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What A Wasteful World: Stories of Waste

We live in a wasteful world. In all continents, including Antarctica itself, trash is in bounties never seen before the dawn of modern civilization. The garbage affects negatively everything in the planet from the food to the survival of entire animal species. Worse, the wastefulness of human behavior can lead to devastating environmental and human health consequences.

The Zero Waste Lifestyle System asked many prominent writers and travel bloggers on their experiences on waste. Some offered efforts of positive waste management but the majority saw horrifying prevalence of garbage in human life. Nevertheless, all provide their tips on living sustainably in a wasteful world.

Undrinkable water and single-use plastic in Cuba – Ayngelina Brogan of Bacon Is Magic

waste in Cuba
Photo credit to Ayngelina Brogan

Although we all aim to reduce, reuse, recycle I’ve never seen a more complicated situation than in Cuba. I’ve been based in Havana for nearly two years and single use plastic is an issue.

Like many countries, you cannot drink the water. It’s not cheap and so many Cubans boil and then filter the water with cheesecloth. Tourism don’t have the time or ability to do that so they buy single use water bottles. And even in Havana restaurants there’s no way to filter so they sell bottled water.

Although Cuba technically recycles, there’s no designated recycling bins. Just garbage. However, Cubans have mastered the art of reusing items. They will wash the plastic bottles and reuse them for everything from cooking oil to selling drinks on the street. 

I try to minimize my plastic usage by using a Lifestraw, a steripen and boiling water from time to time. If I do have to use a plastic bottle when I’m done I always leave it outside my apartment door as I know someone will reuse it.

No recycling in Israel – Claudia Tavani of My Adventures Across The World

Israel is not exactly a champion at recycling and avoiding waste. It’s actually shocking how a country that can be so modern, so forward thinking, has been doing so little to reduce waste and recycle. Things such as use of plastic straws, disposable plastic cups and cutlery and single use plastic bags are still very much a thing. 

To add to the concern, there’s the fact that almost no recycling is done. There is no door to door waste collection, so nobody feels particularly compelled to separate. Those that do can only really separate plastic bottles – the only thing that actually gets recycled (no such thing as recycling plastic lids etc). Plastic bottles have to be taken to collection units around the city. 

It’s a real pity. The country would be much cleaner if people stopped wasting so much plastic and if appropriate recycling policies were implemented. 

No food waste in South Korea – Callan Wienburg of Once in a Lifetime Journey

Photo credit to Callan Wienburg

When I first arrived in South Korea, I was shocked at how much food was wasted. The custom in the country is to serve Korean food with several side dishes for free (called banchan). This can include things like kimchi, seasoned spinach and soy-braised peanuts. And if you want more, you just shout, literally. Yet what I saw is that sometimes, Koreans don’t even touch the side dishes and I started wondering where did it all go?

Coming from South Africa, a developing country, we were always told to finish our meals, so this was beyond all reasoning for me. Yet after a little research, I actually learned that South Korea has a thriving business of food recycling! The country went from recycling 2% of its food waste in 1995 to current figures estimated at 95%, that is huge.

For a country that contributes 130kg of food waste per person per year, this is a massive relief. The government started by banning food dumping in landfills in 2005 and then in 2013 introduced compulsory food waste recycling in biodegradable bags. Food is either transformed into fertilizer, animal feed or bio oil/biogas. Another quite spectacular fact is that families know to remove moisture from the food before recycling in the “smart bins” that weigh food and goes on a pay-as-you-recycle scheme. As food waste is around 80% moisture, it cuts out charges and saved the city $8.4 million in collection charges since the scheme started. This is a remarkable story of waste with a positive spin and I truly hope that other countries follow. I can now eat my banchan in peace. 

Plastic waste in airplanes but waste free shopping in Guatemala – Steph Dyson of Wordly Adventurer

wasteful inflight food
Photo credit to Steph Dyson

Going waste free is something radical for many of us, but on a trip to Guatemala last year I learned that actually, it’s a lifestyle as old as the earth – and one that too many of our Western cultures have forgotten about.

I’d set myself the target to travel plastic free for the entire 10-day trip, but failed the moment I got onto the plane. Over a dozen items, each wrapped individually in single-use plastic, formed my first meal on my American Airlines flight. In that moment, I baulked at the scale of the challenge we face in changing attitudes towards waste.

But when I got to Guatemala, it became apparent that it’s not that difficult. There, the local people use markets for buying their goods; many arrive with reusable containers or bags for their purchases, thus cutting out their reliance on the wasteful plastic packaging that you find in the supermarkets.

What it taught me is that there is an answer: it’s buying locally at farmers’ markets and small grocers and bringing our own receptacles with us. It takes more time, but I learned that making an extra effort – as I saw those in Guatemala doing – can make the world of difference.

