in a jiffy with tons o’food. But it takes a long, long time to unwrap the tasty morsels cached in all that plastic. Those nights, we averaged eight bags a meal: one for fish, another for curry, a third for pickled veggies, a plastic sheath for rice and a separate bag to carry it, a tiny parcel for fish sauce, another for chile paste; all nestled inside one colossal container. Now multiply those eight bags times the dozens of people living in our building and the hundreds on our street and the thousands in the neighborhood of a city topping 150,000 in a country of 67 million. Then, let’s say all of your neighbors burn their plastic bags along with all of their other garbage-which is what a lot of people in Chiang Mai still do.
It adds up. Factories worldwide belch out trillions of plastic shopping bags every year. According to the Worldwatch Institute, North America and Western Europe account for 80 percent of those in use, though Asia produces a quarter of all plastic bags used by wealthy nations. Americans alone toss out 100 billion polyethylene bags annually. Plastics are “so convenient,” Worldwatch reports, “it’s hard to imagine life without them.”
But try, because more and more governments (local, national) are implementing laws aimed in that direction. San Francisco banned plastic supermarket bags in 2007, and the nation’s capital implemented a 5-cent fee on plastic bags this year. (Initial reports indicate a sharp decline in bag use since the law went into effect.) Meanwhile, environmentalists say China saved 1.6 million tons of oil by requiring customers to pay for plastic bags and banning ultra-thins.
India has its green zones, too. In Darjeeling and Sikkim, public signs note fines of varying degrees to be levied against plastic-sack scofflaws. Plastic is an evil scourge upon humankind, the government preaches. Even the poorest street vendors understand that plastic costs you twice: first to buy it, second to remove filthy colorful wads from plugged sewers and water supplies. Instead, market goods are wrapped in old notebook pages, tea is poured into terracotta cups, street snacks are sold in bowls of compressed leaves, and clean laundry is wrapped in last week’s news (which is how my husband and I learned two days after the fact about a bombing near our hotel in Guwahati).
A couple of years ago, I spent a month in Kolkata, and every day I’d stop for at a sweet tea on the street. The ground would crunch beneath my feet, red dust caking the pavement from so many earthen cups tossed to the roadside. Eventually the powder would be swept into piles or abraded so thoroughly it would return to the earth unnoticed. The lifespan of clay lags far behind that of plastic.
But unfortunately, ditching the bag won’t solve all of our synthetic problems. As Alan Weisman writes in The World Without Us, our oceans are awash in microscopic plastics that pollute jellyfish bodies and permeate the fat tissues of puffins. In 50 years, the world has made more than 1 billion tons of plastic, every speck still here, gradually swept to sea and eroded “by that slow mechanical action-waves and tides that grind against shorelines, turning rocks into beaches.”
Turning bags into eternal bits.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook