How to Travel Plastic-Free

By Kara Allen

Plastic-Free July is a movement out of Australia where individuals commit to giving up single-use plastics for the month of July. Since its inception in 2011, it has mobilized more than two million people in 150 countries to commit to taking steps to reduce plastic pollution. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the challenge with Plastic-Free July is that it occurs just when all of us are taking off for our summer travels, a time when it can be challenging to avoid plastic! Fear not, it is actually quite easy to reduce how much single use plastic you consume while traveling through a bit of preparation and some conscious decision making on the road.

Here are 8 tips on how to travel plastic-free this July:

  • Dine in. Dining in instead of taking food to-go is one of the easiest ways to avoid single-use plastic and other disposable paper products. Plus, it forces you to slow down and relax, rather than simply running from place to place trying to see all of the sights. In places like Europe where there is a strong cafe culture, it is actually easier to dine in than out; however, if you are heading to a country where street food is popular (e.g. Southeast Asia) and you’d like to sample the local flavors, look for vendors that serve you food on reusable or paper containers over plastic or styrofoam. Otherwise, opt for a sit down restaurant.  
  • Eat and drink local. Enjoying local cuisine is not only a great way to discover new flavors and get to know more about a culture, but it also helps reduce how much plastic you incur. When my husband and I did the Annapurna Circuit last year, we noticed that you could get imported pasta with tomato sauce or the unofficial dish of Nepal, dal bhat (seasoned lentils and rice). Pasta is imported in plastic bags, which get burned by the locals in open pits since there isn’t trash collection in the Himalayas, whereas dal bhat comes from locally grown rice and lentils, which are delivered in large sacks from local farms. We also had the choice between drinking locally grown tea and UV treated water (both plastic-free), and imported beverages like Coca-Cola and bottled water that come in plastic bottles. We enjoyed the local food and beverages, and felt good knowing that we were minimizing the impact of our travels on the environment and the people of Nepal. 
  • Bring a refillable water bottle. Staying hydrated while traveling is important for your health; however, it can be hard to find drinking water on-the-go, since drinking fountains can be hard to find in much of the world. The way I work around this is to bring two 750ml stainless steel bottles with me wherever I go and to fill them up whenever I have a chance: at cafes, restaurants, gyms, hotels, etc. In developing countries where the tap water isn’t safe to drink, you can use a SteriPen to kill pathogens in the tap water in two minutes; I personally like and use their rechargeable Adventurer model. Some developing countries have stations where you can get UV Filtered Water or Reverse Osmosis Water, or nice restaurants have this technology in-house to provide clean water to its guests. Take advantage of these places to fill up your bottles!  
  • Pack your own toiletries. While many hotel chains are starting to move away from individual plastic bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner in favor of bulk soap dispensers, it is far from being ubiquitous yet. I personally swear by the refillable silicon GoToob to carry my own soap, shampoo and conditioner, which never explode or leak in your luggage. I’ve carried three of them them for more than six months in my luggage while traveling and never once had a leak, so I personally don’t think it necessary to package them in a plastic bag "just in case" although putting them in a cloth bag or pocket to prevent the cap being pulled loose is a wise idea. If you’re traveling for a few weeks, you might prefer carrying a shampoo bar instead of liquid shampoo to ensure you don’t run out mid-travels.
  • Bring snacks for the plane. The airlines are notorious for giving little bags of individually wrapped snacks that are low-quality, not filling in the least and covered in plastic. I like to use a refillable stainless steel container (ToGo Ware offer one that is small and sturdy) to carry filling snacks like nuts and dried fruit, or I’ll use a bandana to wrap up a sandwich, pastry or some cookies (because sometimes on vacation, it’s nice to have a treat). A bandana is great because it takes up virtually no space, can become a reusable napkin once I’m done using it to carry things, and can easily be washed in the sink at a hotel with a bit of shampoo if it gets a little dirty. 
  • Translate key phrases. When traveling for 4.5 months out of the country last year, I went to the grocery store in many countries where I didn’t speak the language and had no way to ask people not to use a plastic bag aside from doing an elaborate game of charades which were not always successful. At the end of my trip, I found a grocery store in Japan that had a great solution for this, a card at the register that said "I don’t need a plastic bag" in English and Japanese. It made me wish that I had made a sign like that of my own that said "I don’t need a straw" or "I don’t need a bag" in the local language of every country I visited. Fortunately, you can actually create these signs during your travels as you need them. I recently learned that when using the Google Translate app, if you turn your phone to landscape mode after translating a phrase, it will blow up the text to fill the screen, effectively creating a nice sign for you of the phrase you’d like to say without generating waste (see example in the slideshow above).
  • Cover up! Sunscreen is one of those necessary evils for those of us with pale skin. Either you buy chemical sunscreen that is damaging our oceans, reefs, and possibly your own health (learn more), or you buy natural sunscreen that leaves your skin a tinge white and is prone to clogging your pores. In either case, the sunscreen you buy will likely come in a single-use plastic tube or tub. While it may be tough to eliminate sunscreen altogether, there are ways to minimize its use. I avoid sunscreen by wearing a hat, light scarf and lightweight long layers to provide physical protection whenever possible. As showing skin is seen as inappropriate in many cultures, this can have the side benefit of showing respect for the culture you are in as well. If you’re going to be doing water sports, a full length rash guard or stinger suit is a great way to block sun without sunscreen while you’re in the water. In places like the Great Barrier Reef, sunscreen is banned to protect the health of the reef so covering up with a physical layer is your only option.
  • Be road trip ready. My cousin’s family has traveled all over the United States by car; with their three young boys, they have been close to all fifty states. One of their biggest challenges has been hotel breakfasts since many hotels surprisingly do not offer reusable cups and plates with their continental breakfast. The other challenge is dining out; many places they stop for a quick bite only offer single-use packaging. The only solution they have been able to find in these situations is to bring their own reusable dining set. If you camp and have a set of plates, utensils and mugs for camping, you can easily repurpose those for your road trip. If not, you can go to your local outdoor store and pick up enamelware plates, bowls, and mugs, which are sturdy, relatively inexpensive and will last you a lifetime. Be sure to pack a small container of dishwashing soap and a sponge for doing dishes in your hotel room. 

For more ideas on how to go plastic-free this July, check out the Plastic-Free July website.

Kara Allen of San Francisco, California, blogs at My Eco Legacy a site dedicated to helping others living more sustainably, one small change at a time. She spent 4.5 months last year backpacking around Asia. For more tips on how to reduce the plastic you use while out-and-about in your daily life, check out her blog: Optimize Your Everyday Carry (EDC) to Live More Sustainably.

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