For most of us the tiny corners of the world that are untouched by tourism aren’t too much to think about. Maybe a tropical paradise here and there might pass through your fantasies and as memory serves, they are all typically beautifully untouched by man and absolutely pure. As for people like Jonathan Lee, these untouched paradises are incredibly important to keep in mind due to the fact that the characteristic of “pure” is slowly diminishing.
Photographer and environmental health advocate Jonathan Lee has traveled around the world and back, coming home to California to find that our recycling troubles are far from over. Here in Los Angeles, we have made big initiatives to encourage the public to jump onto the recycling bandwagon motto “reduce, reuse, recycle!” However from a different perspective, I found myself wondering if recycling is enough. Lee offered me a view into what his travels were like a while back when he was traveling through Malaysia in an effort to give me an idea of how recycling is going for other parts of the world.
Borneo, a city in east Malaysia, brings in tourists to the small island year after year. It’s main attraction is its promise of a tropical paradise underwater as well as rainforest adventures and a diverse culture to experience. Filled with opportunities to dive and snorkel along its shorelines tourism is a big factor for small towns like this, especially for a coastal city like Semporna where the population is barely beyond six digits. As Lee recalled, Semporna is a “water city” where its community thrives off of the water; boats are the main sources of transportation and houses on stilts over the water are common. As small as Semporna may be, it’s attractions are rather unique making it a hot spot for foreigners to travel through.
For someone who has never traveled to an eastern seaport off of a small island for snorkeling, the narrative of Lee’s trip was enticing. To my dismay, what came next were his photographs of what he experienced at the seaports just moments before traveling out into the water for diving. In a few photographs that Lee had taken, the seaports were far from paradise. The water by the docks of the seaport were beyond polluted, wrappers and bottles of all sorts float along the shoreline bobbing up and down around boats all gathered to take tourists out into open water. The sight was disheartening as one wonders, how could such a small island far from mass consumerism like America still be so heavily affected by pollution? But clearly how could a city whose attraction is the water allow its actual water to be so contaminated?
Semporna and its blemished paradise is “not a unique story” Lee informs me. In fact, as he spoke with the native islanders whose livelihood depended on the water, many are aware of the uprising of pollution in the seaports but so many are unsure as to how to go about the obstacle of cleaning up. In a place like Semporna, the water provided transportation, food, capital through tourism and also a means of cleaning but like many other coastal city dwellers, few who live there consider their personal impact on the water. Digging deeper beyond trash at shorelines, Lee found that Semporna’s issue wasn’t only along the coast but that the entire city’s waste management was the main source of misguided information about trash and recycling.
Considering that America is one of the leading countries in education and technology, its hard to understand that even with such a reputation as a “progressive” country, America is still very low on the list of environmentally friendly countries in the world. In this context, taking us from America all the way to the shores of Malaysia, Lee points out that the solution now isn’t so much about cleaning up but about preserving the beauty that we still have in nature. For instance in the commonly used mantra “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle,” Lee states that the order of reusing, reducing and then recycling was created purposely because one of our first moves as an environmentally conscious community should be about purposefully reusing what we can in an effort to save production efforts of creating new products. In that sense, Lee provides an example of reusing plastic bags for more than just the walk from the grocery store to your pantry. Those plastic bags used by virtually everyone who shops at grocery stores are used for not more than 15 minutes (actually this depends on how far your pantry is from your local grocery store). By cutting down the production of plastic bags, like they do in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong, energy is saved from recycling efforts, less landfill space is used, and there is potentially roughly $3 million dollars to be saved.
Step 2 includes reducing the prevalence the of single-use package. Yes single-use packaging has been created for convenience but in the long run, those itty-bitty bags of chips potentially end up taking up more space in landfills than if more people utilized reusable bags and purchased large Costco-like sized packaging. Every little effort counts especially if the education of how to incorporate these recycling tips into your everyday life became more accessible.
As a Los Angeles native myself, I have always been aware of the pollution that overshadows the beauty in Los Angeles. However as many people would agree, the little attempts at being environmentally conscious almost go unnoticed and leave one feeling like their efforts don’t make a difference. Often the massive presence of trash and pollution discourages people to a point of hopelessness. In my conversation with Lee, it is clear that these feelings of unhelpfulness are absolutely unwarranted.
Lee encourages all to not only make whatever effort they can but to also consider new alternatives to recycling. Hand in hand with Angela Du’s ECOStitch line, upcycling is now front and center of the worldwide advocacy of environmental health. For those like me who have never heard of upcycling, it is the movement in which we can take whatever we consider trash and turn it into what others may consider “treasures.” Utilizing a creative spin to recycling has not only provided efficient use of waste but also allows for the education of recycling to be a bit more recreational. For instance during Lee’s travels in Malaysia, he has encountered international people who have taken waste and brought them to classrooms for craft projects to promote upcycling to the younger generation. These small but impactful projects are a mark of true human ingenuity in environmental advocacy.
Du’s ECOStitch line takes recycling to the runway this Saturday the 19th at the 626 Night Market where upcycling is presented to the public as an upfront fashion statement. If you are having trouble thinking of inventive ways to upcycle, Angela Du for INKDThread is who you’ll want to stop by and talk to about her personal journey in the forefront of upcycling fashion. The efforts to educate and promote recycling benefits not only the community we live in but sends a message to the rest of the world as a call to action. Du and Lee may only be two voices in the crowd but their undertaking of the responsibility to reduce our environmental footprint is a message far from small and definitely hard to ignore.
>>> Photo credits to Jonathan Lee. Find more of his photos and stories of his world travels at http://www.subtledream.com/ <<<