To help you become a more responsible traveler in 2018 I’ve launched a monthly series of Responsible Travel Challenges. Each month will focus on an ethical change you can make to your travel style that will benefit the communities you visit and ultimately our precious planet. Each detailed guide will contain specific tips on how to be a more responsible traveler. Adhere to these suggestions to make an impact as you travel.
JULY RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL CHALLENGE: IT’S TIME TO BAN SINGLE-WASTE PLASTIC FROM YOUR TRAVELS
You are cordially invited to join me in participating in Plastic-Free July! Plastic-Free July is an Australian nonprofit charitable foundation that launched a movement in hopes of creating a world without plastic waste in 2011. Since then millions of mindful global citizens in over 150 countries have taken up the challenge to cut plastic out of their lives for at least a month, but ideally indefinitely. This year’s Plastic-Free July comes on the heels of National Geographics extraordinary initiative, plastic or planet?, which is a must read! I hope you’ll join us to say sayonara to plastic waste, especially single-use items! Here’s how you can avoid single-use plastic as you travel and habitually shifting your lifestyle towards being completely plastic-free. The July Responsible Travel Challenge is to cut out single-waste plastic from your travels.
WHAT MAKES PLASTIC SO HARMFUL FOR THE WORLD?
Globally it appears that humanity has started to launch a war on plastic. Various countries have launched plastic bans such as France, Morocco, Kenya, and India! If you’re unsure what all the fuss is about it’s time to take off your plastic rose-hued glasses and face the facts. Humanity created plastic in 1907 as a problem solver that quickly made our days easier without giving thought to the massive waste problem we created when introducing plastics to societies around the globe.
Since then, every single piece of plastic that has been made, still exist today. Some have been recycled, reused, and repurposed, but still, that plastic will never not exist. In the last decade, we’ve increased our plastic production so much that in just 10 years more plastic was made than the entire previous century. An astonishing 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Instead, 8 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each and every year. Plastic has wreaked havoc on aquatic ecosystems, tiny particles are poisoning the fish that people later consume–talk about a health crisis! If we don’t individually start reducing our plastic waste, properly disposing of plastics, and advocating to make ocean dumping illegal, then humans will be responsible for there being more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Let that sink in for a second.
Plastic has spiraled out of control, especially single-use items. 300 million tons of new plastic is produced every year–half of which is for single use products. Single-use plastic are the items we just use for a few minutes and then forget about but they’ll last forever–plastic utensils, cups, packaging, straws, bottles, bags, etc. All of these items can easily be replaced with affordable reusable products. To try to solve the issue of single-use plastic various biodegradable plastics have been introduced as eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, but the United Nations Environment Program has released a study that these items are hardly a lesser evil and should be avoided. Instead, focus on purchasing plastic alternatives that are naturally biodegradable or long-lasting.
Cutting back on plastic use is more than just doing your part to protect the ocean and aquatic creatures, you’ll also avoid contributing to landfill waste that can’t break down and save money when you invest in reusable alternatives.
HOW TO START LIVING WITH LESS PLASTIC
If July is your first foray into eliminating single-use plastic from your life start by making tangible changes one at a time rather than overwhelming yourself by trying to swap out everything at once. Habits take time to form and you’ll likely forget your sustainable alternatives for single-use plastic quite a lot in the beginning. Give yourself some grace and commend yourself for starting the effort to reduce your waste.
The top four single-use plastic items are plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and takeaway coffee cups. Yup, those cups usually have a plastic BPA lining, plastic lid, and stirrer.
STOP SUCKING ON PLASTIC STRAWS
Plastic straws have become the evil icon of the movement to eliminate plastic waste, and for good reason. Plastic straws are one of the easiest items to stop using immediately. Most of us don’t actually need a straw to drink most beverages so the absolute best thing you can do is go straw free. This is the best option for the environment, and your vanity, as using straws can give you wrinkles!
Before calling for a universal ban on plastic straws keep in mind that plastic straws are a necessity for some differently abled people to be able to consume liquids. Luckily, there are sustainable products on the market that can be used as an alternative such as flexible yet durable plant-based ‘plastic’ made from corn, cassava. These products need to be made more accessible and affordable in order to replace plastic straws that are needed in hospitals and the homes of many disabled persons.
A single plastic straw takes 200 years to decompose. Plastic straws account for an estimated 90% of the rubbish in the sea. 1 billion plastic straws that will never biodegrade are used every single day worldwide, half of which are used in the United States. It’s not likely everyone will opt to stop using straws altogether. I know I haven’t! I have an assortment of five different reusable straws, which admittedly is a bit overboard, but most were gifts. Personally, I prefer glass straws for coffee, steel straws for juice, and bamboo straws for water. The wider the diameter of the straw, the better it is for drinking smoothies–yum!
Bamboo straws are the most eco-friendly alternative as bamboo grows in abundance and naturally make fantastic straws. Be sure to purchase a completely untreated straw so that you can add it to a compost pile when it starts to wear out. A bamboo straw can last for years if treated properly. Once a month make a soak for your straw of boiled vinegar and water which will clean it in a few minutes. If you just cannot seem to keep track of a reusable straw either refuse straws altogether or source plant-based single-use alternatives. In Vietnam, I’ve started to see local businesses using grass as a single-use straw alternative.
Make it a habit of tossing your straw into your bag, just like your keys and wallet. I clean my reusable straws and then place it back in my cotton holder and put it right back into my bag to ensure I always have a plastic straw alternative on hand. Be conscious of plastic when you buy a straw cleaner as well and opt for one that uses natural fibers.
Be sure to refuse a straw when you’re ordering your drink. If you’re abroad learn how to say ‘no straw, please’ in the local language, or simply show the barista that you have your own reusable straw with you. Many people are concerned about germs that may linger on reusable straws that are washed and reused at restaurants. I find this a bit strange as I’ve never heard anyone express concern that their plate or utensils weren’t properly cleaned. But if you’re in doubt, simply bring your own straw. Tell me, will you start to sip more sustainably?
ALWAYS CARRY A REUSABLE TOTE BAG
Every year 1 trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide, that’s more than 2 million plastic bags used every minute. Plastic bags are ultra lightweight, but nearly 4 tons of plastic bags are discarded in a year, usually not recycled or reused in any way. It’s so simple to not be a part of this crisis. Pick up a few soft tote bags and always keep at least one in your purse or backpack. A soft tote bag can be folded up into a tight square that won’t take up more space in your bag than a pack of tissue! This way you’ll be ready when you stumble across a farmer’s market with fresh produce that you can’t resist or unexpectedly end up shopping for souvenirs or clothing while you’re out and about exploring your destination. I usually carry my reusable shopping bag in addition to my purse and use it to carry my tripod and reusable water bottle which are too large to fit in my purse.
Picking out your reusable bag is also loads of fun as there are so many excellent options out there. Focus on buying local and supporting vendors who are using organic cotton bags. The most sustainable option is to purchase a degradable bag made from starch, corn, or potato. Just as with straws, make sure to stress in advance of purchasing something that you don’t need a plastic bag. If you’re traveling overseas prepare in advance by learning how to say ‘no bag, please’–if it’s really complex to pronounce screenshot the spelling and save it in an album under your phone so you can easily access it to show vendors.
NEVER PURCHASE A PLASTIC BOTTLE AGAIN
Plastic bottles are used once and last forever. Personally, I feel that eliminating single-use plastic bottles is a bit harder to maintain than straws and bags. Sometimes it can be challenging to refill your reusable water with safe drinking water, especially when traveling somewhere remote. If you’re planning to travel in an area that doesn’t have access to clean water prepare in advance by buying a portable water filter or purifiers such as LifeStraw, Soma, or Grayl.
However, even in Southeast Asia, I’ve managed to buy less than 20 water bottles in the last year. I’ve become dedicated to refilling my reusable water bottle every chance I get and have noticed water coolers that have probably always been there but weren’t on my radar before. From public refill stations on the street in Thailand to potable water distributors on trains in Vietnam and water tanks on buses it’s been easier than I expected to stay hydrated while exploring a part of the world that is a major culprit of plastic waste.
