Travel & Expat Blog


Cut The Cr@p & Stop Wish-Cycling: How To Reduce Plastic Pollution

The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels we need, the more we exacerbate climate change.
WWF Australia

Have you looked into your green rubbish bin recently? I did. As an avid recycler, I noticed that my recycling bin was constantly overflowing with rubbish and I was having to empty it virtually every day. In comparison, my regular trash was always a fraction of the size. When I started pulling it apart, the biggest culprit was plastic waste.

In an effort to reduce my carbon footprint by 45% this year, I’ve been looking at ways to make an impactful difference at home. So I took inspiration from the pits of my garbage and decided to reduce, reuse and recycle my plastic trash better.

We all know that plastic is severely polluting our waterways, at the speed of 8 million tonnes each year, but I wanted to learn about it’s effects on climate change. I also wanted to find out where my trash really goes, and what food manufacturers, supermarkets & the government are doing to tackle the plastic crisis. Some of my findings were positive, and some left me a little stunned.

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

From my research, I found out that plastic is the most carbon un-friendly material in the world today. Not only is it made from fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas, but it’s whole manufacturing process- from extraction, to refining, production and recycling- creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. And it’s production is only expected to increase.

Petrochemical companies like Exxon Mobile who produce these plastics can make up to 10 tonnes every second, and with the demand for it only increasing worldwide, they have projected a 3 fold increase by 2050. Plastic is a multi-billion dollar payout for the industry and they thrive on our reliance for it.

ExxonMobil-refinery-Baytown-Texas-America-US-plastic-pollution ] Travel Mermaid

Last year I watched a documentary called Recycling Sham on Netflix about plastic pollution and recycling which really opened my eyes. I always knew plastic pollution was a problem, but I didn’t realise just how bad things had got.

It spoke of how only 9% of all the plastic ever created has ever been recycled, and that most of what we put into our green bin is “wish-cycling”- i.e. I wish it was recyclable, therefore I’ll recycle it. I was definitely guilty of that!

It also showed me how companies like Exxon have so much power and money that they even managed to overturn a law in a region of Texas that banned plastic bags. What scumbags.

Sadly, plastic has infiltrated through our society on every level and I only have to look around me to see how reliant I am on it.

jungle hiking in Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur //

Plastic Pollution & Global Warming

The connection between plastic pollution and recycling in relation to CO2 hasn’t got much airtime. But plastic’s footprint starts during it’s inception in the oil extraction phase and continues well into the afterlife.

Let’s go back a little.

For the past two decades, it was easier and cheaper for the developed world to sell their plastic waste to China. They recycled plastic scraps for a profit by turning it into new resin to sell to manufacturers. Since the 1990’s, China recycled about three quarters of the world’s plastic trash and their infrastructure expanded exponentially to accommodate for this growing industry.

By 2017, after processing millions of tonnes of plastic per year and seeing air pollution increase due to the illegal burning of excess waste, China banned all imports of plastic scraps and limited other recyclables.

Many developed countries like Australia were then forced to deal with their own garbage. But because the infrastructure here and elsewhere isn’t yet developed enough to deal with it, there’s been a silent rubbish crisis. As a result, recyclable goods have either ended up in landfills or are stockpiled in warehouses. At worst, they’re shipped to Southeast Asia to deal with the problem.

rubbish left by tourists in Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia
Plastic pollution from tourists in Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia

When I moved to Malaysia in 2017, little did I know that it was starting to be utilised as a dumping ground for the Western world. Places like Ipoh and Port Klang just outside of Kuala Lumpur were beginning to see an influx of waste from Australia, the UK, America and countries in between.

Quite rapidly, a large number of illegal and unregulated recycling plants were then erected, and they ended up dumping a lot of the rubbish into junkyards- or they had burned it.

When plastic is burned, not only can it cause a number of health problems like respiratory issues, cancers & infertility, but it emits vast volumes of harmful greenhouse gases. 

A sign on Perhentian Besar island in Malaysia encouraging people to recycle //
Perhentian Besar in Malaysia

On top of that, many countries also choose to incinerate their plastic waste, which is the process of burning it in an incinerator to make electricity. Currently about 42% of all waste in The European Union is managed this way, and about 13% in the US. Whilst working as a distraction from real plastic management solutions, incinerating plastic emits huge amounts of CO2 and pollutes the air with toxic chemicals.

