Vagabond Tales: Are Plastic Bottles Becoming A Natural Resource?

The island of Mabul, Malaysia, is not big. In fact, it’s tiny. You can walk around it in 45 minutes.

A popular destination for scuba divers, visitors to this remote island off the coast of Borneo frequently pass the time by diving the offshore reefs or lounging beneath a coconut palm – pretty taxing stuff really.

While digging into a good book from the confines of a hammock is all well and good, few visitors, I noticed, actually take the time to get out and explore the island. In the hour or so it took me to meander the circumference of the tropical sand spit, I encountered a grand total of zero other tourists.


This is not to say the beaches were empty – far from it. All along the shoreline local fishermen mended their nets and rolled canoes on logs in an effort to extract them from the turquoise waters. As the fishermen went about their daily tasks, others sat shirtless and cross-legged on the sand, methodically hacking into coconuts with machetes that had seen their fair share of husks.

All of this activity is to be expected on an island with only two natural resources, those of course being fish and coconuts.Interspersed among the workers, however, was something that set in motion a line of thinking, which has haunted me for the past three years. There, on the trash-strewn shores of Mabul, hordes of young school-aged children ran dutifully around the island sifting through the plastic-lined shoreline and stuffing the bottles they found into tattered burlap bags.

No, this wasn’t Malaysia’s version of a nationwide beach cleanup.

Rather, these children had been sent out to collect the plastic bottles so they could be used around the home.

Ever wondered how you grow a vegetable garden on an island made of nothing but sand? Cut a plastic bottle lengthwise, fill it with imported soil or dirt, plant some seeds in it, and hang it on your balcony. Voila. Vegetable garden.

How about creating a fishing net? Instead of using expensive styrofoam floats which need to be imported, why not just use the buoyant plastic bottles, which are imported by the drifting ocean currents?

Watching these groups of 5-year-old children gather bags of plastic bottles from the shore, I realized that in some twisted stretch of irony, for these children who don’t know otherwise, these plastic bottles are essentially a natural resource much the same as coconuts.

Need to mend a net? Need to plant a garden? Need to carry fresh water? Go down to the shore and gather some bottles.

As someone who is staunchly anti-plastics and an advocate for their removal from global commerce, this was an eye-opening variable I had never considered.

What if plastics and marine debris are (for a select number of impoverished coastal communities around the globe) actually providing a resource and considered to be good?

Environmentally conflicted I tabled the thought and buried it down deep. This past November, however, I spotted an outdoor lamp on the island of Boracay in the Philippines with a lampshade made from an empty two-liter coke bottle (pictured above) and the counter-intuitive thought resurfaced.

Not more than two weeks later, while exploring the backside of Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) off the coast of Cambodia, I happened upon this fishing net which had been strung together on the shore. Here, again, were the plastic bottles in abundance used as floats for holding up the net. In a flashback to Mabul, here, in a village numbering no more than 25 people, were two young boys wandering the shoreline and collecting plastic bottles.

So after all of these sightings am I still an advocate for the elimination of plastics? Yes. Are plastics one of the largest elements of marine debris threatening our oceans and marine species? Yes. Are plastics petroleum based and do they contribute to the world’s addiction to fossil fuels? Yes.

Nevertheless, as we here in the West fret about marine debris and oceanic garbage patches the size of Texas, I think about a mother in Mabul growing tomatoes out of a coke bottle; I conjure up a fisherman in Cambodia feeding his family with gear made from a flotilla of empty Evians.

I wonder if, by some chance, we as a civilization are able to clean up our oceans and ditch the addiction to plastics. Will a generation of islanders in forgotten corners of the Pacific tell their children stories of a day when plastics were abundant and easy to come by?

I sure hope not, but the point has been raised nevertheless.

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