The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth: Zero Waste Traveling

Packed to the Gills, Ready for Zero Waste Travel

by Liesl Clark

“Our flying time today will be 10 hours 41 minutes.”

We were mentally prepared for the demands on our time for the flight from Seattle to Seoul, but the big surprise was the onslaught of single use plastic. For a family that generates only a garbage can-worth of trash every 4-6 months, consuming that much plastic in a single day hurts to the core. Of course, our carbon footprint for flying to Asia, alone, offsets the year-round effort we’ve made to consume less plastic and generate little waste. But if we didn’t go to Nepal, we wouldn’t be able to search-out the last plastic-free places on Earth. My family and I have spent the last 3 years conducting village waste audits in remote parts of Nepal while also trying to uncover the difficult truths behind the essential ragpickers of Kathmandu.

We’re All “Plassengers” Swimming in Single Use Plastics

We’re trying to acquire as little plastic as possible while traveling and we’re off to a wretched start. Each of the 200 Boeing 777 seats on our plane comes with individually cling-wrapped blankets, and the following reusable items, all in their hermetically sealed plastic bags: head phones, a bathroom kit, toothbrush and slippers. A plastic bottle of water sits on top. That’s a lot of plastic per passenger, and our family’s first big dose of BPA in a long time. The message from the airline is clear: These are reusable items they’ve washed. The plastic wrap should make us feel safe from any germs that might have previously been on these items. And when we’re done with them, they’ll wash them and wrap them in plastic again. On our second flight, we chose to opt out of these items and simply didn’t use them. Reduce, Reuse, Refuse.

Let’s face it, the entire interior of the plane is plastic, which we’re thankful for, as it reduces the plane’s carbon footprint due to its light weight components. Korean Air’s efforts at reduction of carbon emissions are laudable. They even plant forests in Mongolia to offset their carbon emissions.

Plastics Have Helped Airplanes Reduce Weight and Hence their Emissions

The key to zero waste traveling is subterfuge: Bring your own travel kit and you’ll quickly learn the tricks of the waste sleuthing trade. Our simple zero waste travel kit consists of a water bottle, coffee mug and bamboo utensils.

Zero Waste Travel Kit, Sans Reusable Coffee Mug

We’re on our way to Kathmandu, Nepal to lead another expedition to the ancient kingdom of Mustang to search for the earliest evidence of the first people to have come to the Himalaya. We uncovered 3000-year-old human remains last year and hope to learn more about these ancient people by climbing up into the high cave tombs they carved out for their dead and excavate the sites for more bones and material artifacts.

For millenia, humans have traversed the Earth, taking with them their materials and possessions, using them as they needed and discarding of them when done. Until plastic was produced, the material waste early cultures left behind was predominantly ceramics, metals, and glass. We’re taking a journey back in time to those cultures.  The people who remain in the villages, presumably their descendants, are relatively untouched, with little influence from cultures reliant on consumable plastics. While plastics are slowly seeping into the villages, a crisis is occurring as the old ways of sustainable disposal meet the new non-degradable and highly toxic-to-burn materials.

Imagine: There’s no municipal recycling in the hinterlands. Everything must be reused, or into a hand-dug hole it goes, the mini landfills just outside each village. But space is running out and with erosion those landfills are shedding their plastics with every monsoon.

As we work with a team of scientists to find ancient material remains, indeed search for the waste left behind by the earliest known people to have come to the Himalaya, we’ll also work directly with the villagers themselves to learn how they handle the influx of cheap Chinese plastics from just over the border while still clinging to their more sustainable ancient traditions. We have much to learn from them, in documenting how they live closely to the Earth and use everything in their lives, repurposing and reinventing new uses for items brought into the household. And they, in turn, have much to learn from us, from our own mistakes in becoming too reliant on unnecessary plastics. Up there, throwing “away” is poignantly never truly away and those plastics that make their way up to the top of the world are here to stay forever, flowing ever so slowly down the watersheds into our streams, lakes, and rivers to the larger populations below.

Killing Time on a 10 Hour Flight: Craft a Bracelet from Plastic Airline Blanket Wraps

Are there any truly pristine, plastic-free waters on our planet? Precious few is our answer, having worked with scientists studying the toxic deposits from ash and air pollution on the highest glaciers. Burning plastics, among many other pollutants in the air, has contributed to this disturbing trend of high mountain streams, well above populated villages, with detectable levels of pollution.

The best my family and I can do — our little tribe of “Garbage Spies” — is try to address plastic waste wherever humans go, starting with ourselves. Whether we’re in Kathmandu or a tiny village near the Tibetan border, we endeavor to discover the systems in place for reusing, recycling, or disposing of plastics. We determine which plastics are most prevalent and why, and then we talk with community leaders, families, and the children themselves at our little children’s libraries we’ve established, to search out best practices for dealing with plastics and preventing them from getting into the environment. For the next 3 weeks, we’ll send you installments of our story from the Himalayas, the garbage sleuthing done and the lessons learned as we travel further away from the source of plastic outflow to the least likely places it ends up, the places we all thought were immune from modern packaging and single-use convenience.

Koala’s Headband Repurposed from Airline Headphone Plastic Wrap

Please check back with us to follow our story, whether they’re from the highest reaches of our planet or sea level where all things plastic ultimately flow.