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Reflecting on her trip to Thailand, Ellina Webb looks back at the lightbulb moment that opened her eyes up to the issue of single-use plastic and marine pollution.

I recently watched an episode of Dragons Den where a Dutch furniture designer had developed a chair made of 85% recycled plastic such as single-use bottles and coat hangers. The dragons were impressed and 4 of them put in offers to snap up an investment deal (Deborah got it in the end FYI). What struck me the most about the pitch however wasn’t just the concept, which was well thought out and an excellent way to tackle the issue of recycling single-use plastic, but it was the designer’s story.

The designer/businessman told a story about how he visited a beach and found himself having to sunbath on a patch of sand between mountains of plastic litter. This was the lightbulb moment for him and over the past 6 years he has trialled and tested different methods to help make his dream of recycling plastic into luxury furniture a reality.

This lightbulb moment reminded me of a similar experience that I had, also around 6 years ago which made me realise the extent of plastic pollution and why I needed to rethink my plastic usage.

In fact Lewis Hamilton had one too over summer which my colleague Ben discussed here.

The Island experience of a lifetime

Back in 2012 I travelled to Thailand and visited an iconic beach location.

This beach was in fact “The Beach” located in Maya Bay which was brought to prominence in Danny Boyle’s 2000 film starring a young Leonardo DiCipario who later also became an advocate against climate change and environmental issues. In the film The Beach stands as a significant figure of exploration, discovery and obsession and in its own right is the star of the film down to its beauty and natural wonder.

I, like the millions of tourists out there who make up the 5,000 daily visitors to the island, was drawn to this under the expectation that like the characters in the film I would discover a (not-so-hidden) paradise.

However what I did discover is a reality that’s far from how the photos (and the film) portray it.

In fact, last year Maya Bay was closed indefinitely due to its state of destruction caused by tourists, pollution and litter. Sadly an estimated 80% of the coral around the bay has also been destroyed by boats.

My experience on The Beach

My experience of this island slightly differs to that of a typical tourist, mainly because I was part of a small group of people who spent 24 hours there. The excursion included an overnight stay under the stars on the sand (it also included a horrendous swim onto the island that I’d rather not re-live!).

Arriving at the island we were met by a stunning bay surrounded with high cliffs. There weren’t many makeshift buildings on the island, just a few huts, some open shelters and a toilet block – this was because only about 5 people lived there who were official park rangers.

The beach was cleaned every day to discard of rubbish that washed up and collected in the bay due to the opening which unfortunately worked as natural filter, sucking up garbage that had collected further out at sea.

We weren’t aware of this at the time (of course us tourists were shielded from the reality), so waking up the following morning surrounded by rubbish was a huge shock. Ice cream packaging, bottles of bleach and detergent, plastic bags… it was waste that had clearly travelled miles from households all over the world; and there I was, laying it in all.

I wonder if Leonardo had a similar wakeup call all those years previously!

Plastic pollution in Thailand

If you’ve been to Thailand in the past 10 years, the chances are that you probably have a similar story when it comes to beach litter. In February 2017 it was reported that a patch of plastic rubbish around 10km long was seen floating off the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, again highlighting the issue of plastic pollution in this area of the world.

But the issue of plastic pollution in Thailand actually goes beyond putting locals and tourists under the ethical microscope of being bad at recycling; Thailand has unfortunately become one of the places that imports it too. From the UK, to the USA, Thailand has become the reliable place to export plastic waste to and in 2018 the Thai government announced a ban on this by 2020.

So while the issue of waste management in Thailand goes far deeper than what I saw on the surface, on a personal level it was an eye opener and the closure of Maya Bay really came as no surprise.

Of course, every country has its issues when it comes to recycling and cleaning up the decades of damage caused by dumping waste and plastic into the sea (the UK being no exception). Unfortunately Thailand gets the brunt of this bad reputation because it is so beautiful – spoilt beauty is always a topic the world likes to discuss. Of course, as with beauty, it’s what lies beneath that needs to be addressed and that means looking at our own (and my own) actions too.

From lightbulb to action plan

Since my literal wake-up call to plastic pollution and the extent of plastic waste in our ocean – it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,  I have tried to be more conscious of my plastic usage. I have also tried to clean up my local area by collecting discarded rubbish and putting it in a nearby bin to ensure plastic pollution in my city doesn’t spoil its appearance or endanger any wildlife.

I also recently came across an infographic by Eco with Em, an eco-activist and illustrator who highlights how you can reduce your plastic consumption at home. Her tips include:

  • Wrapping your lettuce in a tea town and putting it in the fridge
  • Storing fruit in the freezer
  • Using steel and glass containers to store food
  • Putting leftovers in jars

You can read more about her illustrated tips, quotes and poems here; they are all mindful reminders of the small changes we can make where possible.

Ellina Webb is a Senior Marketing Specialist at Mitsubishi Electric