Gearing up for Plastic-Free July in Chiang Mai

How do we end up finding ourselves surrounded by so much disposable plastic?
…plastic grocery bags because we made an unplanned trip to the store, plastic packaging for the imported food we love, plastic cups and straws because even though we order drinks “for here” it sometimes still comes in a to-go cup, little plastic bags because some food at the market is pre-bagged, another landfill offender- styrofoam – because we wanted take out, an iced tea made in a plastic bag, inside a paper bag, and then put into another plastic bag with handles for carrying… it goes on.

Thailand has become entrenched in plastic and so have our lives. Our family has made small changes over the few years and yet it still seeps in constantly. So when we heard about Plastic-Free July, we were impressed and a little uncomfortable – we wanted to do it but we were (and are) worried about the things we’ll have to give up.

Our go-to packaged goods – mostly imported. There’s a lot of plastic in there!We’ll be looking for alternatives this month or going without.

We are also constantly aware of our privileged position as a comparatively wealthy foreigners and cautious to offer any judgements or improvements with Thai locals. We try to keep in mind that the Thai-way is not always our way and do our best to be observers and listeners first. Thailand has so much to teach its visitors. We first heard of the Thai philosophy Paw Piang in the southern islands from a wiry beachside sage who collected plastic off the beach when he wasn’t casually renting kayaks to tourists, seashell-hunting, or relaxing with friends in his homemade bungalow.


We have since seen this philosophy in action and heard it used by young and old from Koh Lipe to Mae Hong Son. It means “self-sufficiency” and encourages people to live within their means. 
While the U.S. has been promoting capitalist growth and trying to convince everyone to buy bigger cars and houses using credit card debt, Thailand has been promoting a sufficiency economy, where communities and families have enough. We were so intrigued!

However, here capitalism and single-serve culture have crept in throughout the last decades and diminished both the abundance of natural resources and the country’s “Gross Happiness Product (GHP)”,  so it’s pretty obvious that Thailand doesn’t need any more of Westerner’s well-meaning advice. That doesn’t mean we can’t participate in dialogue though! For us it’s important to realize that real change will be done by Thai people themselves, because however long we live here, we will always be guests. And as visitors who participate in the local economy, we do have purchasing power. If locals are trying to offer us the convenience and good service and experience of to-go cups, styrofoam takeaway containers and other plastic solutions, we can take a look at what other Thais might consider an alternative and choose that. We can talk with locals and other expats and try to find ways to live better together in big and small ways.

Enter: the beautiful, practical, Thai lunch box. 
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We’re hoping to find a second-hand set in preparation for this month but our neighbours have been using them since we moved in. I just can’t get over how attractive these are and feel like Thailand has been keeping this secret right under our noses.

Growing up in North America, we were surrounded by plastic . However, In Thailand, many people still use banana leaves and woven bamboo for wrapping and carrying food and still remember when everyone did, before plastic took over only a few decades ago.

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My packed lunch in a village in Mae Hong Son province.

Because Thailand is not so far from this recent history, many of these practices are still used today and reusable containers or natural fibers are just one example of how we can join in on traditional and new ways to make small changes in our own lives. We like the idea that our “trash” could be compost for the garden in a matter of weeks vs 500 years in a landfill.

Another great move if you cook for yourself is to buy direct from local organic farmers who are networking and subverting  the corporate agricultural sectors (they are here too). Check out the JJ market and Kuang Organic Market listings on the Natural Resources page for options.

For many reasons, we’ve decided that this time in Thailand for us is about having space for trial and error towards a more sustainable life. We are aware of how much we are still entrenched in habits of consumption and sometimes it seems hopeless, but it’s important to recognize any progress as improvement- a subtle act that continues to raise our personal and cultural bar. We suspect that we will learn a lot this month as this exercise will highlight all the ways plastics creep into our lives and we’ll be able to take those observations and newly formed habits forward into the future.

If you’re up for the challenge, join the facebook event for Chiang Mai and take the Pesky Plastics quiz to see where you’re at. You can also join the general campaign if you’re not local.

No judgments here! All you are doing is committing to try your best. Let’s see what we can do together this month.

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