How Not to be a Trashy Tourist
My friend, fellow West Seattleite and videographer, Michael Murphy from Travel On Productions, sent me links to a couple of videos he recently produced about the trash problem on Ko Phi Phi in Thailand (see below).
These videos reminded me of the impact we all have on local cultures and the environment when we travel. Let’s consider just some of the garbage we leave behind:
- water bottles
- packages from processed foods
- toiletries including travel-sized plastic bottles
- soda cans and straws
- paper and/or plastic shopping bags
- waxed paper or tin foil used to wrap vendor food
- travel docs such as maps that are printed out for specific cities and then tossed away once you’ve left
- boarding passes and itinerary
- the list goes on…
Piles of recklessly discarded trash can be found from India to South America, in pristine wilderness as well as cities and, along the most beautiful mountain trails in the world. Several factors have caused this growing issue.
First, people in developing countries have traditionally subsisted on compostable food grown locally without ever being packaged (fruit, vegetables and meat). They now have access to packaged goods such as soda and snacks. In the countryside, where farmers used to compost their food scraps directly into their farmland, they are now tossing their non-recyclable waste into the soil.
Second, in these countries, the infrastructure does not yet exist to curb this problem. It’s often difficult to find a garbage bin even in the largest of cities, and locals therefore toss their garbage on the sidewalk or in a garbage pit created in any empty strip of land. Travelers quickly follow suit.
The vast increase in tourism in the last 30 years has only exacerbated this issue.
While it’s true that ultimately the locals need to get a grip on this issue, it’s a relatively new problem for them. They need to be taught that this is a problem of great concern to travelers, that it will eventually effect tourism and that the ultimate cost is grave harm to their environment. As long as tourists continue to visit these destinations, pay good money for being there AND do nothing about the issue themselves, the locals have no reason to change.
(see Michael’s follow up video here)
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel – you should do so, however, with a light footprint and be mindful that there’s opportunity to change your small part of the world.
Here are a half dozen easy things you can do to lessen your impact on local communities:
1. Avoid using plastic bags whenever possible. These often get tossed into the streets and can ultimately end up in the stomachs of animals where, like in the case of India, cows die from eating the garbage that gets caught in their digestive system. When not consumed by unsuspecting livestock, plastic bags end up in the trash system for years to come.
2. Don’t buy bottled water unless it’s absolutely necessary. I carry a SteriPen with me and drink tap water that’s been purified. I can then feel good about not contributing to the garbage problem, particularly in countries where recycling is non-existent.
3. Pack it in, pack it out. If you’re trekking, be sure that you leave with everything that you brought with you. Even small discarded packages add up.
4. Spend a few hours of your trip picking up the garbage. It doesn’t matter whether you left it there or not, helping clean an area may give the locals some ideas on how to keep their area beautiful.
5. Consider not printing out maps that you’ll eventually just toss in the garbage. Refer to your guidebook (or gently tear out the map from your guidebook) or a map program on your smartphone rather than wasting paper.
6. Don’t use electronics that require conventional batteries. Use ones that have built in batteries that you can recharge. You’ll save all those batteries from going into a landfill.
7. If they don’t already have a program, encourage your hotel to recycle. You may not change their ways overnight but if enough people ask, they may implement a program.
In these small ways you can begin making an impact on the your, and other, corners of the world.
By the way, if you want to see a rant about Ko Phi Phi, read NomadicMatt’s post about his recent visit there.
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