This month, we’re diving into Plastic Free July, a time where we can finally shine the light on plastic consumption like the fluorescent bulb at a department store changing room. Talking about plastic consumption isn’t pretty, can be uncomfortable, and at times shows flaws in ourselves that we didn’t even know we had (Oh hello there, dimples!). And while we’re at it, why stop at plastic? Let’s hit a few key areas of where humans tend to be incredibly sloppy when it comes to travel.
The travel industry in particular deserves a nose-bop (or if you ask the ocean, a face-punch) when it comes to waste production. It encourages single use plastics like disposable packaging, increased CO2 emissions, and often when we visit developing countries, we do more environmental damage than good. And while I’m no environmental saint, something I’ve documented at length, I do try to be an eco conscious traveler instead of a mindless consumer when I hit the road.
Fortunately, there are ways to cut down your plastic usage and green your travel style. Try one thing on the list that stands out, or try them all. Either way, you’re taking a step to become less of an environmental slob.
I’m thinking of making an entire series about cutting down plastic usage and waste, as it’s one of my biggest passions and challenges lately. If this interests you, please give me a shout in the comments or shoot over an email.
The #1 Way to Be Green: Refuse
The best way to green your travel? Refuse the plastic or waste in the first place. This applies to everything from hotel toiletries to airplane water bottles. If you refuse it, the demand for the production is decreased. We can’t halt the production of junk, plastic, single-use items, but we can stop the need to create it.
What to Pack
Stainless Steel Water Bottle Or Compact Bottle
I love the Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottle and get questions about it from people who see it in public constantly — who knew a water bottle could be such a conversation starter? It’s durable and contains zero plastic so you don’t have to worry about leaving water in it for a long period of time. Many steel water bottles are lined with plastic, something to consider if you’re purchasing a new one.
If you are backpacking or don’t have much space in your luggage, consider getting a collapsible bladder that you can fill up as needed and fold up for storage. It’s a little more inconvenient to drink out of, but does the job.
Did you know that many single use coffee cups are lined in plastic? Disposable coffee cups are a nightmare to recycle since they’re often made up of both plastic and paper.
If I have enough space, I pack my Keep Cup, a glass and silicone coffee cup that can fit under any coffee machine (the large version isn’t). So far I have no complaints. It’s leak-proof, sturdy, and easy to throw into a bag. You can customize the colors of the cup online.
Compact Reusable Bag
Reusable bags have always been a beautiful thing, but bags that fold up into themselves? Revolutionary. These bags can be chucked into your luggage or clipped to your purse to become useful at any moment. I use them to store dirty laundry, buy groceries, and as a beach bag in daily life and on the road.
Food Containers and Cutlery
Tell your waiter “no straw” when ordering a drink (if you must have one, bring your own steel straw) and keep a set of cutlery on you at all times. It’s ridiculous that a product made to last forever is used for the span of one meal, and then discarded. I try to keep a set of cutlery in my purse (you can get a cute set on Amazon) and rinse it in the sink when I get a chance. I also pack a container whenever I travel, often throwing in trail mix or leftovers.
Don’t use the hotel-provided toiletries. When you take those, you’re essentially saying, “Yes, please make more of these!” Bring and use your own, which are likely to be better quality than the ones the hotel provides anyways.
In my toiletries, I pack:
- Solid shampoo bar from LUSH. I’ve used three different bars. My personal favorites are the “Jason and the Argan Oil,” and the “Karma Korma.” The “Godiva” bar smells like feet the second that stink bomb hits water, so buyer beware.
- A bar of soap. I pick up any unwrapped bar I can find from farmers markets or whatever one smells nice from a shop. Sometimes, I’ll even use my shampoo bar as soap since it works just as well.
- Cruelty free makeup. Makeup is a very personal thing, so check to see if your favorite brands test on animals or use palm oil.
- For exfoliation, mix old coffee grinds or sugar with a dollop of coconut oil and scrub away. Don’t buy anything that contains microbeads.
- Diva cup. Preparing for a long trip is actually what inspired me to start using a menstrual cup instead of other items. Saves money, waste, and ensures that you’re always prepared, especially in countries where feminine products can be hard to find. Hesitant? No worries, I was too at first. You can read a full review that I 100% stand behind on Adventures Around Asia.
Toiletries I’m trying to find package-free (and would love recommendations).
