Malaysia with kids. Travelling with less plastic

November 22, 2018 2 By Peter and Caira

Child friendliness

When you ask most people where their favourite destination in South East Asia is, Malaysia does not often come top of the list. Thailand has beaches, Cambodia has temples, Laos has backpacker ‘secrets’, but what does Malaysia offer?

We have been very fortunate that a family member resides in Kuala Lumpur.  We have also had work assignments in the region too. Between us we’ve made over ten trips to Malaysia.  Because of the contacts we have, we’ve seen a different side of the country. This is both the good – including the jungles, the amazing local (Chinese, Indian and Malaysian) food and the beautifully welcoming local people.  Not to mention the not so good – palm oil plantations and scarily huge amounts of plastic pollution.

Travelling to Malaysia with kids is really easy.  There is everything you would expect to find in a Western country – okay, things get a little bit trickier when out in the rural ‘sticks’, so to speak.  But it’s certainly not like being in the country in Cambodia or Vietnam.  In fact, on arrival back to Kuala Lumpur after three months travelling around South East Asia, our girls said that they thought they were back in New Zealand! Ha!  Most restaurants and cafes in Malaysia have child-friendly seating, cups and cutlery. The main issue for us though, is finding food and produce in the supermarket that isn’t packaged in crazy amounts of plastic!

Travelling plastic free

This will be no real surprise. Plastic dominates packaging in every country throughout the world. With most of our lives spent in the UK and New Zealand, we see it everywhere, but it gets taken to new lows here.

On our first day in Kuala Lumpur we were all prepared to go to the supermarket. We prepared our little tote bag and stuff sack. We had spent the last six months as vegetarians so were keen to continue this on travels. We gathered our vegetables in a small cotton bag to be weighed. This is where we hit our first snag…

Too much packaging

Would you like some vegetable with your plastic sir?

This was the only local supermarket and 80% of the vegetables were pre-wrapped. The main reason supermarkets do this is not to protect, or keep clean. It is to price the vegetables. In NZ or the UK they are weighed and priced at the main till. In Malaysia the main till does not do this. They have someone in the vegetable section who weighs and prices it before it get to the check out to be charged. By pre-packing, it is deemed to be save time. So if you want three peppers, that would be 3 lots of plastic wrapping.  This was a harsh lesson within hours of landing.

Recommendations for using less plastic

Some recommendations for shopping with reduced plastic in Malaysia:

1.  Firstly check the products (particularly the fruit and veg) before you enter the shop and fully commit.  You can usually tell from the offerings at the front of the shop.  Are items displayed in pre-wrapped packaging, or without?   This is usually a good indicator.

2. Make sure you have your own mesh/veggie bags.  Or, as we do, take a chance with taking the odd one or two items up to the weighing station individually.  As per the picture below.  We have never found an issue with this.  However, I have read on Zero waste Malaysia that there are some large supermarkets who have a regulations around it.  I wonder if the language barrier works in our favour on this one! For the smaller items we just stuck the sticker straight on the item.  For more than three items, i.e carrots, we use one of our trusty stuff sacks.

It really doesn’t need it’s own wrapping

3. Get your reusable bags at the ready prior to reaching the till.  We are often found digging around in our backpacks for ours at the till to communicate to the cashier that we don’t want ‘plastic’.  However I must admit, unlike other SE Asian countries, most cashiers in Malaysia do ask “plastic?” before piling items into plastic bags.

Individual, non-wrapped fruit. As refreshing as the mango itself.

4. Shout from the rooftops that you have reusable straws (if you have them of course)! These past four months have been our first serious stint to regularly using our steel straws. We know that we must all make small changes, and this is an obvious one right?  Just one that can be ridiculously hard to communicate in another language.  Be vigilant people!  You HAVE to remember to say “no straw” in advance. We’ve had plastic straws dropped into our drinks.  We’ve haddrinks come back complete with plastic straws and plastic muddlers – with no sugar!  Because of course, why would we request “no straw”?! Gah!

Plastic straw, wrapped in plastic (just to be sure). This was after requesting no straw.

5.  Now this needs a point of its own.  ALWAYS REMEMBER TO TAKE YOUR STRAW HOME! We’ve left them behind at restaurants and had to go back and retrieve them a couple of times.  Thankfully, we still have our full collection of four!

6. Look for recycling stations.  They are out there, but they must be sought.  And used properly!  During our stay on Langkawi Island in July, we were faced with four recycling bins. All with the classic recycling symbols and different colours bins with labels to explain what they are for (Plastic, Glass, Paper, Aluminium). Every morning we went to them to quietly get rid of our (ahem, beer) cans and each bin was full of rubbish. Nappies in the plastic bin. Coconuts in the aluminium bin. General waste in the paper bin. You get the gist.  It was infuriating to see.  Don’t be afraid to lead by example!  We are often found digging plastic bottles out of aluminium bins to place them in their correct bins.  In the hope that eventually people will realise.

Recycling paper? Great! Recycling clothes? Great! Recycling clothes, in a paper bin… not so great.

The bright side

There were some rays of hope though. We found The Hive Bulk Food Store in Kuala Lumpur.

This helped us stock on our snacks for the plane journey to Hanoi. We also stayed in a great Airbnb with filtered water and large shampoo/body wash dispensers.

There was also the eco focused soap and detergent refilling station out in the suburbs of Damansara Perdana. This sold other non-plastic bathroom equipment.  In fact, out of all the Asian cities we’ve visited, Kuala Lumpur probably hast the most zero waste stores. They may be small and out of the way but they are there! The small Bliss Zero Waste Store is very central and run by the most lovely person, Lin.

In Malaysia, we were regularly prompted that we must be proactive if we are to make a difference and travel with less plastic.  We must not only verbalise “no plastic”, but must show restaurant and shop staff our stuff sacks and steel straws, because once the deed of providing the plastic has been done, there is only one route for that single use plastic product.  And we all know where the likelihood of that is.