Reducing Disposable Plastics


Last Updated on September 13, 2023 by Amy

Cruising Southeast Asia has made me so angry about plastics. It’s horribly depressing to realize that while plastics and waste, in general, are an issue in the United States, it’s nothing compared to the issues in countries like Indonesia. The prevalence of single-use plastics is overwhelming. For example, at cultural events we were given snack boxes full of baked goods that were individually wrapped in plastic and water cups with plastic straws. I watched little kids throw trash on the streets. Convenience stores transfer beverages into plastic bags with straws so they can keep bottles to sell back to manufacturers.

Forbes: Five Asian Countries Dump More Plastic Into Oceans Than Anyone Else Combined

Why are Plastics Such A Problem in Southeast Asia?

While it’s great to know that we’re at least making some small change by reducing our use of disposable plastics as we travel through Asia and often picking up trash we find, the root of the problem is systemic in countries like Indonesia. Poor water quality, lack of education on trash, and lack of infrastructure for waste management, among many other things, contribute to the problem. The bag of trash we collect off a beach – where will it go?  Maybe it’ll end up buried in a proper landfill, but more likely it’ll find it’s way out to sea.

The Countries Polluting the Oceans the Most

Therefore, I have to remind myself that each time I refuse a plastic bag, plastic straw, or plastic bottle, I’m making a tiny bit of change, and may be influencing the person I’m buying from.

Thankfully, in the little ecosystem aboard Starry Horizons that I can control, there are plenty of items to help me reduce our plastic consumption. And of course, from my galley to your kitchen, these products are great to have even if you aren’t sailing around the world.

PS. Just in time for Christmas shopping too!

Reusable Travel Tumblers & Straws

David and I have been using reusable travel tumblers like this for years, and I even bought my employees all reusable cups back in the day. While they aren’t watertight or unbreakable, they are more hygienic than an open cup and are less prone to spills.  We have enough on board for five people and wash ours every few days, although it’s really the straws that need washing the most.

I love drinking out of a straw but want to refuse plastic straws while dining out. We started with reusable plastic straws, but sometimes they break or shatter. At home in Texas, my mom uses stainless steel straws instead of the reusable plastics. We tried them, but they tend to make noise rattling around in the cup while the boat is underway.

Now, we’ve settled on and are very happy with silicone straws. They are soft and flexible and we use them with our tumblers or even stick them in a green and fresh coconut!

As a nice little bonus, the brushes used to clean inside the straws are fabulous to use for general cleaning around the boat.

Hydration Bottles & Packs

While the tumblers are great for use around the boat, when we leave the boat we’re looking for something leak-proof, easy-to-carry with a hygienic lid. On my wishlist is a Thermos hydration bottle (or two!), which looks like it fits all my needs with a flip-top lid and narrow bottle which should fit in the pockets of our backpacks. For longer trips, we use a Camelbak with a hydration bladder with a protective cap to keep it hygienic because of the capacity.

Washing Our Zip-Lock Bags

For the past four years living on the boat, we have been washing our zip-lock bags and reusing them. We don’t do this when the bag has contained really sensitive stuff, like raw chicken, but when it’s held crackers or cut veggies, yes, we absolutely wash them and reuse.

Because of this, we often buy the heavier duty freezer Ziploc brand bags. But, they are really hard to find outside of the US. I bought the highest quality bags I could in Australia, and they hardly last. Which brings me to my next item…

Silicone Food Bags & Food Huggers

A recent addition to our galley (a gift from Mom!), these bags are heavy-duty reusable silicone bags. They are easy to clean and can be heated or frozen as needed. They stack well because they store flat and I love using them to hold cut-up vegetables.  As a result, we are using less disposable bags and saving water while washing.

Another gift from my mom (thanks Mom!) are these silicone food huggers. I use them instead of plastic wrap to close up cut fruit (like limes, lemons, bananas, cucumbers, etc….) and also to put over the mouth of cans to store open cans in the fridge. The store inside each other and therefore take up a minimum amount of space. David’s favorite thing about the silicone is how easy it is to clean because nothing sticks to it!

Eliminating Restaurant Styrofoam

This is pretty easy. David and I rarely ever eat takeout and when we do dine out, we share our meals to make sure no leftovers are coming home. Styrofoam is another blight on our planet, and I can’t tell you how many styrofoam blocks, cups, and takeout containers we’ve seen floating around.

Reusable Shopping Bags

In a lot of places (like Australia and Fiji), plastic bags are being banned or taxed. For years, I’ve been very good about refusing plastic bags, and I continue to do so while cruising. I have a big collection of reusable bags from all over the world (where occasionally I’ve forgotten to bring a bag with me). My favorites, though, were given to me as a gift (thank you, Kathryn and Ron). These bags, called Flip & Tumble bags, are excellent! They have a strap long enough for the shoulder and have a self-contained pouch they fit into for easy storage. Furthermore, they wash easily, while some of my older grocery store bags are hard to wash and the plastics in them are starting to fall apart.

Reusable Produce Bags

When I whipped these reusable produce bags out in Australia, I got a lot of responses like “oh, cool!”. Here in Indonesia, all the vendors at the markets want to put the three zucchini I’m buying in their own plastic bag.  I get weird looks when I stop them and say no. But this gift (from my mom again!) means I can turn down plastic bags and still keep my produce bundled together easily.

Note that these bags do add slight weight to the produce, so they are excellent for markets or for products that are by count. You may want to choose an alternative for items that are going to be weighed. I would love to find a compostable produce bag designed for consumer use, similar to the ones that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods use in their produce sections now.  I haven’t been able to find them.

Beeswax Wraps

Instead of using plastic wrap, we have beeswax wraps to cover food containers around the galley. They come in a variety of sizes and don’t leave behind any residue. I don’t use these on raw meats or items with sauces – I’m not comfortable I can get them clean enough to be safe.

Biodegradable Scrubbers and Sponges

A product that wasn’t widely available when we went cruising but is something we see everywhere now is biodegradable sponges and scrubbers.

Safix scrub pads are made with natural coconut fibers and are compostable. Zen Living has a biodegradable plant-based sponge. Scotch-Brite has plant and recycled content scrub sponges if you are looking for a main stream product. Our standard sponges we use often send small bits of themselves down the drain, right into the ocean!

The Number One Thing Anyone Can Do

Finally, be mindful of where your seafood comes and refuse to buy seafood caught using unsustainable methods. While single-use plastics are a massive problem in Southeast Asia, commercial fishing throughout the world is a big problem. Bycatch and ghost nets are a major problem with commercial fishing. Our boat has been caught in several ghost nets.  Sometimes those nets were too big for us to haul up and dispose of properly.

We rarely ever eat seafood that we haven’t caught ourselves because we know the quality is superb. Pole-and-line fishing, as we do on our boat, is one of the most sustainable methods of acquiring animal protein to eat. There is no bycatch because we only catch what we use. Due to having the right lures, we haven’t lost a lure or snapped a line in a year.

For more information about commercial fishing methods, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has wonderful information on fishing & farming methods and a handy supermarket guide.

Multiple Goals

Always in the back of our mind is to reduce our plastics, but the environmental benefits aren’t the only ones.  Onboard any cruising boat, we have to control the amount of trash we have on our boat.  We never know when we will have a proper waste disposal place. As a result, we can go longer without filling our galley trash can, and thus cruise more remote places.

Do you use any of these products? Are there any others you use?

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  1. I have reduced my plastic use immensely in the past few years. One option that I use, that probably is not practical for you is reusable glass jars. I even use them in the freezer.

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