But wait, it gets worse.

View of Masjid Jamek mosque in Kuala Lumpur

When plastic is dumped, we all know that it never really goes away. It just gets smaller and smaller and lasts for over 400 years as microplastics, which is predicted to outnumber fish by 2050.

Although it doesn’t just have to be burned to contribute to global warming.

Firstly, plastic in the ocean gets broken down by heat and sunlight which causes it to release harmful greenhouse gasses like methane- which is even more potent than CO2. If CO2 were a dictator, then it’d be Hitler and methane would be Stalin. Methane traps heat in the atmosphere 30 times more than carbon dioxide.

Perhentian island-Malaysia-30 ] Travel Mermaid

And when plastic enters the water to choke marine life, it also gets eaten by plankton who play an important role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Whilst scientists are still trying to figure out the full effects of plastic pollution on these tiny organisms, one thing is true. If their numbers are jeopardised, then atmospheric carbon will increase. Since our oceans have successfully removed over 40% of carbon from the atmosphere since the start of the industrial era, it’s important to not allow that to change, or let it go tits up.

Aerial shot of Koh Lipe in Thailand
Bioluminescent plankton can be seen off the coast of Koh Lipe

Reducing My Plastic Footprint

Plastic is by far the worst carbon emitter, and it’s a bit like that poo that won’t flush- it’s offensive and it doesn’t go away. But all kind of recyclables contribute to the waste problem, so I’ll be trying to reduce, reuse and recycle all of it with the ‘do I really need that’ mindset.

When Recycling Sham highlighted that most of our trash is wish-cycling, as a starting point I wanted to check whether the plastics I bought were actually getting recycled. Finding this out was a little more complex then I imagined.

Plastic Pollution V Food

On my first trip to the supermarket I found heaps of packaging that had ZERO recycling label on it whatsoever. Often I had to check a product 10 times to see if I was missing something, so this shopping expedition took an extra hour! After a while it became frustrating, and I had to reject a lot of food that didn’t come with a recycling logo.

Occasionally I noticed the ‘chasing arrows recycling symbol’ ♻️ with a number inside 👇🏼, and I thought this meant that the packaging could be recycled. But I later found out that this number just determines what type of plastic it is, as they all have different qualities and properties. To my knowledge, whilst a lot of the 1’s and 2’s are widely accepted by recycling companies, there’s less of a market for the 4’s to 7’s.

I contacted Obela to find out whether their hummus tubs were recyclable but I’ve yet to hear back from them.

What I also discovered is how bad supermarkets are when it comes to plastic waste!!

In Australia the big chains appear to have made some headway over recent years, but they’re still only a fraction of the way into the marathon.

My local supermarket is Coles, so I decided to dig a bit deeper and checked out their Sustainability Document. It includes lots of good targets like reducing excess packaging, diverting 90% of all waste from a landfill and making ‘all Coles Brand packaging’ recyclable by 2020. But considering the amount of their goods I found telling you to throw their plastic packaging in the bin, it’s still a bit wishful thinking (see below).

I contacted Coles on a number of occasions to find out more about their recycling efforts, but they’ve yet to respond. 🤔 Standard.

Coles & Woolworths are far from being the only offenders though. Just look at all this plastic packaging on the Spice Taylor’s curry sauce! 👇🏼🤦🏻‍♀️

I emailed them to find out about their recycling efforts too but have yet to receive a response… of course. 🙄 So I boycotted their sauce in favour of Patak’s curry paste that came in a glass jar, and it was fully recyclable. It also lasted for two curries- double win!

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

Additionally, I’m trying to pick more fresh produce which comes in zero plastic, like loose tomatoes and potatoes. I love this ready-made mashed potato and it’s easier to prepare, but buying fresh spuds reduces my plastic footprint. Planet over plastic right guys. 🙌🏼

And I’ve reduced the amount of sparking water I buy. This accounted for a lot of our plastic waste as we became a bit addicted to it and brought one virtually every day! 🙈 Now we’re on a budget of only two a week, which I sometimes have to remind the Sailor about. I’ll also be rolling it out further to sparkling water that comes in a glass bottle, or invest in a Soda Stream.

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

As I looked in the trolley of the guy next to me in the food isle, it was FILLED with plastic bags carrying loose veggies. To tackle this, I wanted to buy some reusable produce bags, but for the life of me I can’t locate them anywhere nearby! I don’t really want to buy them online because of the CO2 miles, so will wait until I’m in a bigger city to hunt them down.

