10 simple ways to minimise plastic while travelling

Do you justify your plastic use by tossing it in the recycling bin? Unfortunately, it’s not a long-lasting solution. With 300 million tons of plastic produced around the globe every year, and only 85 per cent of the world’s plastic currently being recycled, the planet is in the midst of a plastic crisis.

Trying to justify using plastic while travelling is even more difficult, as many of the world’s top travel destinations do not have effective rubbish collection or recycling systems in place. As documented in a sobering new documentary, A Plastic Ocean, most of the plastic we use ends up in the sea. Scientists now believe there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the world’s oceans, with a dump truck full of plastic added every minute. The debris accounts for the deaths of one million seabirds, as well as 100,000 marine creatures, each year. And it’s not just animals who will continue to suffer – with at least two thirds of the world’s fish stocks currently ingesting plastic, a 2015 study suggested that anyone consuming an average amount of seafood would ingest about 11,000 plastic particles a year.

It’s thought that most of the plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from land: swept off beaches by the incoming tide, washed down the stormwater drains of densely populate coastlines, and dumped straight into the water by humans. Do your bit to lessen your impact on this environmental crisis with these easy tips…

Just me, my Earth Eco Bottle, and the sun setting over Bagan
My nifty Earth Eco Bottle kept my water cold all day in Bagan, and helped me avoid using plastic © Sarah Reid

Learn to love your reusable water bottle

That a first-world country with widespread access to clean drinking water is the world’s biggest consumer of plastic water bottles is difficult enough to stomach.  Then you hear that that US discards 38 billion plastic bottles each year, each bottle taking more than 450 years to break down. Wherever you’re from, avoid being part of the problem by investing in a durable BPA-free reusable water bottle (I’m obsessed with my Earth Eco Bottle by The Seek Society – which keeps water cool for 24 hours or warm for 12 hours) and get in the habit of carrying it everywhere. When travelling on planes, simply empty your bottle before you pass security and refill it at a water fountain on the other side (most airport have them) to avoid having to reach for the mini plastic bottles handed out in-flight. If you run out of water during your flight, ask the attendant to refill your bottle instead of a plastic cup.

In countries with no potable drinking water, ask at hotels and restaurants if they have a filtered tank you can fill your bottle from. I’m on a tour of Myanmar with Intrepid Tavel at the moment, and every hotel and guesthouse I’ve stayed in so far has had free fresh water refills available. When I was in Bhutan last year, I simply boiled water in the kettle in my room.

Decline plastic bags

It might sound obvious, but  an estimated one trillion plastic bags are still used and discarded around the world every year. Fortunately, we’re finally beginning to wake up to the devastating impact that plastic bags have on the environment, with many cities – and some whole countries – having now implemented bans on single-use bags. Don’t just accept a plastic bag with a purchase if offered in regions where bans aren’t in place; politely decline and use your own reusable carry bag. I typically use a canvas bag as a handbag when I’m travelling so I always have room to carry on-the-go purchases.

Plastic debris lines a beach just beyond a tourist hotel zone in Mexico's Mayan Riveria Image by John Schneider flikr
Plastic debris lines a beach beyond a tourist hotel zone in Mexico’s Mayan Riveria. Image by John Schneider / flickr

Step away from the mini toiletries

Just because personal care products are supplied by hotels doesn’t mean you have to use them. While a growing number or hotels are now switching to refillable dispensers, many simply toss the plastic bottles away if the seal has been opened. If you must crack one open, at least take the bottle with you and reuse it on your next trip. And if you are travelling in a region lacking a decent waste disposal system, consider taking used plastics (such as spent toothbrushes) back home with you to dispose of them thoughtfully.

Skip the straw

Plastic straws are one of the most unnecessary single-use plastics out there. If you simply must slurp your holiday cocktails through a straw, purchase a cute reusable straw (like these stainless steel beauties by my friends at Clean Coast Collective) that you can use again and again. When you order drinks, simply request no straw upfront so your drink won’t automatically be served with one that you will inevitably end up using. Once. Before it ends up in the ocean…

My 'strand sour' at Yangon's Strans Hotel tasted just as good without a straw © Sarah Reid
Would my ‘strand sour’ at Yangon’s Strand Hotel have tasted better with a straw? I doubt it © Sarah Reid

Decline refresher towels

In many countries, it’s customary to be offered a refresher towelette upon checking into a hotel, or when embarking a bus or plane. If it’s wrapped in plastic, asked yourself if you really need it. I travel with a big pack of biodegradable wet wipes to avoid the temptation of ripping into those little single-use packets.

Carry your own eating utensils

How many pieces of plastic cutlery do you discard on holiday? Avoid wasting any more by bringing your own heavy-duty camping cutlery. If this is too messy for you, invest in a stash of biodegradable disposable cutlery that you can toss out guilt-free. In 2016, France decided enough was enough and moved to ban plastic plates, cups and cutlery all together by 2020. With any luck, it won’t be long before more countries follow suit.

Was that your plastic fork? Image by Kent K. Barnes / flickr
Was that your plastic fork? Image by Kent K. Barnes / flickr

Bring your own snacks

Avoid reaching for individually packaged snacks while travelling by bringing your own food (or purchasing food that isn’t wrapped in plastic) wherever possible. I often travel with a big bag of homemade trail mix that I can dip into when I’m puckish between meals, as well as a stash of teabags to avoid using individually packaged bags. Sticking a peppermint tea bag in your water bottle is also great way to refresh drinking water that tastes a little stale.

Invest in a reusable bag for carrying liquids onto airlines

Instead of reaching for a complimentary plastic zip lock bag in which to place your liquids for airline travel, invest in a reusable bag that will last much longer. Of the more eco-friendly options currently on the market, I like Planet Wise’s clear reusable bags, which are PVC, BPA, phthalate, latex and lead free. If you forget to bring your own bag, at least try to reuse the free plastic zip lock bag as many times as you can before ditching it.

Invest in sustainably produced traditional textiles rather than holiday kitsch © Sarah Reid
Invest in sustainably produced traditional handicrafts rather than plastic holiday kitsch © Sarah Reid

Don’t be tempted by cheap souvenirs

What is it about being on holiday that gives so many people the urge to buy whatever tourist tat is on offer? Try to avoid buying mass produced plastic souvenirs (from sunglasses to costume jewellery) in favour of investing in well-made local handicrafts that you will cherish for years to come, rather than brittle junk that is likely to end up in the bin.

Use your own headphones

Bringing your own headphones to use in-flight won’t only help to reduce the plastic packaging that airline headphones are typically wrapped in, but it will often also save you money since many airlines now charge for using their headsets. Consider bringing your own neck pillow as well, as airline pillows are often tossed out at the end of each flight.