Plastic-free Lent: The Sri Lanka edition

A few weeks ago I posted an article outlining last year’s attempt at giving up plastic for Lent while living in Australia (read about it here). This year we are on the road, and I wanted to see what it would be like to try and live (or rather travel) plastic-free in Sri Lanka. In a country where single-use plastic is a relatively recent addition, the experience was mixed. It was refreshing to embrace traditional alternatives that are readily available across the island, yet disheartening to witness how ubiquitous items like plastic bottles and straws have become. Seeing how much of it ends up strewn across the landscape only highlights the work still required to turn the tide.

Here, unlike big-city nations, you cannot claim ignorance to the detrimental effect that single-use plastic is having on the environment. The evidence is everywhere. It’s in the toxic fumes from roadside rubbish fires; it’s lining the beaches and clogging up the drains. It’s on public pathways or nature strips and in the stomachs of stray dogs, local cows, turtles and birds.

Sri Lanka is still largely dependant on traditional and sustainable manufacturing practices. For example, palm trees are fundamental here; the leaves are used for fences, roofs, baskets, bags, disposable plates and even lunch containers. The wide variety of coconuts produced by these trees can be consumed, made into spoons, cups, light shades or art, while the husks are dried out and made into rope. The traditional way of eating here is to use your hands and most Sri Lankans drink tap or bore water – until recently, there wasn’t a huge demand for single-use plastic goods.

Thanks to this, it was surprisingly easy to embrace traditional materials and swap out most plastic for something more eco-friendly. I was worried about having to forgo the delicious, soothing mini-yogurts after a spicy curry or evening kottu rotti, but discovered (and almost became addicted to) the amazing clay-pot, paper-wrapped buffalo curd, which is available fresh and daily from almost any local kade (shop).

The majority of fruits and vegetables in Sri Lanka are grown locally and sold in nearby markets, meaning that they are not plastic-wrapped and you can politely decline the plastic bag they offer to weigh or carry your produce. Ironically the only plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables are imported (such as apples, pears, capsicums). This makes sense when you consider the distance they need to travel, but given the variety of locally grown produce available in Sri Lanka, buying imported fresh food seems entirely unnecessary.

In addition to the plastic-free fruit and veg, self-serve grains and lentils are also readily available from local shops and supermarkets. You can measure out your ideal amount and expect to pay far less than what you would for pre-packaged goods. Eggs can be bought individually and even washing detergent (although mostly available in bottled plastic) is also available in paper-wrapped soap-like bars for hand washing, which is perfect for travellers like us.

  Mosquito repellent is essential, not only to avoid itchy and irritating bites but also to prevent the spread of viruses like dengue fever and Japanese Encephalitis. I struggled to find a repellent that wasn’t sold in a plastic bottle, however I was able to find some glass-bottled pure citronella oil (a natural insect-repellent). I mixed this with pure coconut oil (also glass). I didn’t have a spray bottle so transferred the mix into a recycled tonic bottle for my journey, and applied it by hand. This homemade mix is much kinder on the skin than DEET and works fairly well. The only hitch was that it was nearly 3 times the price (coming in at 850 LKR, compared with 300 for plastic).

When it comes to food on the go, there is no shortage of options. Short-eats (Sri Lanka’s staple road-side snack) are often freshly made and can be eaten on the spot or more often wrapped up for take-away in newspaper or old school homework. Fresh fruit is an easy choice and coconut stalls usually line the streets no matter how far off the beaten track you go. Sri Lanka is also one of the many countries that reuse glass bottles of soda in restaurants and shops. They are ordered (and the empties collected) by the crate-load; you can also buy them to take-away if you cover the deposit!

Water (more specifically clean & drinkable water) was the biggest and most frustrating part of plastic-free Lent. Locals can often drink the tap water, but for foreigners it is a little riskier. Luckily enough we have spent a lot of time in accommodation with a kitchen, or at least a burner. This has meant we were able to boil water, transfer into a pan to cool overnight and drink it the next day. We also tried our best to find hotels or restaurants that offered free refills (look up the hash tag #refillanka to find some for yourself). However, there have been many hot days and nights when were stuck without a kettle or water filter, and on these occasions we resorted to buying 5 or 7 litre plastic bottles from the nearest shop.

Nilaveli beach, near Trincomalee on the East coast of Sri Lanka

The last few weeks of Lent were spent in the North and North-East of Sri Lanka, areas less visited by tourists. It is also off-season there which means visitors are even more scarce and beach clean-up schemes are rare. The 13km of coast from Trincomalee to Nilaveli has soft warm water lapping the white sand and huge hanging palm trees, but the vast beach itself is covered in hundreds – if not hundreds of thousands – of plastic bottles, bags, straws, big (and tiny) pieces of polystyrene, flip flops, pill bottles, rope and other unrecognisable items. It’s a small sign of the huge amount of plastic that has found its way into the natural environment.

Despite the bad press, there is no denying plastic has its uses (witnessing a small child with some pretty spectacular travel sickness reaffirmed my appreciation for plastic bags, for example), and the reality is that a lot of individuals and communities in Sri Lanka have more pressing things to worry about than plastic waste.  Until there are more accessible and affordable alternatives we cannot expect to see a massive change. The only thing we can do is aim to improve our own actions.

The tourism industry is booming – not just in Sri Lanka – and responsible travel is more important than ever. Take a water bottle, ask for filtered water and decline the bloody plastic straw. Tom and I have left countless reviews and contacted various people and business about supplying filtered water and reusable goods. The response has been mostly positive, with business wanting to please their customers and preserve the pristine environment for generations to come.

For Sri Lanka, like all nations, the challenge is immense. For the sake of the environment, the large population of subsistence farmers who rely on it and the burgeoning tourism sector (soon set to become the country’s most lucrative industry), the government needs to be proactive and where possible avoid some of the mistakes we’ve so tragically made at home.

From a personal perspective, I’ll aim to continue the plastic-free challenge for the rest of the year and beyond. These may be small changes but collectively they can make a huge difference in the war on waste.

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