It’s 12:30am. The room went dark a while ago, I can’t remember when. I’m lying in a 20-bed dormitory in Chiang Mai’s city center and I’m nursing my first anxiety attack ever. It’s only beginning to subside after two and a half hours. Tomorrow is day two of Songkran, the raucous three-day water festival celebrated by Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, recognizing the Buddhist/Hindu Lunar New Year.
It appears that all of Chiang Mai’s visitors have flocked to the city center to get piss drunk while they run around shooting locals and other Farangs with knockoff $9USD Super-Soakers® that barely charred a hole in their pockets. Once the party’s over, there is one certain fate of these brightly colored, poorly functioning hunks of plastic. They are to be discarded within 48 hours of purchase, just before their careless owners hop onto planes, trains, and automobiles to somewhere else. There, they will stomp another one of their Western sized carbon footprints into the dirt, wherever it may be. The amount of consumer waste produced in Asia is fucking appalling.
What’s making my blood boil as I lie on this hard, exposed, bottom bunk mattress, is that no matter how hard I try, I’m a part of it here, in someone else’s land. Equally as bad: I’m a part of it back home.
Trash is everywhere in the Far East. Over the past 10 weeks, I’ve seen trash left on tables and dropped on the ground by tourists too busy to care. Again, I’m a part of it too, and that has got to change (thanks for the slogan, Bernie).
Here’s a rough estimation of my consumption statistics on this journey so far:
- 200-300 plastic bottles (mostly from water, because there are not many safe filling stations or taps around).
- 200 aluminum beer cars and glass bottles (If you read my last post, you’ll remember, Hemingway has had a big impact on me).
- 200-400 disposable food containers. That includes chip bags (I like to call them crisps now because of all the Brits I’ve hung out with… it just sounds better), Styrofoam to-go containers, plastic cups, straws, and cellophane wrappers that come with just about anything you buy to eat in Southeast Asia.
On the high side, that’s almost 1,000 pieces of plastic disposed of in just about 75 days. That doesn’t include what K – who’s been by my side the whole time – has consumed. AND WE’RE BEING CAREFUL! Or we thought we had been…
If you do the rough math and multiply my carbon footprint to the thousands in order to account for the other Westerners on the same backpacker trail, the numbers you might end up with are awful and eye opening. I’m not careful enough about my consumption, even when I’m cognizant of every plastic bag I refuse at 7-11. It’s time to re-evaluate my habits on this trip and bring new habits home.
What’s worse is that so many — probably the vast majority — of the items being tossed on the ground, into rivers and canals, and into the emerald green island waters, are being tossed by locals. For the tourists, I cannot provide a reasonable excuse to disrespect a foreign place with litter. But for locals, it’s happening for two reasons.
- They don’t care about the environmental, sanitary, and aesthetic consequences of littering in their beautiful homeland.
- They aren’t educated enough to understand the environmental, sanitary, and aesthetic consequences of littering in their beautiful homeland.
I’m sure consumption and plastic waste in the USA is higher per capita than all of the countries I’ve visited thus far, but American municipalities are sure as hell better at covering that fact up. We dump our trash at night in dense black trash bags, inserted into thick plastic garbage bins, covered with a lid – out of sight out of mind. By the time we’ve gone out to our manicured lawns and white picket fences to grab the newspaper the next morning (a dying American stereotype, by the way), sanitation departments have already dispatched their trucks around all the Smithtowns of America and scooped up the immense amount of trash that each US household produces each week, delivering them to recycling facilities and landfills. Voila.
Compared to the trash all over Southeast Asia, we have no idea how much we’re consuming because it’s not piling up on our streets, our beaches, or our national parks. The Advertising Industrial Complex is churning, full speed-ahead and we’re buying it all. I’m sick of participating in this system. It’s time to start small and do my own part to better the consumption/pollution cycle.
Now, the world’s largest water celebration is underway and I’m fucking dehydrated. My mouth is parched. I’ve got a lot of work to do if I’m going to change my ways.
The time is now to consider each of my purchasing decisions with intention and to make the right choices. The time is now to change my consumption habits and take those habits home with me.
Photo: The pristine waters of Kuang Si Waterfalls in Laos. These waters won’t be so pristine anymore if the consumption/pollution cycle continues at the current rate, and spreads into developing countries such as Laos PDR. (Kuang Si National Park, Luang Prabang Province, Laos PDR).