Plastic Fantastic: Southeast Asia’s Obsession with Drinking Straws

Order a bottle of water or any other drink in most places in Southeast Asia and you’ll get a plastic straw. Most likely you’ll also be given a plastic cup too, the bottle will be plastic, and it will probably have a little plastic wrapper over the cap you need to remove before being able to quench your thirst.

But before you’ve managed to do that, the shop attendant has double bagged your purchase in – you’ve guessed it – plastic bags! So what’s the deal?

Plastic everywhere!

In our travels around Southeast Asia, we noticed this more and more – especially in places such as Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia. 7/11 stores here are especially at fault because the staff there will just throw a load of drinking straws in a plastic bag even though you’ve only bought one drink! And it doesn’t only happen here. South America is just as guilty too – as are many places around the world.

If any of you guys have ever been to these places, you’ll also have noticed people drinking colorful looking drinks from little plastic bags with a straw sticking out of them. Every time you buy fruit or street food from vendors here they put it in a little plastic bag. Sometimes they put it in more than one. Plastic upon plastic upon plastic upon plastic. Trash cans are overflowing. The amount of waste must be incredible. And for environmentally aware travelers (which we hope you all are) that is a worrying thing.

Environmental disaster!

Thailand has famous full moon parties every month during the tourist season. Thousands of party goers looking for fun, beaches and dance music come to Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand for these events, and obviously, they use a lot of drinking straws! Unfortunately, a lot of them get into the ocean. According to organisers, these parties can cause up to 12 tonnes of waste in a day!

trash on the beach

Plastic is found on beaches all around the world. It can be found in the stomachs of animals and causes a lot of devastation in the wild. Birds get caught up in plastic bottle carriers. Plastic bags can strangle and suffocate. We use 500,000,000 straws globally every single day! Most of the waste floating in the world’s oceans and seas are plastics, and much of this is made up of straws.

Why so much plastic is used

As we travelled more and more around this beautiful continent, it was upsetting when we went for meals or bought food and drink from grocery stores.

We began to make it a mission to try to refuse as much plastic as possible – especially the straws! But a little research online and we discovered that local people use them because of hygienic issues. For example – canned drinks and bottled drinks can be stored in stock rooms or basements, and people are careful what they touch and drink out of. That might make more sense when you imagine the little creatures coming to visit your store room. Other Southeast Asians believe it’s rude and bad manners to drink directly from a can or bottle.

Even if this is a good use of the plastic straw, there’s still so much waste that it’s causing a big problem. Nobody likes to see filthy streets in a city, or on a beach, or in the countryside. Nobody likes to see plastic stuck in trees or in rivers or washed up in a gutter. Especially if you’re a traveller who enjoys seeing the beautiful places! So what exactly can we do about it?

How to save environment

Well, we have started small and are really careful to limit how many times we use anything that’s made of plastic. Here are five ideas you can try both at home and on the road.

#1 Refuse all straws!

Try to remember to say no to those horrible straws! The less we use, the better it will be. When a shop or restaurant or street vendor includes a straw with your drink or other purchase, politely give it back.

We’ve found that some people are happy about this – because they don’t need to buy more straws! If you really must use one for hygiene or other personal reasons – consider having your own that you can re-use again and again. Recycling is best!

#2 Say no to bags!

This is a big one. Every time you’re offered a bag try to say no. Especially if you’re already carrying your backpacks or something else that can fit whatever you buy into! Have you ever had an experience where you buy a tiny souvenir and the shop assistant puts it in a plastic bag? Say no and put it in your pocket!

redbull can

And if you’re living somewhere for a while, try re-using bags when buying groceries and fruit and vegetables. Some people might look at you in an odd way – but think of what you’re doing for the environment!

#3 Clean up!

Traveling around a lot and you will see plastic trash everywhere. While we’re not saying you should become a professional trash collector during your travels, if you see a bit of plastic or waste just lying on a beach – try to pick it up and drop it in a litter basket. You’ll be amazed at how good it makes you feel too!

#4 Reuse drinking water bottles!

We all know that traveling to exotic places might mean we can’t drink the tap water, so you have to spend a lot of money on drinking water.

juice in a plastic cup

Try to get as much use out of the bottles as possible – especially if you can re-fill with water that is safe to drink. And if you can’t, make sure you find a litter bin – or better yet – somewhere that does recycling.

Water bottles can add up to quite a big pile of trash and even higher bill. You’ll save a lot of your hard-earned buck and travel more if you re-use the bottles you have. Why lose money when it serves no purpose and helps nobody.

Better still you can invest in travel water bottle or better still a bottle with a filter so that you can refill the water from the tap.

#5 Spread the word!

We’ve talked to a lot of people about the straws of Southeast Asia! This is often in a fun and lighthearted way, but it does carry a serious message. When staying in a hostel or out with other traveling buddies, you could try mentioning it and raising awareness. You might be surprised how many people agree with you – and how many people will make an effort to go straw free!

Take action!

Southeast Asia is a beautiful part of the world and traveling there has been such a wonderful opportunity. But we need to take care of it as we go. With just a few changes here and there and a little more effort to cut back on plastics, maybe we can make a difference, one drinking straw at a time!

What’s your take on the plastic waste problem?


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Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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20 thoughts on “Plastic Fantastic: Southeast Asia’s Obsession with Drinking Straws”

  1. if i cant reuse a bag, i dont take it. And i dont understand why everyone uses straws. They restrict the flavour of the drink IMO. Great post Agness. There are number of places around the world banning plastic bags – Dhaka for one. It’s a great policy.

  2. Am sailing SE Asia now and have sadly often had to helm the boat through seas of plastic. Just horrible. Your tips are spot on and greatly appreciated.

  3. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    You are absolutely right. In my country also, India, we have this indiscriminate use of plastic straws and bags. Recently, a nationwide campaign has been started against this for the very same reasons you’ve stated here. It not only pollutes and environment badly but the heaps of plastics here and there stand like sore thumbs.

  4. Great post, I noticed this about Asia too. I always try and be careful how much plastic I use, as it can be so detrimental to the environment.

  5. Bespoke Traveler

    Fantastic tips I try to follow when traveling anywhere. I would also add that if water quality is a concern, there are several filtration devices available so that one doesn’t have to use bottled water.

  6. Ah, yes! As an Indonesian, I pledged guilty of overuse plastic, and Styrofoam! We use straws for almost every kind of drink. We bring our food takeaways with Styrofoam container.

    For the last 5 years, I managed to reduce my plastic consumption by using reuse-able tumbler for drinks and reuse-able plastic container for food. But it is still very difficult to replace straws; every time i said ‘no’ to straws, the drink seller always gave me the look “whyyyyy?”

  7. Sarah Christie

    Wow that incredible, all that wastage and pollution, its a shame they cant use a biodegradable alternative x

  8. LOL, even here in America you know you’re in an Asian restaurant when they bring straw with your glass of water :)

  9. It’s so sad to see the oceans polluted and wildlife affected. I use a fold up water bottle which takes up only a little room in my bag and can be refilled and reused. When I use that I know it’s clean so don’t need a straw either…

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