There is no easy solution

Written on 22 Jan 2015

We recently got this thoughtful and candid email from one of the companies preparing to make the TAP pledge, which we’d like to share as it illustrates some very common conceived roadblocks about taking part in the Travelers Against Plastic Campaign.

“Our situation here is slightly complicated. It would be very easy for me to put your label on our website but for the time being I will not do that. We simply can't comply with this at the moment. Many companies have made the pledge but I am very doubtful that that is genuine. There is no easy solution to this problem. Most of our trips go to mountainous areas and stay overnight at rather primitive tribal villages. There are no places where you can refill a bottle with safe drinking water. Villagers sell bottled water and make money on this. They also make money by recycling empty bottles. 

I am not sure about the percentage here but definitely less than 86% of the bottles end up in landfills. I seldom see plastic bottles on the roadside, a lot of other plastic trash though. There are several recycle places in my neighbourhood where we bring our empty bottles, cans and plastic bottles. There are huge piles of plastic bottles. There are of course cheaper solutions but price is not an issue here. One liter of bottled water costs here around 30 cents.

The water cleaning solutions you suggest are not practical in our circumstances. Guests can buy bottled water everywhere and it will be hard to convince them that water cleaned by a pen or by pills is better, taste better, etc.. We can't forbid villagers to sell bottled water. 

Water that has to be cleaned here will be either rainwater or water from a well or river. Guests trust water that comes from an sealed bottle. At the moment I am working on a policy that ensures that all plastic bottles that are consumed during our trips will be recycled.  I am open for any suggestions.”

TAP founder Chris Mackay sent the following reply:

"First I would like to thank you for being conscientious enough to address the issue and realize that there needs to be compliance or at least a great effort in that direction. I want to address your questions and issues individually because I feel that what you are facing is what many operators are facing, so I can use this as a learning tool for others in the same situation.

1. You are right that there is no easy solution to the disposable plastic water bottle problem,  but there is a solution, and one worth doing. For over 15 years all my clients carry a method to clean their water and therefore do not use disposables, so I know it works and can be done. Many of my trips went to the Hill Tribes outside Chiang Rai and we drank the exact same water the locals did. I just returned from Nepal and all my clients filled up from the well where the locals did. Not a single client complained as they knew WHY we were doing it. They also KNEW that the system they were using works and is safe-no one got sick.

2. When villagers sell water bottles and make money on them and are reluctant to give up that income there is an excellent alternative. In Nepal in one village where they too made profit of the sale of disposables, they changed things. They forbid the sale of disposable bottles and instead provided clean water at the guest houses that clients filled up at and paid for. In the end the villagers made more money because they did not have to go to get the water bottles and transport them back into the village (saving gas and time=$) or deal with the waste- or in your case recycling. It was a win-win for everyone. And villagers could also sell reusable bottles to travelers and make much more money. They are also educating travelers that they care about the environment.

3. Recycling vs reusing. It’s fantastic that Thailand recycles so much, and I too have noticed they do a great job when I am there. But that is not the whole story. The production of that kind of plastic is toxic to those working in the factories and those who are unfortunate enough to live close by. The transport of water is expensive and uses gas creating pollution. The recycling takes energy and creates pollution as well. Those type of water bottles leech toxins into the water, so although it looks very clean, its harboring chemicals I don’t want to drink and I don’t want  my clients to drink. Even though a bottle is only 30 cents, if you reuse it’s even cheaper- at about .01 cents a bottle. Recycling is better than throwing away, but it’s much better to reuse.

4. You are right that you cannot forbid villagers to sell disposable plastic water  bottles, or travelers to purchase them. It’s all about education. When you share with villagers that they can make more money by selling water in bulk and educate travelers that its cheaper, safer and healthier for themselves and the environment then it’s doable. It takes effort. This is about education and the desire to do the right thing. It’s always easier to go the status quo but it doesn’t mean it’s right.

5.  Your current policy of ensuring that all bottles used are recycled is a great first step. I encourage you to include in your pre-departure packets for your clients information on reusing bottles and carrying a system to clean their own water. We do it, every trip, every time and it works. It’s all about education. One client on my most recent trip said “It’s just about being conscious, it’s not hard."

This company replied saying they were grateful for the information and is now working with their partners to address the plastic bag issue, as well as the plastic water bottle issue.


The TAP Crew


Founded by the Executive Directors of two US-based sustainable travel organizations; Crooked Trails and Wildland Adventures.

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