How The Oceans, And I, Struggle with Plastic

Of all the places that I have lived the most, loved the most, the Philippines holds a special place in my heart. In a provincial seaside town in Southern Visayas, I spent 2 months as a volunteer studying whale sharks with LAMAVE. 

Every day, I started my mornings by diving deep into the Bohol Sea. Some days it was beautiful, but some days, the ocean disappoints. High waves engulf you and the strong current drags in tons of plastic litter. With every kick, I go deeper into drifting entanglements of plastic snack wraps, plastic bags, bottle caps and straws. And on those days, I collect plastic litter till my hand cramps from clutching them.

Having seen just how destructive we can be to the ocean, the volunteers lived with a “no-plastic” rule. Because while I may have taken plenty of plastic litter out of the ocean for 2 months, I'm sure over my lifetime, I’ve put more in.

Once, when another volunteer and I went shopping, we forgot to bring reusable shopping bags. Still, at every stall, we picked, paid and said “no plastic”. When our backpacks were filled, we then resorted to carrying (well, hugging) our groceries. With every local that we passed, they laughed and insisted on giving us plastic bags. We always smiled and said no.

As we carried on our uphill trek back home, it became an avalanche of produce. Aubergines slipped, mangoes bruised and avocados smashed. The point of the story is not of a compromised dinner but how our choice to refuse every offer of plastic was instant, consensual and firm.

In a heartbeat, we chose the struggle of hugging fruits on a rocky uphill terrain over the convenience of a plastic bag. It may seem like a small anecdote but this story this sets a note of importance for me, because when I look back, I see a time where there was no situation that could have made me accept a plastic bag.

Since I’ve arrived home, it’s been a different story. Because you see, it was so easy then. We lived in a bubble – we shopped at one provincial market, we had a fixed routine, we purchased and consumed little, we were surrounded by like-minded people, it was easy to live a life with no plastic.

When I got home, I was so determined. Personal whims like bubble tea (that comes in a plastic cup, plastic cover and a plastic straw individually wrapped in plastic) were cut out of my purchases. I brought reusable bags and containers everywhere I went. But I didn’t live in a bubble anymore, I lived in a fast-paced modern consumer society where convenience is king, where not everyone cared (or even thought) about the ocean. Puzzled waiters refused to cooperate, friends laughed and rolled their eyes at me. Me, and my efforts, were made to be ridiculous. And I faltered.

Because let me tell you, it is difficult to live a life without plastic. First of all, it is everywhere. It is in the keyboard that I’m typing on, it’s in the elastic lining of the underwear we wear, it encases the food we eat.

Refusing this material then becomes a daily chore. It requires a constant awareness of what is being handed to you. And that becomes the first step of saying no – being aware. Every purchase I make becomes a conscious decision to think of the beached whales, that starved to death because of the plastic in their gut, over my own personal convenience.

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Fortunately, being aware is easy. A quick Google search will deliver a lot of information; information that grows scarier and more pressing every single day.

So, I urge you to be aware. Let horrific images of entangled turtles move you, let click-baity articles that go “10 tips to save the ocean” change you. With every scientific journal you read, every documentary you watch, ever beach clean-up you attend, that quiver as you say “no straw” grows less audible, that informed confidence that stares down any ridiculing or puzzled look will grow stronger.

And one day, I hope that this will cease to be a chore and turn into a habit, it will become part of me. And when that day comes, I’ll help others be aware. I’ll tell them, show them, convince them by example. I’ll share infographics on Facebook, I’ll organise beach clean-ups and I’ll always always say “No Plastic”.

And I hope that you do too.

So start with these 3 simple steps to help reduce your plastic waste:

1.     Go reusable.  Choose thermos over water bottles and coffee cups, cloth bags over plastic grocery bags, reusable tiffin containers over plastic takeaway containers.

2.     Say no to straws. Straws are a simple way to cut out plastic waste. In most cases, you don’t need a straw to drink but if you really do, opt for a bamboo or glass drinking straw.

3.     Organise and attend beach clean ups. Gather friends and colleagues to do a quick beach-clean up. Just a quick 30-minute clean-up can be incredibly helpful. Plus seeing the ocean and the beach at its worst is the most effective way in convincing yourself to change the way you consume plastic.

Good luck!


Cherry Lee is a Copywriter and eco warrior from Malaysia.