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You’ve read it before, I’m sure, get rid of your straws, and you’re an eco-friendly traveler. Congratulations, you gave up something to make a difference in the world! But I’ll be honest with you real quick, none of us really need a straw to suck down that wine spritzer we ordered at lunch; in fact, most of us welcome the idea of chugging it like heathens with our gaping mouths – or is that just me? Straws ARE detrimental to the environment; in the U.S. we waste 500 million straws a year, but riding the earth of straws won’t save it. Buying a reusable straw is a great launching point, but if you allow yourself to believe that this is all you need to do to be an eco-friendly person or traveler, you are mistaken. This Earth Month, April 2018, the theme is plastic pollution, so let’s talk about how to reduce your plastic pollution and waste while traveling. Buckle up though, these changes aren’t going to be easy, but you can do it, I know you can!
Reducing your plastic pollution and waste goes above and beyond ditching single-use plastics, like straws. Instead, it involves making eco-conscious choices from the moment you choose a destination to what souvenir you choose to bring home. Doing so can have a significant impact on the amount of plastic pollution on our planet. Learn about the harms of plastic here. I’m not going to lie, making these choices, in the beginning, is quite hard. It took me a while to find a balance between reducing my carbon footprint and still finding a way to enjoy travel. I would stress about it so much I would get anxious about the damage I was adding to the planet, and it wasn’t healthy. I had to completely alter the way I traveled and figure out a system that worked for me, so I could both enjoy traveling and make better choices. I started with straws and water bottles, and from there, things became more manageable. I’ve now reduced my plastic waste by almost 80% in one year alone, and I have a system that works for me, so I can still enjoy traveling.
You’re going to have to start making changes that affect not only yourself but also the businesses from which you buy goods or services. As tourists and travelers, we travel to many places that rely on tourism to survive. SE Asia, for example, heavily relies on tourism, but this region is also named one of the worst areas for mismanaging plastic waste. Part of the problem is limited local access and money to purchase high-end items made sustainably, lack of resources, economic issues, and water quality. I fully understand some people and countries can not make these decisions right now, but we, as privileged travelers, can. If we can’t change the way we travel to improve the places we visit, then we should not be traveling at all. If we start respecting destinations as much as we do our own homes, happily spend more money to make the right choices, put our money toward eco-tourism, and plan, then we can finally go above and beyond chugging wine spritzers with our mouth to save the planet.
Sit down and buckle up because this isn’t your easy peasy post most people write about how to reduce your plastic consumption, AKA four easy steps that are affiliate links to zero waste Amazon products. My tips will make you uncomfortable, but to make a change, you have to make yourself and those around you uncomfortable. We will start by preparing for your trip, continue with packing, travel, and finish at your destination.
Ways and How to Reduce Plastic Waste and Pollution While Traveling
Planning to Reduce Plastic Pollution While Traveling
Over the last few years, as I try and move toward a zero-waste and sustainable lifestyle, I realize how important planning ahead is. I research accommodation, companies, restaurants, and make sure I go to a location prepared and ready to make the right choices. When I don’t plan, I find myself wandering the streets of a new city, hungry, thirsty and jetlagged- that is when I buy a bottle of water, or maybe I realize all the ethical tours are booked, so I miss out on a once in a lifetime experience. Planning can make or break your new sustainable travel habits.
Choosing Your Destination
You could look at this one of two ways. One, you can choose a destination like Kenya or Denmark that have banned plastic bags from helping make your travel a little more stress-free. Bans on plastic bags mean that you do not always have to fight the cashier at the store wanting to bag your items in plastic. When you tell someone you brought your cup or didn’t want a straw- they get it and are more likely to accommodate you. Additionally, you’re giving money to economies that support reducing plastic pollution.
Or you can stick it to the man and travel to destinations, like Thailand, that currently struggles with horrendous amounts of plastic waste. At destinations like this, you can aggressively refuse plastic products and make a display of bringing your reusable items. Who knows, the more businesses realize their customers don’t want plastic, the more they might move to be plastic-free.
What do you think? Is it better to support economies that have bans on single use plastics, or make a statment in a country that does not?