For now though, I’m getting around it by using the paper mushroom bags if I really need to, even for loose nuts. I’ve also started reusing a cardboard box and taking this to the shops with me to plonk all my fruit and veg in.

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

And if we ever forget our reuse-able bags, this is how we get around it! 😂

Plastic Pollution V The Bathroom

It’s pretty nuts how much plastic is used in the bathroom, and the stats tell us that up to 50% of Brits don’t recycle their bathroom waste!

So I’ve replaced all body wash with bar soap, and this one from Eco Store smells absolutely stunning. 👇🏼😍

All our bin bags are now fully recyclable and compostable too, made from plant-based alternatives.

For my cotton buds, I tried to source some with paper sticks instead of plastic. I was in Chemist Warehouse in Cairns that had some, but they only came in a plastic container which kind of defeats the purpose. So I waited to buy them from my local Coles instead.

#IfAtFirstYouDontSucceedSayNoAndTryAgain #NailedIt #EcoWarrior

In Melbourne at Christmas I also found these cute reusable make-up wipes at the Rose Street Market. So instead of using Simple’s make-up remover wipes made from plastic and cleansing, I just cleanse now using these, then pop it in the washing machine.

These are a fancy version, but they can be easily made from any fabric cut-offs and sewn around the edges to prevent fraying. I’ve even read people who use them as wee wipes! 😄 Maybe one step at a time eh.

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A few weeks ago when I visited my new dentist, I was pleased to see that the clinic takes in recycled toothbrushes- awesome! Most people throw it in the regular bin or it gets severely wish-cycled, both of which end in the same place ~ a landfill.

And not only did they take my old toothbrush, but because I gave it to them, I got half price on my new fully-recyclable bamboo brush. I even refused a cute welcome pack from them that had a plastic toothbrush & other plastic hygiene paraphernalia that came in a plastic toiletry bag. Go me!

Recyclable bamboo toothbrushes from Cairns Precision Dental Group in Queensland, Australia //

Plastic Pollution V Clothes & Fabrics

Synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon and ultimately made from plastic, and a whopping 60% of all clothing worldwide uses it as they’re widely available and cheap.

When synthetics are manufactured, worn and washed at home, they lose tiny microfibers. As these minute plastics can’t be filtered in wastewater treatment plants, we therefore end up drinking it. It can also end up in our oceans, threatening the number of plankton or get eaten by different land animals.

So I’m trying to reduce the amount of clothes, blankets and bedding I buy that are made from synthetics, instead opting for natural materials such as cotton, linen and wool. The first two are ideal for the hot weather anyway. 🤙🏻

My 100% linen and cotton bed covers //

Plastic Pollution V Deliveries

To reduce unnecessary CO2 miles I’m cutting back on the amount of online purchases I make. But when I do need them, I know that Amazon now have a selection whereby you can choose to make ALL future purchases plastic free & with reduced packaging.

To do this, you just need to open up a chat with their customer services and in a request for them to log on your account. Sometimes it’s the little wins.

Amazon's best selling items during the Coronavirus //
Hmm, can you guess we’re in a pandemic?

Plastic Pollution V Travel

And finally, when it comes to travel, I’m often amazed with how crap hotels are with encouraging recycling. Barely ever do I see recycling bins in hotel rooms, and often when I glance at the room service trolley, ALL the recycling and general waste goes into the same bin.

I can’t guarantee that this gets sorted by them later on, so if we ever accumulate any recycling then we take it with us.

Our hotel recycling in Cairns, , Australia //

At this particular hotel in Cairns, I was pleased to see that room service had a recycling bin in the corridor.

We’re still not perfect- on this trip we brought a couple of bottles of water from the vending machine late at night when all the shops were closed. The tap water here is really chlorinated so I try not to drink it, but maybe I need to invest in one of those reusable bottles that also filter the water.

Hotel recycling in Cairns, , Australia //

Otherwise, the city has plenty of free water refill stations in the street and cafes willing to top you up with their filtered H2O!

A filtered water station in Cairns, Australia //

Recycle Through REDcycle

I found quite a few soft plastics at Coles with a Redcycle logo on it, or that had a ‘recycle at participating stores‘ written around the recycling label.