If you’re feeling lazy about always carrying a reusable water bottle or have reservations about the cleanliness of water that isn’t in a sealed plastic bottle consider this–worldwide 1 million plastic bottles are consumed every 60 seconds. In the United States alone the Container Recycling Institute has determined that the average American uses 315 plastic bottles a year. It’s not just the bottle that’s wasteful. Whenever I do a beach clean up I end up picking up a multitude of plastic wrap labels and bottle caps.
Carrying a reusable water bottle is better for the environment and you’ll save money! Imagine how much money you spend to buy 300+ water bottles a year? Comparatively, investing in an eco-friendly BPA reusable water bottle is an obvious money saver. Some of the most trustworthy brands are BKR, Bobble, KleanKanteen, Kor Water, S’Well, and Welly Bottle.
You won’t have to shed a tear every time you purchase a ridiculously priced bottle of water in an airport as you can bring your reusable water bottle through security as long as it’s empty. Once you’re inside the airport head to a water refill station, water fountain, or just ask a bartender to fill up your reusable water bottle. Once you’re on board your flight you won’t need to drink the risky plane water or use the small plastic cups that are distributed on planes.
If I can’t find a way to refill my reusable water bottle I’ll treat myself to a sparkling water sold in a glass bottle. When you’re out and about chose freshly squeezed juice over juices or sugary sodas in plastic bottles. Sadly, cans aren’t a great alternative to plastic bottles as many are lined with a layer of plastic that contains BPA. If you can’t find a glass container or get fresh fruit juice served in a reusable cup then purchase a drink packaged in a paper carton.
FIND ALTERNATIVES FOR TAKEAWAY PLASTICS
The fourth biggest single-use plastic waster is takeaway coffee cups. I was actually shocked to learn this as I always thought they were paper and therefore biodegradable but takeaway coffee cups have a plastic BPA lining, plastic lid, and stirrer. This swap out is pretty simple for travelers, instead of getting your coffee to go actually enjoy it in the coffee shop. Have a cup of coffee in the morning and just taking in your new surroundings is such a lovely way to start the day. If you arrive at a coffee shop and see that they don’t use coffee mugs or glasses and serve everyone in takeaway containers just leave and find another spot to get your caffeine fix. Or, if you have space in your luggage purchase a reusable coffee mug and ask the barista to pour your coffee directly within. If you absolutely must get a to-go cup of coffee at the very least don’t use a plastic lid or stirrer.
Avoiding single-use plastic packaging can be one of the trickiest plastic issues when you travel. Sometimes it feels a bit aspirational to always be prepared for long journeys with lots of prepared snacks, especially when you travel full-time like I do and don’t have a home base with a kitchen. I try to avoid pre-wrapped plastic packaging but in Southeast Asia, it seems that every time I find some vegan crackers they’re individually packaged, within a larger package. This is so frustrating!
Whenever possible I opt to snack on freshly prepared street food that I can either eat directly from my hands or I get the food wrapped in paper. When I’m staying in a place for more than a few days I make mental note of which vendors use biodegradable takeaway containers or paper packaging. I haven’t invested in reusable food containers as I don’t often get takeaway food and rarely have a kitchen to prepare food at home. But, if you’re trying to eliminate your plastic use at home or are going to be based somewhere for a few months it’s a great idea to get a set of tin or glass containers to use for street food or preparing and packaging your own meals.
Cutting out plastic disposable utensils is another easy fix to make. I don’t often get served plastic spoons and forks as chopsticks are the norm here in Southeast Asia but even so, sometimes those are wrapped in plastic and they’re still a single-use item. I had my own pair of chopsticks but left them somewhere a few months back and have yet to replace them. I told you, I’m not a perfect plastic-free traveler! Bringing your own travel set of bamboo utensils won’t take up much space in your luggage and is healthier for the planet, and your body. Dirty cutlery used at street stalls can be contaminated with bacteria and lead to an upset stomach even if the food is perfectly sanitary.
