Food and Drink 

Not so fantastic plastic

I’ll always remember a Sunday "picnic" a friend and I had in northern Thailand. From a street vendor, we’d bought some barbecued chicken and packets of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and tied with cotton twine. Then we sat ourselves down on the prickly, dry grass of a small park to enjoy our little feast and watch the last glow of sunset filter through mango trees and bushy shrubs.

The park was jam-packed with Thai families doing pretty much the same thing we were in the relative cool of early evening – talking and laughing while they munched on goodies purchased from street vendors or carried from home.

My friend and I were taking in all this when it suddenly struck us that what we thought were huge pink blossoms in the shrubs surrounding the park were really translucent pink plastic bags. Once that registered, we realized the entire park was awash in pink plastic bags, hundreds of them.

A few sticking out of the tops of overfilled garbage cans looked like deflated balloons or oversized condoms. But most of them were free from any such caretaking efforts.

Pink plastic bags rolled across the lawn like tumbleweeds in the gentle evening breeze. Pink plastic bags had wrapped themselves around park bench legs. Soggy pink plastic bags were marooned in the small pond amongst lotus leaves.

In some surreal way they were beautiful, the pink catching and amplifying the rosy twilight. But the thought of all those bags, and millions more, blowing around the Thai countryside was also pretty depressing.

Where the heck had they all come from?

As consumerism rose and the use of traditional carry-alls, or lack thereof, fell away as it had in the rest of Asia, small, translucent, pink plastic bags – about a quarter the size of the ones we use in Canada for groceries – had become the convenient carry-all choice. They enabled people to tote everything from fresh fish or candies from the markets, to packets of sticky rice from street vendors.

In some parts of southeast Asia, you could even get iced drinks from street vendors in small plastic bags, complete with a plastic straw sticking out. (The colour predominance of the bags varies locally in southeast Asia; in some areas pale blue or yellow is king.)

According to the grassroots organization, ReuseableBags.com, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. That works out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter. That park in Thailand contributes an ample start.

The plastic all these bags are made of is, of course, water-resistant and not biodegradable. That’s why so many of us love to line our household garbage cans with them: Away from sunlight, they are virtually indestructible, preventing the messy spills our parents and grandparents endured as they carried the household garbage in brown paper bags out to the trash bins. Before that, people used buckets, commonly called slop pails, that they simply washed out as needed. Burnables went in the wood stove.

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