Single-use plastic in South East Asia – Nora Dunn of Professional Hobo

Although I had been consciously reducing my single-use waste for years by not buying water bottles and carrying a reusable shopping bag with me, the penny dropped on how bad the situation was (and in turn, how much more I could do) when I was traveling through SE Asia. Two incidents; a river cruise in Hoi An Vietnam and a shopping mall in Chiang Mai Thailand, showed me that single-use plastic is being consumed at an outrageous rate and is not being disposed of properly – or rather, at all.

After that, I created my own “zero waste kit” that I take with me everywhere I go. It includes all the tools I need to never create any single-use waste (plastic or otherwise) whenever I leave the house (or the country). This includes:

Image by Nora Dunn
  • Reusable collapsible water bottle
  • Collapsible coffee cup
  • Reusable foldable shopping bag
  • Collapsible tupperware (for takeout, leftovers at restaurants, and street food)
  • Reusable cutlery

Because everything is super lightweight and collapsible, it easily fits into my purse, so I have it with me all the time. And if for some reason, I forgot my coffee cup and I’m at a coffee shop, I simply don’t order anything unless I can have it served in a mug. Sometimes I need to make sacrifices, but on the whole, it’s totally worthwhile.  

The Health-Environment Dilemma – Christy de Jaegher of Holistic Lifestyle Refresh

As a busy mom of two young boys I am lucky if I scrape together enough time to do my grocery shopping at one store each week. I simply do not have time to shop around or drive to a second or third store down the road, never-mind the zero waste shop 45 minutes away that I continue to admire from afar. My preferred grocery store is quite literally across the street, and just so happens to have the best deals and selection of natural and organic foods I choose to feed my family.

As someone who cares deeply (and blogs) about both health and sustainability, I’ve gotten myself into a predicament. While for the most part I see these two subjects as complementary, this ends at the grocery store. I diligently bring my own reusable produce bags on every grocery trip, only to bring them home mostly empty.

Phito credits to Christy de Jaegher

Instead, I am forced to fill my cart with pre-bagged organic apples, oranges, pears, yams, onions and garlic, plastic cartons of organic spinach and tomatoes, and triple wrapped cucumbers, when their non-organic equivalents are piled in bulk, plastic (not pesticide) free. Why? I couldn’t tell you. But I regret to admit, in my case, health trumps environment.

This shouldn’t even be a dilemma. Right? If non-organic produce can be piled high without an ounce of plastic, why can’t organic produce? If Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores can do it, why do more budget friendly mainstream grocery stores need to bind it all in unnecessary plastic?

Yes, I could just change stores. That would solve my problem (and create a few new ones, including 20 minutes worth of driving time and carbon emissions, and twice the grocery bill), however it wouldn’t solve the real problem. The demand for affordable organic foods continues to grow, as does the pressure to live more sustainably.

Consumers can only do so much, and shouldn’t have to feel guilty about choosing healthier options that have been grown more sustainably. Larger corporations need to step up and do more to help fight climate change. Small basic changes, like bringing in bulk organic produce, are catalysts for bigger changes. Just saying.

Addiction with single-use plastic in Malaysia – Kirsten Raccuia of Sand In My Curls

Image by Kirsten Raccuia

Malaysia has a terrible single-use waste problem. It’s worse than a problem. It’s an addiction.

I’ve been living in Penang since 2013 and have seen little improvement over the years.

There is little education about the devastation it does to the planet, and single-use plastics are convenient. It’s not just straws that are given with every drink. They were banned a year ago, but shopkeepers and hawker stalls pretend not to know about the ban.

Most people drive scooters here, so to-go drinks, even coffee, comes in a plastic bag with a straw. Why? Because it’s easy to hang on the scooter handlebars.

In the wet market, they hand out plastic bags for everything. They throw raw chicken, fish, and pork directly in plastic bags. Since cross-contamination is a big no-no, one piece of chicken goes in one bag, five shrimp in another, and so on. People leave the market with 10 mostly empty bags. 

In a grocery store, they wrap things like single bananas, cucumbers, carrots, and avocados in plastic so they can pre-weigh and put a price sticker on them. It’s absurd.

They just banned plastic bags from Monday-Wed, supposedly not even for purchase. It’s a start, but sadly there will be no one to enforce it. Hopefully, now that Thailand has banned plastic bags, Malaysia will jump on the bandwagon.

Motor Home Waste – Izzy and Phil of The Gap Decaders

Image by The Gap Decaders

We live and travel in Europe in a motorhome and love to wild camp.  To many, this means hiking up a mountain and sleeping in a tiny tent overnight; in the van community it means finding a free place to park and sleep overnight.  This could be a car park or by the side of the road, but for us it means solitude, a glorious view and not many other people around.  