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

When I asked a staff member at Coles what this meant, she pointed to this gorgeous green recycling bin!

If you’re an Aussie resident, have you seen it before? 🤔Until that point I never even knew it existed!

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

Most soft plastics that we wish-cycle cannot actually be recycled in our kerbside bins and end up in a landfill. So REDcycle have set up an initiative that get’s all our crap to partner recycling plants. They’ve teamed up with the big supermarkets like Woolies & Coles and most of their stores now have a collection bin in them.

But even knowing about the REdcycle program, I still found plenty of soft plastic packaging telling you to throw it in the bin! 🤦🏻‍♀️

how-to-reduce-plastic-waste-and-recycle-effectively-sustainable-lifestyle ] Travel Mermaid

So I contacted Perfection Fresh Australia (who produce these tomatoes) to ask them about their packaging and low and behold, they responded! 🙌🏼

I asked if they were planning on making their soft plastic film recyclable. Surprisingly, they told me that they are. They said all their plastic can be recycled in the REDcycle bins, which is confusing to say the least.

Apparently, like many other food producers, they’re still waiting to become a member of the REDcycle program. But even without being a member, I can put their soft plastic film into their collection bin.

In fact, if you have any soft plastics that can be scrunched into a ball, then it can go into the RED bin.

A mojito cocktail with a reusable metal straw //

The Aussie Government’s Response To The Plastic Crisis

The Australian government has introduced new recycling targets for 2025 to help reduce plastic pollution and better manage waste.

One of their aims is for all Aussie & New Zealand packaging to include a new Recycling Label. Therefore all manufacturers will need to have their packaging properly assessed to be able to show these symbols and many are currently in the process. But it’s taking time to roll out the old stock, so remember your RED bin!

plastic packaging that cannot be recycled //

Whilst the new labels are great, there’s still plenty of imported goods that have ZERO recycling regulations or symbols, so this will only be good for Australian products.

Another aim is for 70% of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted.

Okay, so some effort is being made here, but whether we can achieve this target is another matter entirely. And 70% still accounts for nearly 200 thousand tonnes of waste per year in Australia, so we’ve all got some work to do.

Herberton-Heritage-Village-museum-Atherton-Tablelands-North-Queensland-Australia ] Travel Mermaid
Simpler life: a century ago plastic was yet to be invented ~ @ Herberton Heritage Village

As I was writing this piece in March, I also heard the Aussie PM Scott Morrison declare further targets to combat our plastic footprint. He mentioned that he wanted to stop exporting all our recycling to other countries– finally! Now we’re getting somewhere.

He even admitted that only 12% of the plastic we put into our kerbside bin is actually being recycled, and announced his desire to improve recycling infrastructure in Australia so that all plastic can be managed here.

* * *

Planet or Plastic?

Since I’ve enforced a stricter ‘Reduce & Reuse’ before you ‘Recycle’ policy, my plastic footprint has drastically decreased. I was having to empty my recycling bin almost every day, but it’s not full until every 3rd or 4th day.

There’s a long way to go before I can become a complete zero-waster, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. But I’m proudly doing my bit and reducing plastic pollution in my own little way.

In the words of Kathryn Kellog (of no relation to the cereal) who is a zero waste advocate– ‘it’s not about perfection, it’s about making better choices‘.

Now when I go to buy something in the supermarket that doesn’t have a recycling logo, or that says to put the plastic in the bin, I ask myself, ‘Planet or Plastic?’ It’s not difficult to know which one wins.

washing recycling at home //

Recap: Some Plastic Waste Non-Negotiables

  • reduce & reuse first before you recycle
  • try to always carry a reusable water bottle
  • always use reusable shopping bags (or carry purchases out in your hands like a ninja!)
  • use ZERO plastic bags in the supermarket- not even for nuts
  • say NAH to plastic straws, cups or cutlery crap
  • reduce the amount of alternative drinks you buy that come in a plastic bottle
  • always wash, empty & dry your recycling! Otherwise it’ll end up in a landfill.
  • go for fresh produce with no packaging where possible, like with potatoes & tomatoes
  • opt to buy goods in alternative packaging like glass jars where possible
  • buy bar soap instead of body wash, paper cotton buds instead of plastic ones & quit buying face wipes to remove make-up
  • [if you’re Down Under] always put your soft plastics in the REDcycle bin
  • Buy reusable produce bags!

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