Drinks in Plastic Bags: An Alternative History
Back in 2014, as heavy house music pumped in the background, Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, a bar located on Singapore’s Boat Quay, was serving cocktails out of plastic bags. This felt a little strange for some, but it was also the bar’s 2nd anniversary party. As Manhattans and Gimlets were ladled out of large plastic containers, customers warmed to the gimmick.
Everyone who has traveled or lived in Asia will be familiar with this practice of serving takeaway drinks (sometimes food) out of plastic bags. They typically come with green or orange plastic “nooses” that allow the bags to be tied up.
Unlike other practices like say, removing your shoes while at home or slurping loudly when eating noodles, there isn’t really a story behind why people do this. These bags are flimsy at best and logic-defying at worse. They inspire a greater desire for water bombs than they do refreshment on a hot day.
But apparently, as it seems, someone had just decided to do it one day, and it caught on.
In countries like the Philippines however, sweet, sticky, drinkable liquids in plastic bags make a different kind of sense. Here, buying a bottled soft drink doesn’t get you the drink, only its liquid contents. This means that you have to return the bottle. You can’t take it with you unless you pay a deposit to guarantee its safe return.
there’s something completely unpretentious and laid back about the method that’s distinctively Asian
Essentially, it’s an issue of economics. For both vendors and customers, plastic bags are usually a cheaper option. Drinks stalls don’t have to invest in plastic cups, and consequently risk incurring extra costs when they are damaged or go missing.
For patrons, drinks packaged in cans or bottles are usually more expensive by default, as are those that come in takeaway cups. Coca-Cola bottles, which are still made of glass in some of these countries, need to be traded in by vendors before manufacturers will deliver a fresh stock of the drink. As such, they rarely go home with customers.
While this takeaway method is used also in South American countries like Brazil and Honduras, what sets the Asian interpretation apart is the drinks that go into them.
In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, drinks are often pre-prepared in large, transparent plastic containers with the iconic green details. Such drinks can be mixed according to preference, and plastic bags facilitate the convenience of the creating endless possibilities.
Whether it’s soya bean milk with grass jelly or sugar cane juice with bandung, everything can be thrown together with nothing more than a few quick flourishes.
And it isn’t just cold drinks that go into these bags either. In a somewhat counter-intuitive practice, hot drinks like coffee and tea are taken away in these bags too. Which really makes you wonder, what happens if you drop it? It’s not even uncommon for people to string these bags up on their rearview mirrors when they’re driving.
All the same, there’s something completely unpretentious and laid-back about the method that’s distinctively Asian—the way you really only need one finger to carry it around, freeing up the rest of your fingers to do, well, whatever you need them to do.
Yet away from the charm of plastic bags in all of its novel practicality, a bigger problem has begun to surface. In January this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the World Economic Forum released its New Plastics Economy report.
It revealed that plastic production globally has skyrocketed from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. This number is expected to double in 20 years as demand for it grows. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
In Thailand, the recovery rate of plastic waste is only 23%. Taiwan, according to the secretary general of its Environmental Protection Administration, is nicknamed ‘Plastic Kingdom.’ In India, flash floods happen because drainage systems all over the country are clogged by plastic bags.
We don’t see a lot of this stuff, but in poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, it ends up in oceans, waterways and landfills. And unbeknownst to the people of these countries, this plastic will collect and linger for hundreds of years to come.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the history of this tradition of putting drinks in plastic bags or even imagine giving it up, we have to be prepared for a world in which this convention no longer exists.
But as Ernest Zacharevic’s ‘Kopi-O’ mural in Ipoh shows, it’ll be a long time more before we forget about how we used to do this.