Over the past few years, the numbers of motorhomes in Europe has increased exponentially and whilst the vast majority of van lifers dispose of their black waste (toilet cassette) and grey waste (any other dirty water) responsibly, some don’t.  Toilet and grey waste disposed of in hedges and under bushes is harmful to the environment, it’s unhygienic and it gives the community we love a bad reputation.  

We are so privileged to be able to see the world from the comfort of our motorhomes, let’s not slowly destroy it with thoughtless and irresponsible waste disposal.  Find out more about van life and the correct management of motorhome waste

Wastefulness in restaurants and travels – Heather Cairone of Where the Van Goghs

Restaurant industry:

Image by Heather Cairone

I work in the restaurant industry, and waste is an issue I’ve battled for years. My longest employer was pretty good in this area, using both recycling and compost bins to sort waste, and real plates and napkins that reduced waste. Still, the recycling and trash bins were often mis-sorted, contaminated with food and other items that cause entire loads to be rejected. Much food was thrown into the compost, wasting it rather than letting it feed people and/or animals first. Some nights, after events especially, it was heartbreaking how much perfectly good food was wasted, in a city battling a huge homeless crisis no less.

After quitting to travel, I briefly worked in another restaurant which had much lower standards. Besides not having recycling or composting, which is quite common, in 2019, this place was using disposable plastic silverware and paper plates for in-house dining. The disposable plastic silverware bothered me most, but I was told the owner wouldn’t be budged on it. We had salad bowls and pizza pans that had to be washed and facilities to do it. So I went out and bought some actual metal silverware and provided those during my shifts, hiding them away after. The intentional wastefulness, in a day and age when we know better, and can easily do better, is just unacceptable.

Traveling life:

Image by Heather Cairone

Traveling is one of my passions. But after seeing many places far and wide, popular and secluded, I have verified one thing is everywhere: trash. Some places are better than others of course. Bali was particularly bad. After enjoying a fresh mango juice on the beach, each time asking for no straw but getting one anyway, I would fill the glass with straws collected from the beach. They were so abundant, it took no time at all, replacing themselves as soon as I’d returned the full glass to the business owner, washing up with the waves. I’ve collected trash in national parks, along a country road in Ireland, even climbing up a volcano! It. Is. Everywhere. 

In many areas where local water is undrinkable, disposable plastic water bottles are the norm. Recycling may be nonexistent. On a 24-hour bus in Vietnam, I witnessed the man who has just collected everyone’s trash, throw the bag right out the door. Learning to let go of this sadly world-wide plague of litter was one of the challenges I struggled with in my travels. Carrying a refillable water bottle, utensils, and tin travel cup allowed me to reduce my use of disposables along the way. 


It’s unfortunate that our world, with so much convenience and comforts that make human life easier, is also a wasteful world. Moreso that this wastefulness leads to the degradation of many ecosystems worldwide. However, we should not wallow in pity over the vast waste pollution issue. Instead, we should push for the change ourselves.

Push for a less wasteful world by first individual actions. Shop more consciously. Reduce your single-use plastic consumption. Conserve your energy by using electricity more efficiently. Participate in cleanups, upcycling and other waste reduction efforts.

Most importantly, we also need to clamor for societal changes. Lobby for policies such as the Green New Deal that cater to protecting the environment and animal rights while improving the economy inclusively. Petition companies to ditch single-use packaging. Above all, we need to work together to keep our planet thriving for future generations.


Leave a Reply
  1. Great Post. I live in the U.S. It seems that restaurants are working to reduce single-use plastics. I carry aluminum straws with me. I sometimes forget to take them out and use them so I’m guilty too. We have a big recycle bin that is picked up weekly. I have more recycling than I do trash. I am a work in progress though.

  2. This was very informative. I believe that waste is the worst of our environmental problems nowadays. I’m not zero-waste myself, but I’m trying to reduce it as much as I can. I try to avoid plastic wherever possible and if I have to buy something in a plastic packaging, I try to reuse it. In my supermarket they now allow customers to ring their own boxes for products such as meat or frozen veggies. That way you don’t take the plastic foil bag from them.

  3. This is a great collaboration. Thank you to everyone that participated for helping to shed a light on a REALLY important topic. I hope that the more we discuss the topic of waste in our society and the potential solutions, the more people will open their eyes and band together to fix it.

  4. Thanks for sharing my story! Awareness is half the battle; I believe the rest is up to us as individuals to create positive change.

    I have a friend who likes to make fun of my zero waste kit. She’s embarrassed every time we get take-out and I bring my collapsible tupperware for them to serve my food in so I don’t create unnecessary waste. When I told her that one day she will be doing the same thing, she said she would only do it when she HAS to.

    Rather than wait for our governments to create change by banning plastic (as an example), we can each make decisions every day to create positive change. I do it for myself and my own conscience first and foremost. If other people are inspired by proxy, all the better, but I don’t preach.

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