Research Hotels, Restaurants, and Activities
Don’t just book the cheapest hotel and the most affordable excursion. Sit down and do some research about the ethics and sustainability of a company. Email the front desk and ask them what steps they take to reduce their plastic pollution or maintain a green property. Find a local hotel, recycles, doesn’t use mini shampoos, and sources their products locally. A great example of this business model might be a small local bed and breakfast, or 25Hours Hotel in Germany. They don’t give you bottled water, their gift shop is ALL local handmade oddities, and their shampoo is provided in bulk and refilled. Look through photos, do you see plastic in the images? Read about the company on their website and in reviews. Does the breakfast buffet have single-use plastics? You can find more tips on booking ethical accommodation here.
When it comes to Restaurants, find and save farm to table restaurants that have an ethical business model. Do they offer takeout? Is it in plastic? Even if you don’t order takeout giving your money to a company that gives out single-use plastics isn’t ideal. Find fresh local markets you can visit, instead of buying your food at a supermarket with plastic packaging. Is there a package-free store in the city? If you star all these great restaurants and fresh markets and use Google Maps offline, at any time, you’ll be able to find a sustainable location to eat near you.
If you want to book an excursion, make sure you do your research. If it involves animals, do double the research. You should be looking for business practices that align with sustainable methods. Email the tour operator and ask if they give lunch in single-use containers or what types of vehicles they drive. Avoid places like zoos and Seaworld that harm animals, and if you go somewhere like Disney Land or a theme park, make sure you have a game plan not to use their single-use plastics. If you can go to Disney without using plastic – you have reached your A Game. I’m putting that on my bucket list because I love Disney.
Give your money to a local company that cares about the local environment and is striving to make a difference.
Research Local Recycling Culture
I just got back from a month living on a Greek Island called Samos. This island made my skin CRAWL with the terrible single-use plastic consumption. Plastic filled the gutters and ditches. While I made some waves and sparked some conversation with my reusable coffee cup and lunch box for to-go food, I didn’t see any recycling options on the island. UNTIL one day, one of my friends on the island told me about a specific trash bin in a particular area of the city. The island was trying to implement recycling, but the locals hadn’t developed the habit yet. I would have never known there were bins if my friend hadn’t been on the hunt for recycling options, and I probably should have done my research beforehand. While my hotel had no container for recycling, I set up my system in the hotel and took my recycling out once a week to the proper bin.
Moral of the story, do your research before you go. Once you arrive, you might not have time to figure out what the system is. It is essential to know how and where to recycle while traveling. The easiest option is to book an eco-hotel, but if you can’t do that, know what the recycling situation is.
Research Local Water Concerns
Are you traveling to a place where water comes from a pristine glacier, or are you headed to a place where even looking at a tomato rinsed in local water will make you sick for days? If the former, just bring a reusable bottle and fill up every day before you head out. If the latter, you might want to look at investing in a Life Straw, Steipen, or water bottle with a filter.
Or maybe you will need to prepare to buy bottled water. If this is the case, stop by a supermarket and get the largest container you can and refill a smaller bottle and recycle that. You can also use a hotel water boiler right before bed and take that water to go in the morning.
Learn Local Phrases
I might be struggling my way through learning German, but you can rest assured I can order my drink without a straw. Phrases to look up in the local language are “no plastic,” “no bag,” “without straw,” etc. You won’t win every round as a lot of drinks still come out from the bar with a straw, but it helps to have your metal straw handy and show the server you already have one if your translation fails.
Find Local Brands
I grew up in Alaska; we have a logo with a bear that says, “Made in Alaska.” Here in Germany, we have a thumb giving a thumb up that says, “Kauf Lokal.” Knowing what brands and what signs reflect things that are locally made before you travel will help your brain look for and recognize them when you see them. When you shop local, less plastic and energy is used in transportation, the packaging tends minimal plastic, and you support the local economy.
What is the shop local sign to look for in your country or city?
How to Reduce Plastic Waste While Packing
I would say how and what you pack can be one of the most significant factors in how much you cut down your plastic pollution while traveling. If you arrive at your destination prepared with all your reusable items and didn’t forget anything at home, you are setting yourself up for success.
Reduce Plastic Waste in Your Toiletries
When packing your toiletries, plastic is EVERYWHERE. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The last thing you should do is head down to your local drug store and buy single-use carry on size minis every time.
Things you can do instead are use bar soap, shampoo, conditioner from a store like Lush, or learn to make your own. You can’t commit to doing this; you can also buy multi-use containers and refill these from bulk.
Get yourself a bamboo tooth and hairbrush.
Find a way to wear your hair naturally with a homemade sea salt spray to drop the hairsprays and gels.