HOW TO LIMIT PLASTIC USE WHILE TRAVELING
Now that you’ve got your zero waste kit that will cut back on the top four single-use plastic items here are some other things you can do to be a less wasteful traveler. Personally, I like to prepare a huge fruit bowl for breakfast every morning. I source my goodies from local farmers market where produce is usually sold loosely and without any packaging. I always bring my reusable bag to carry my stash of fruits. It can be complicated to explain that I don’t want a plastic bag so I just put the fruit directly in my bag to show the vendor what I intend to do if they don’t understand me when I try to decline a plastic bag in advance. If there isn’t a farmer’s market around and you need to purchase produce from a store avoid pre-packaged fruit and vegetables that are wrapped in plastic. If you have to weigh your produce and put stickers on it to show the price at checkout invest in a cotton produce bag so you won’t have to use the wasteful plastic bags most grocery stores place produce in. I don’t cook much at home, but if I did I would try to buy from bulk stores as much as possible in order to avoid unnecessary packaging.
At hotels only use the toiletries if they’re in ceramic containers that can be refilled. For more ideas on how to be sustainable in your booking choices check out my article on booking mindful accommodation.
An easy place to cut back on waste is on an airplane! We’ve already talked about bringing reusable water bottles on board but there are a few other tricks you can keep in mind to be a more responsible traveler while up in the air. First off, if the airline/airport gives you the opportunity to check in with a mobile boarding pass do that instead of printing a physical copy. When you are at the check-in counter be sure to tell the attendant you don’t need a paper boarding pass. Stash your own snacks to eat on board, those tiny bags of pretzels are so incredibly wasteful! Also, bring your own earphones. How ridiculous is it that each headset is wrapped in plastic on a plane? You know they’re not new, right? You know what else is wrapped in plastic to make it appear clean? Blankets and pillows! Just bring your own neck rest and a scarf that can double as a blanket. Better yet, fly with airlines that are eliminating their plastic waste like Alaska Airlines.
Take time to recycle, even as you travel. Sometimes this means carrying plastic around for the entire day before you find a recycling bin. Don’t just limit your waste management to plastics. Pick up any litter you see and put it in the bin. No, it’s not your responsibility to clean up after other people, but one less piece of trash makes it more likely that our future generations will be more likely to be able to enjoy the places we loved to visit on our travels. So many travelers think that waste is a local issue, but I see more tourists littering than locals. The next time you’re visiting a major touristic site take a look around, there’s plenty of trash, right? That’s not from locals, that’s from travelers like you and me. Pick up a plastic bag blowing down the street, the candy wrapper dropped by the kind in front of you, empty food containers and dispose of them properly.
The most amount of plastic I own can be found in my cosmetics bag, but I’ve swapped out for plastic-free and other sustainable products which I detailed in the ethical beauty products responsible travel challenge. A few key pointers to keep in mind–opt for glass or metal packaging over plastic and never buy personal care products that have plastic microbeads. The easiest swap to make in your cosmetics bags is to ditch your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo toothbrush or one made from upcycled materials. There are over 3.5 billion pounds of plastic toothbrushes in the ocean and landfills around the globe. Another product to ditch right away are cotton swabs that have plastic handles and are packaged in plastic. Plastic packaging accounts for a massive 40% of all plastic usage.
As you travel make it a point to return to vendors that use reusable utensils, bamboo straws, and have minimized their plastic use. Show these businesses support and it won’t only help them prosper, but it will also help other businesses in the area catch on that tourists care about cutting back on plastic waste. If you love cafes that aren’t sustainable have conversations with the owner about why it’s important to you as a customer that they seek out alternatives for their plastics.
For more inspiration search any of these dedicated hashtags on social media: #choosetorefuse, #plasticfreejuly, #thereisnoplanetb, #passonplastic, #plasticban, and #zerowaste. Post your success on social media! Be proud that you’re reducing your carbon footprint and making small changes with a big impact. It can be so easy to make a positive lasting impression on those around you. A few weeks ago I picked up two plastic bags full of trash on the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam. I walked for an hour and noticed a few others bend down to pick up some plastic bottles and put them in the bin. It’s a tiny step in the right direction. There’s more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way. Let’s show the world it’s a time to put a wrap on plastic.
Every day I’m making strides towards my goal of going completely plastic-free. I’m ever evolving and learning about alternative methods. It’s been challenging in Southeast Asia to find some of the reusable items I’d like to purchase such as a collapsible cup. How have you cut out single-use plastic from your travels? Share your tips, tricks, and struggles with us in the comments so we can come up with solutions together!
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