The availability of boba milk tea on the street outside of our dorms and classrooms in Kunming is incredible. And so is the availability of plastic bags, single-use items, and non-recyclable (or non-recycled) waste.
In Seattle, I live in a bubble of burlap-grocery-bag-toting tree-huggers, solar-powered trash/recycle/compost compacters, and Hydroflasks. So many Hydroflasks. Seattleites rarely see a plastic grocery bag, as our grocery stores only give out paper (for a 5-cent fee), and plastic straws were recently banned in favor of compostable ones. So it should be no surprise that I was surprised by the amount of waste an individual can produce in a single day of living in Kunming. Fortunately, I brought my small army of reusable items to help mitigate my waste production while abroad.
Plastic is such a huge part of our lives that it can be hard, at first, to even notice, and even harder to figure out what to do about it. Last week, our resident director challenged us to send her pictures of us reducing our waste or recycling, which was an awesome way to get us thinking about our personal responsibility to be stewards of our environment. My classmates submitted photos of solid container-less soap, a 5-liter water bottle creatively re-purposed as a laundry bin, and even a biodegradable toothbrush! As a prize, participating students received reusable bamboo chopsticks. As guests in Kunming, I feel like our summer here embodies what I learned at summer camp as a kid – to leave the environment better than when we found it. Being here and learning about Chinese culture does not necessarily mean copying everything that we see people here doing. Saying no to plastic bags and trying not to buy single-use water bottles can be a huge help in reducing your burden on the environment while you’re here!
Just to give you an idea of the battle against plastic that you might face while abroad, consider a typical day for me. I’m not a morning person, so I rush to the cafeteria for breakfast and get jǎozi 饺子 (dumplings) to-go. Without my Tupperware, I would have to take them in a little plastic bag. I haven’t found instant coffee in a big container, so I use a small plastic packet of powdered coffee (I know, I know, minus points from Gryffindor), but I use my own thermos, so at least it’s not a whole cup that I have to throw away. Lunch isn’t a big issue since I usually eat at the cafeteria, but I like to grab zhēnzhūnǎichá 珍珠奶茶 (boba milk tea) before my afternoon class. When I pay, I have to make sure to tell them that I don’t need a plastic bag or a straw, which gets me a strange look. But it’s all good, because conveniently, a cup is already a container, and I already have my own straw! You can buy metal straws at stores in the US, online, and you can get them here in Kunming as well.
The rest of the day can vary a lot. Maybe I’ll need to pick up some things from the store, so I keep a lightweight cloth bag in my backpack so I won’t need to use a plastic grocery bag. Maybe I’ll take a walk to cuìhú 翠湖 (Green Lake) and will want to bring a water bottle. You may have heard that you’re not supposed to drink tap water in China, so it can be tempting to buy bottled water at one of the many stores that sell them. But why do that when, for free, you can fill up your handy sticker-decorated 32-ounce Nalgene with boiled water or water from the giant barrels that are provided in the dorms?
I’m not perfect, and I don’t think I’m ready to 100% rid my life of plastic consumption (can you imagine trick-or-treating without candy wrappers??), but the little things add up. If I took the little plastic bag along with every cup of boba tea I’ve had here… I don’t even want to count. Plus, travelling abroad with new friends, classes, foods, customs, and a new language is one of the most overwhelming things I have ever signed up for. Being mindful of something I care about and doing something about it puts a little bit of control back in my pocket.
Wishing you a happy time abroad, a sustainability-filled adventure, and a multitude of boba tea flavors to fuel your every mood. 加油 jiā yóu!