How to Use Less Plastic When You Travel
There may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Picture our future generations not knowing what a turtle is, kids walking down the beach collecting bottle caps instead of seashells, snorkelers searching for plastic relics instead of colorful fish. Is this a dystopian fantasy or is this really where we’re headed?
Traveling in Indonesia opened our eyes to the gravity of our current situation. We swam alongside graceful manta rays while at the same time dodging plastic bags, straws and wrappers. Monkeys could be seen running through the forest, carrying plastic bottles in their hands. Piles of plastic trash were everywhere, from the remote beaches to the sprawling rice fields. We were in one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world and that made all the plastic pollution even more upsetting.
As travelers, it can feel almost impossible to do anything without plastic. We’re often reliant on water bottles for drinking water while airlines and hotels push their plastic goods onto us. The truth is, it’s unrealistic to suddenly cut out plastic from our lives, but there are many ways to at least reduce our use of it. Here are some tips to help you lessen your plastic use when you travel.
1. Carry a Reusable Water Bottle
1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute. Even if you never use plastic water bottles while at home, it gets more challenging while traveling. Plastic water bottles are everywhere, on planes, in hotels, conveniently placed at popular sights. We bring a 1L reusable water bottle with us all day which we refill at cafes and refill stations throughout the day.
2. Filter Your Water, Buy a Lifestraw
In the countries that don't have drinkable tap water, avoiding plastic water bottles gets a little more difficult. Buy a portable water filtration device like Lifestraw Steel, which can make any water source safe to drink. It's a little on the pricey side, but it lasts for 5 years. The company also has a plastic version that's half the price. Not ideal, but the amount of plastic bottles it'll save from being trashed makes it worth it still. If you can't get your hands on a Lifestraw, another method we frequently use is to boil our tap water before drinking it. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be grateful to have full control over your water supply.
3. Say No to Plastic Straws
After watching a horrifying video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, that was truly the last straw, and we decided to ban plastic straws from our lives. Straws are rarely really necessary, but they are surprisingly difficult to avoid if you ever drink out. If your drink is served with a wrapped plastic straw on the side, you can just return it. On the other hand, when your drink comes with the plastic straw already stuffed in it, there’s no turning back. In order to avoid this situation, be explicit about not wanting straw as soon as you order any cold drink, even when dining-in.
If you love your straws, invest in reusable straws like these stainless steel ones. They can also help you communicate across language barriers that you don’t need a single use straw.
Metal beats plastic every time
More and more cafes are converting to reusable straws!
4. Avoid Plastic Utensils and Containers When Eating Out
This has been a really hard one for us while living in Thailand, where the most delicious street food lies at every corner. Almost all of the food stalls serve their food in a single-use plastic container with a set of plastic utensils stuck into it. To avoid these situations, you can bring a reusable utensil set and a stainless steel lunch box anytime you go out to eat. Honestly, this seems like too much of a hassle for us, so we just avoid places that we see are serving food in plastic. Some street food stalls even have dine-in options where you can eat from real bowls with metal cutlery!
5. Decline Plastic Shopping Bags
If you’re coming from a country with strict plastic bag laws, it can throw you off when everyone starts offering you plastic bags for free again. Simply say no thanks! We’ve never had someone react badly to us declining a plastic bag. Everyone is either grateful, pleasantly surprised or indifferent. Plus, the more that travelers decline plastic bags, the more that locals will become accustomed to it, maybe sparking a change in their own country.
This plastic saving tip is especially easy for us when we travel since we’re carrying our camera backpack at all times. If we happen to forget a bag, we just carry our purchases in hand.
6. Shop at Local Markets
We've found one of the most difficult places to avoid plastic is at the grocery store. Forget about junk food, frozen foods, and most beverages, they all have plastic packaging. Meats, cheeses, and even fresh fruits and vegetables all come wrapped in plastic. The easiest way to get the groceries you need without the plastic is to shop at local farmers markets. The foods you find there usually won't be prepackaged in plastic, and if you bring your own non-plastic containers, they will happily put your purchases in them. This is one thing we’ve actually found to be easier while traveling than back home since local markets are everywhere in Southeast Asia.
Who can spot the plastic-free produce?
Trick question, there is none.
7. Steer Clear of In-Flight Offerings
Planes are plastic nightmares. The beverages are poured from plastic bottles into plastic cups. The snacks and food come in plastic packaging. The headphones, blankets, and pillows all contain plastic and come wrapped in plastic. The best solution is to bring all of your own stuff. Carry an empty water bottle through security and fill it up on the other side. Prepare your own food at home and bring it on the plane, just make sure they're mostly solid. Bring your own headphones or decline when they offer the free plastic ones. Make sure you bring everything you'll need to be comfortable: a travel pillow, a sweatshirt, or a blanket. And with that, you can have a plastic-free flight!
8. Say Goodbye to Travel-Sized Products
The main issue with travel-sized toiletries is the horrible product to plastic packaging ratio. This is especially difficult for travelers given the restrictions on liquids allowed on planes. Additionally, many accommodations love to offer tiny toiletries. I love free things, but when we see the beautiful spread of small bottles on the bathroom counter, we don't touch them. Hotels will replace the toiletries as soon as you open them, even if they aren’t empty yet. So what are you to do if you can’t bring travel-sized toiletries on a plane and you can’t use the ones provided by your stay?
You'd be surprised by how many toiletries can be found in a solid form. One brand to check out is Lush Cosmetics. They have stores in many countries around the world and sell many packaging-free, solid products from shampoo and conditioner to face moisturizer. Plus, if you convert entirely to solid products, you won’t have to worry about your them exploding all over your clothes in flight.
9. Buy a Bamboo Toothbrush
How many times have you forgotten your plastic toothbrush in a hotel or had it mysteriously disappear from your suitcase? Even if my toothbrush miraculously made it back home with me, I’d quickly replace it with the one from my dentist’s goodie bag, or with a free one offered by another hotel or airline.
Now there’s no need to continue wasting all of these plastic sticks. There are tons of biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes out there that you can use. Just make sure to pick one up before you leave for your trip, since they seem to be more difficult to find abroad.
10. Purchase a Metal Safety Razor
Countless times before leaving for a tropical vacation, I would hit up the travel section of CVS and pick up a 5-pack of disposable razors. My vacation would only be for 7 days, but I would somehow end up using or losing all 5 of the razors before I returned home. It pains me to think about how many of my disposable razors are just sitting in a landfill still today.
The solution to this issue is to run it back to 1901 and start shaving like your grandpa. The company Rockwell Razors produces inexpensive, metal safety razors with stainless steel blades, re-engineered to prevent you from slicing yourself. The best part is that they come with a lifetime guarantee, so you’ll end up saving tons of plastic (and money) from all the cheap razors you would’ve otherwise run through in your lifetime.
We don't stick to all of these guidelines 100% of the time, and even when we try, using plastic is sometimes unavoidable. We're currently halfway through an experimental plastic free month, where we avoid plastic as much as possible and document the times we were unsuccessful. Stay tuned for the results from that!
What are your experiences with plastic while traveling? Let us know in the comments!