What can travellers do about it?

We may have the idyllic beach summers we’ve always dreamed of this year, but there are scarier things in the water than sharks and jellyfish.


Lots of plastic. About 12 million tons of plastic debris are poured into the world’s oceans every year, and an estimated 1.3 billion tons more will flood the oceans in the next two decades. At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all fish in the ocean by weight by 2040.

A huge threat to marine life is all the nets, lines, ropes and hooks lost at sea, most of them from smaller trawlers and boats. CSIRO estimates the missing line will circle the globe eighteen times. Even if fish are lost or discarded, the net will effectively continue to pick up fish, entangle and trap sea life and birds large and small.

Not just mosquito nets, polystyrene, plastic bags, bottles, straws and wrapping materials. Microplastics smaller than 5mm are a huge threat as they move through the food chain and the toxins ingested by marine life are ingested by us. Microplastics are barely visible and impossible to collect in beach cleanups like discarded fast food containers.

Things got worse. In a small research project in the Netherlands, microplastics were found in the blood of 80 percent of subjects tested. We don’t yet know the effects on body organs or whether they stay in our bloodstream.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been to the coasts of Asia, especially Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, that nearly 81 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from Asia.

When I was last in Vietnam, the rocks along the coast were the collection points for local market packaging and general household waste. It’s environmental damage, and more importantly no one seems interested in doing anything about it.

In my own life, I’ve been inundated with plastic. There are so many things, from the pens I use to write on to the plastic trays my Iced Vovos go in.

The beauty and pharmaceutical industries are to blame. From toothpaste to plastic bottles, unnecessary packaging to beauty products, the industry has been, and will continue to be, profligate. I rummaged through my bathroom shelf and found a tsunami of plastic. Even the medicines come in plastic blister packs.

Small personal solutions to getting rid of single-use plastics—using shampoo bars, toothpaste tablets, reusable coffee cups, waxed cloths—seem futile. I always carry mesh bags with me when I shop, and I avoid buying things online because they always come with excess packaging. But there are few realistic alternatives to household items sold in non-recyclable plastic.

People who tried to do the right thing were let down by corporations and governments. The recent REDcycle debacle has led to a collapse in soft plastic recycling in supermarkets, leading to an extreme lack of trust in the recycling system.

It’s so bad, you’d think we as a society would do everything we can to reduce the manufacture and use of plastic, yet the fossil fuel industry plans to increase plastic production by 40% over the next decade. Of course they do.

In the travel industry, airlines, cruise lines and major hotel groups are finally starting to reduce plastic, albeit slowly. Now it’s accelerating, not so much because of complaints from conscientious travelers, but because of a strong sense of economics—companies are increasingly demanding green certification from hotels to meet their own environmental benchmarks.

Hotel plastics are only a small part of the problem, though. I’m in Cambodia now, and like its neighbor Vietnam, the countryside is a dumping ground for plastic that seeps into the Mekong and sea.

Often, it is left to charities, small tour operators and NGOs to try and stem the tide. What can concerned travelers do? Our best effort is to support worthy organizations such as the Pure Ocean Fund, Plastic Oceans and Surfrider Foundation, as well as local operators we meet on our travels who are courageously working on projects like ocean cleanups or mangrove restoration.

The good news is that Australia has just joined a coalition of 20 countries that want to end plastic pollution by 2040, with a binding target of phasing out plastic waste products by 2025.

It needs to work because we’re all drowning.


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