Invest in a metal multi-use razor.
If you have not converted already, get a diva cup for your periods. They are a plastic lifesaver and make packing for your period weeks that much easier. You can also invest in Thinx undies instead of pads.
A quick look at some of my sustainable items, homemade lotion, and deodorant in glass jars, bamboo toothbrush & lush bar soaps.
You should be able to look in your toiletry kit and know that for every item of plastic in there, there is an alternative – you can even swap toothpaste for baking soda. When you’re rid of all the plastic, invest in a durable, clear vinyl zippered bag for carry-on. You should never use a single-use Ziplock bag again!
Let’s take a little pause. We, travelers, get a bad rep. How can someone be sustainable and travel so much? It is no secret the airline industry is one of the largest contributors to emissions and has a negative impact on the environment, BUT did you know that the fashion and makeup industry creates MORE greenhouse pollution than the airline industry? That is why one of the biggest lifestyle changes I have made is using less makeup and buying organic clothing – think about all the plastic packing and containers they come in. Think how much energy it costs to make those cheap brands overseas in Indian an then ship them around the world? Find a makeup product that is vegan and has biodegradable packing, shop for clothing that is going to last you and is made from organic material. This is one of the most impactful changes you can make.
Pack Reusable Items
Finally, it’s time to talk about straws. I bet you had no idea how much there was to cover before we got to straws. Invest in a full set of reusable items. Things that make every trip with me are my coffee mug, water bottle, straw, utensils, lunch box set, a collapsible cup for to-go cocktails, or wine in the park, and sometimes I even pack an iced drink option, for when I want ice tea. How on earth do I fit all this in my carry on? Well, I have an Osprey backpack that has two bottle holders on either side, I pack my airplane food in my lunch box, and everything else is stuffable.
A look at my reusables. Water bottle, coffee mug, life straw, metal straw, lunch box, and utensil set.
It is just as essential to be able to carry these items around during the day. My camera bag has space for my reusable water bottle and room for my straw and utensils. They are of no use to you sitting in the hotel. Coordinate your day bag and your water bottle size to ensure you are prepared for traveling.
Other reusable items I bring along are shopping bags or a stuffable hemp backpack. You can even buy a souvenir bag from your destination to do all your shopping. I always have this bag stuffed in my camera bag in case I want to buy something I need to carry on a whim.
If you plan correctly, you will never take a plastic fork, buy a water bottle, use a straw, or take food to go in styrofoam ever again. It has been 1.5 years since I bought a plastic water bottle, even while traveling.
Make a List and Check it Twice
This goes with the above. If you plan correctly, you can minimize your plastic pollution, but making sure you have everything packed that you need for your trip is critical. Let’s say you forget your headphones – no big deal, right? You can just grab some cheap ones for $10 at the airport. These $10 phones are wrapped in plastic and cheaply made, plus you’ll just toss them when you get home. You see the problem if you forget stuff at home? Make a list and check it twice.
Plan Your Carry-On
Did you pack a reusable water bottle, but it is in your large suitcase? Did you pack your headphones, but they’re not easy to get to, so you take some from the airline? All these things just mean you’re taking more from the airline and creating more waste than you need. Make sure you have all your reusable items ready for the plane so that you receive nothing wrapped in plastic from the airline.
Flying and Traveling Sustainably
Impossible, right? Well, mostly, yes. I just admitted that flying is the second most damaging thing to the planet, so the best way to solve this is simply to fly less, but when you have to fly, there are ways to cut down your carbon footprint.
I understand that it is a bit of an oxymoron, so the best title for this is how to fly as sustainable as possible. I wrote a whole post on this topic, and it covers everything from paying the carbon tax to which airplanes are the most energy-efficient. You can read it by clicking this link.
Instead of spending your long weekend flying from Portugal to Estonia, try looking in your backyard for destinations reached by train. See if you can book an electric rental car or choose a train that isn’t coal-powered – if that is still a thing? A bicycle is a great way to see the city and research what bike rental options there are in each town.
Reduce Plastic Pollution at Your Destination
That was a lot of effort, and we haven’t even got to our destination yet! Hang in there; we’re just warming up for the grand finale to showcase all your awesome sustainable new swag and lifestyle changes. Ensuring we, as travelers, aren’t leaving plastic waste behind for the animals and locals to clean up is essential to saving our planet.