- Solid conditioner – does anyone have one that works well for dry hair?
- Solid deodorant – I’ve tried all kinds at LUSH, and did not have the best luck with them.
- Toothpaste powder – I’m still not totally open to using tooth powder in lieu of toothpaste but I’m keen to hear some thoughts.
- Sunscreen – I’m in the market for a natural sunscreen brand that’s long lasting in the water and comes with minimal packaging.
Borrow Instead of Buying
Whenever possible, borrow a specific item instead of buying it for your trip — especially if it’s equipment that you’ll likely need only once. If you like the item and find it useful, you can always replace it once you’re home.
On the Road
Public transportation or using your own legs as locomotion is best. Flights emit a tragic amount of CO2 into the environment, especially during take-off and landing. So whenever possible, catch that bus, ride a bicycle, or take the train on your journey.
Airplane Flights: Refuse Plastics and Care Packages
You don’t need that welcome package of junk they give you on long-haul flights. Bring your own quality eye mask, ear plugs, and socks instead. There’s no need to hoard duplicate items that are cheaply made and only add to the waste stream.
On the plane, I usually keep my water bottle close by for refills and use just one or my personal cup the entire flight for drinks. Airline meals are often impossible to eat without producing plastic waste, so consider bringing your own or using cutlery that’s already in your bag. Many plastic-free people forgo airplane meals and bring their own healthier meal instead.
Tour with Responsible Operators
Before shelling out money or time for a tour operator, know what you’re getting. Do research on whether that elephant ride, visit to the tiger temple, and snorkel session with the whale shark is cruelty-free. Responsible operators keep to trails, do not disturb wildlife, and pick up after themselves. If you join a tour that turns out to be damaging to the environment, demand a refund and write am honest review.
(Read: A Day at Elephant Nature Park)
Complications: Going Green in Developing Countries
Unfortunately, the travel industry often his island-based and developing countries hardest, because the infrastructure to accommodate tourism-driven waste isn’t there. Takeaway containers, plastic bottles, and plastic bags are likely to end up in the country’s waterways or burned, releasing carcinogens into the air. Recycling efforts are generally nonexistent. So, again, the best thing to do is refuse the plastic in the first place and prevent it from reaching your hands.
Many times, tap water is undrinkable in places that only serve dirty water. While I’ve heard great reviews about the Steripen, a UV water purifier that sterilizes contaminated water, I’ve yet to try it myself. If you must buy plastic water bottles, purchase the largest bottle possible to save on packaging. Consider splitting a huge jug with your travel mates or others at your hostel.
You’d be surprised at how many environmental groups exist worldwide today. For a social activity and one that leaves a place better than you found it, check into joining a beach clean-up or environmental project. Personally, I enjoy events held by the Surfrider Foundation and Sea Shepherd for beach-based destinations.
Leave Eco-Themed Reviews
When leaving a review I often evaluate how my service was, how the product was, and how environmentally friendly the company is. The sooner we speak up and demand environmental change, the faster it can happen. It’s your world too, so never be afraid to share ways that a company can do better. Sometimes companies lash out at those who demand better environmental standards. Don’t take it personally — no progress of any sort has come without defensive naysayers and obstacles.
- Zero Waste Home: The guru of living daily life plastic and waste-free. I recommend her book Zero Waste Home.
- My Plastic Free Life: Likable, silly, and fun Beth shares her tips for going completely plastic-free. I recommend her book Plastic Free: How I Kicked My Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.
- Don’t Forget to Move: Enjoy this fun couple’s essays on responsible travel.
- Eco Warrior Princess: Fashionable and practical advice for the eco-minded.
- Exploring Alternatives: A couple who explores a low-impact travel lifestyles from the comfort of their slick campervan.
- The Story of Stuff: Ah, so addicted to their videos that are informative and entertaining.
- Plastic Pollution Coalition: Engaging and practical articles on decreasing your dependency on plastic.
There is so much more than can be hashed out in one blog post. I approach traveling responsibly as a project that I’m constantly experimenting with and trying to get better at. Some things I’ve mastered, and others I’ve yet to take the first step. Wherever you are in your responsible travel journey, keep pushing forward. It might be awkward at first, but with time low-eco-impact strategies simply become a habit. You got this.
If you have any of your own personal tips or thoughts, feel free to share them below.
This post contains a few Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase something I’ve recommended, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.