Could We Be Doing More to Minimize Our Use of Plastic?

Protecting Our Planet: From a Cultural Perspective

It was the weekend before my departure to Belgrade, Serbia that I watched the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean,’ and couldn’t believe how rapid our environment is degrading and how much effort was lacking towards its protection. The proliferation of plastic products is developing a “disposable” lifestyle and an extensive environmental issue. 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, half of which is for single use.[1]With more than 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into our oceans each year, the need for environmental advocacy and initiatives is something that has been pinned in the back of my mind ever since.

garcia-191.jpgA few days after my arrival to my host-family in Belgrade, I accompanied my host-mother to the grocery store. Before leaving she handed me a large purple-colored straw bag and asked me to hold this bag for her as she looked for her purse. We went to the grocery store and it was on our way out to pay, that my jaw dropped and I began to truly absorb my surroundings. There were about five other cashiers and at each, every customer was putting their groceries in their own bags; none of which were made from plastic! These weren’t a few little items either people were purchasing liters of juices, fruits, vegetables even wine and yet still placed them in their own bags.

Although the use of reusable grocery-bags wasn’t foreign to me, it was the number of citizens using them that shocked me. I asked my host-mom if it had always been this common for people not to use plastic bags for their groceries, and she explained to me that stores were taxed more for producing plastic bags. The majority of citizens adapted and it became part of their custom to bring along their own means for transporting their goods. Comparing this experience to my hometown brought me a lot of pain to think about how far behind we are at adopting this custom ourselves.

Belgrade is a city in which public transportation and walking from place to place is far more common than owning a vehicle, and in one of my daily strolls to class, I photographed the image above. The photo was taken in front of a ‘Пекара’ or (bakery), right as an employee was handing numerous bags like the ones illustrated above (filled with plastic bottle caps) out to a recycle-service truck. Whether or not there was a pay incentive for this bakery’s eco-friendly deed is out of my knowledge, but regardless of the motivation hundreds of plastic bottle caps were being transported and disposed of correctly, and away from our oceans. Yet the “culture shocks” didn’t end there.

In another night after finishing having dinner with my host family, I began to help clear the table and clean up after myself. Homemade family dinners are a big part of Serbian tradition in which my host-mother takes great pride in, and as so, I take it upon myself to give back by helping her with the dishes. One evening as I was making my way towards the recycling bin to throw out an empty plastic-bin of butter, my host-mother stopped me and asked me to wash it for her as she would reuse it to store the leftovers from that night. Even though knowing that one of the largest problems of plastic production is that roughly 50% of plastic resources are used just once and thrown away, it was still in my instincts to do the very thing I’m against.[2] Later in the week, that same bin was used once again to wash and soak lemons.

garcia-1_02.jpgThere are such subtle changes in our approach to recycling that can make such a drastic difference and this is why cultural exchange will continue to be invaluable and essential for progression. The knowledge one obtains when placed in a whole different environment is truly indispensable. Often enough, we go abroad to learn about new cultures and different states, only to find ourselves learning more about ourselves than we thought possible. Sustainable development is a topic of great importance for me and my experiences abroad have generated ideas and projects that I will take with me to advocate and implement back home. If you have read this far into the blog, I challenge you to observe how much single-use plastic products are around you… and multiply that by the 7.4 billion people that inhabit the earth.

[1] Facts . About Plastic . Help. (n.d.). Retrieved from  Plastic Oceans International 2018
[2] Facts . About Plastic . Help. (n.d.). Retrieved from  Plastic Oceans International 2018

By: Adriana Garcia

Program: Balkan Language Initiative

Term: Academic Year 2018-19



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