Ditch the Pool Floaties
It is time to give up your dream of becoming an Insta famous traveler with unicorn floaties and glitter covering your face. If you think straw is terrible for the planet, think about pool floaties. They are large and made from thick plastic that will be here long after you’re gone. They pop quickly, and hotels will have to keep replacing them. The same goes for beach balls, plastic wine glasses for a beach picnic, glitter to make that photo shine, that fantastic ice cream spot that serves in single-use plastic, but everyone is Instagramming…. Unfortunately, Instagram trends are often ones that involve plastic, glitter, and greed. Think critically about all your items, do you need these items, or are they just for a pretty picture?
Are you buying a souvenir wrapped in plastic packaging that was made in China, but you’re in Greece? Think about all the energy it took to get that item to Greece and all the packaging. Buy souvenirs from local craft workers and tell them you have your bag. Look for that locally made sticker or sign you researched earlier, and you will be shopping locally and ethically in no time.
Buy the Right Food
You already starred those fresh markets, so let’s find some food! Bring your shopping bag and don’t buy fruits and veggies wrapped in plastic. If you do buy something, like hummus in a plastic container -reuse it as many times as you can on your trip. Think about buying seasonal and food too. But what is in season and locally grown at your destination.
Recycle and Pick Up Trash
You already researched the destination’s recycling habits- now put them to use.
If you’re heading out for a day at the beach, bring an extra shopping bag for trash. It never hurts to collect anything you see at the beach or while hiking and dispose of it in a place where animals can not choke and die.
Talk to your hotel about their recycling habits. Ideally, you’re staying somewhere that recycles, but maybe you notice there is recycling at your destination, but your hotel isn’t implementing it. Ask them to get something set up to make it easier for the guests.
I stayed at a hotel last year that had TONS of single-use plastics for their breakfast. In my review of their property, I reduced their stars and called them out for not recycling and using too much plastic. That wasn’t really on topic, was it…?
Prepare Your Day
Every day before you head out to explore your new destination, make sure you are ready to go. Make a day packing list and check it twice, to ensure you have all your reusables and sustainable activities planned for the day. It is a lot easier to make good choices when you are prepared to do so.
It Is Ok To Say No
It is ok to say no. I know it’s hard, especially when you’re trying to immerse yourself in local culture and embrace hospitality. If your guide is offering you water, they mean well and are trying to provide excellent customer service. It is ok to say, no thank you and show them your bottle—research local customs for polite ways to turn down offers that involve plastic or waste. If you’re in a situation where you can have an intelligent conversation with a local about plastic pollution, do so.
If you’re at a beach party and someone offers to buy you a drink, but you see all the plastic cups littering the beach already, it is ok to say no thank you and get your drink in your to-go cup. It is ok to say no thank you if the pool asks if they can buy you floaties.
It is also ok to go without. You shouldn’t suck all the joy out of your trip, but deciding not to get an ice tea because you don’t have a to-go cup is an option. It is a hard choice, but it is a choice you have.
This is where I struggle. I’m ok saying no, but I have yet to find the perfect balance of ensuring I have all the tools I need not to waste and enjoying myself. It’s taking me a while, and there have been nights I don’t drink because everything is in plastic cups, and there have been nights I use too much plastic because I don’t want to miss out. And there certainly have been nights where bartenders think I am crazy for handing them my cup. However, every time I travel, I do it a little better than I did last time, and I’m slowly making sure I don’t miss out, but I don’t waste too much either.
Remember, plastic pollution is more than just keeping straws off the beach. The simple act of creating plastic causes pollution. Whether plastic ends up in the landfill, recycling bin, or the ocean, there are negative consequences. It is essential to make changes at home, but when we travel, we tend to have an out of mind out of sight mentality. We need to preserve every destination we visit along with our home so we can have a better tomorrow.
I will be the first to admit it is not easy, there are still things I am working on myself, but it will be worth it. This guide covered a lot of things we can do to reduce our plastic waste as we travel, but that doesn’t mean you have to do them all right away. Pick a handful of things you can realistically do on your next trip, and every time you travel, implement more. I hear so many people saying that one person can’t make a difference, but the amount of plastic pollution you can reduce on your next trip is quite a lot, more than you think. As travelers, it is our job to educate, make decisions that push businesses to sustainable options, and leave your destinations cleaner than we when we arrived.
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for environmental sustainability and bridges sustainable travel with environmental science. When she's not outside playing, you'll find her drinking whiskey with her cat and partner while trying to get to level 99 in life.