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.

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By Paul Hellier

I love Asian culture, the food, and the people. If there’s one thing that bothers me while traveling in Asia, it’s plastic. Mention plastic, and the response is always the same, “too much!”

I do what I can as an individual, and my dream is to crack this issue and reduce the scourge. Asia needs it. We all need it. Read more about the problem here.

I eat a lot of street food when I travel. I wander and watch what I am hungry for and buy food from someone not serving on plastic. Many street food vendors in Vietnam serve food on a plate with steel cutlery and wooden chopsticks, then wash up afterwards. It can take a bit of time to find a street vendor like this, so start your food adventure early to avoid those hungry episodes on the road.

Generally, you can sit down and have Phở (soup), Cơm tấm, (broken rice), or fresh spring rolls on a washable plate. Banh Mi (Baguette sandwich) always comes with a bag, but if you’re quick you can say “No” in Vietnamese ‘Không’, and you’ll be understood.

Coffee in a single-use cup is a tough one to crack. There are thousands of small Vietnamese coffee shops, chain cafés, and street vendors. The best formula to be plastic free on a trip overseas is to carry a reusable cup that has a handle and attach it to your bag with a carabiner. It will come in handy when venues serve sit-down coffee in plastic cups. 

My best travel tips: Ask for glass, carry your own cup, and support the small vendors who wash the dishes.

Paul Hellier is the founder of Fair Food Forager. This piece originally appeared here

By Donna Lawrence

Brazilian poet and writer Paulo Coelho once said “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.” Imagine if you could do something extraordinary for the planet by simply picking up 10 pieces of litter on your travels.

Pick Up 10 Pieces of Trash

We at World Expeditions believe there is power in the collective will of global trekkers to keep wilderness trails free of litter. That’s why we are a founding partner in the creation of a simple but effective initiative that encourages travelers to pick up 10 pieces of litter each day of their guided treks in Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, and now the Mount Rinjani Climb in Indonesia. Trekkers are invited to be part of 10 Pieces on their adventures, and asked to bring along a pair of gloves and hand sanitizer to pick up items such as plastic bottles and candy wrappers.

Here are 10 good reasons to join the 10 Pieces movement:

  1. Impact. Less litter on wilderness trails brings benefit to animals and humans. Not only is litter unsightly and capable of ruining our experience in nature, it also poses danger to animals that may ingest it. Often litter on a trail ends up in a river and we all know where our rivers lead to. By removing litter from mountain environments, we are ensuring that it doesn’t end up in our oceans. 
  2. Scale. Ten pieces sounds like a nominal number, but it’s scaled immensely when the collective power of a group of travelers joins in. With a group of just 12 travelers, the 10 pieces quickly turns into 120. And if there’s another group of 12 travelers at the same place the next week, that’s another 120 pieces of litter. It soon adds up. 
  3. Ease. Ten pieces of litter can be collected in under 60 seconds; anyone can do it, alone or with friends, on an organized excursion or not, and it costs nothing. At World Expeditions, we manage the responsible disposal of all litter collected. 
  4. Safety. We provide participants with our reusable litter collection bags. Participants bring their own protective gloves and hand sanitizer, and are asked to only collect paper and plastic litter; no hazardous litter. 
  5. Our planet’s future. As more travelers enter mountain environments, so does infrastructure and therefore non-biodegradable waste. Litter control programs are therefore critically relevant for future generations. 
  6. Leading by example. The communities we pass through along trails in Peru, Nepal, Bhutan and Indonesia may not have been exposed to litter education programs, but when they see visitors to their home collecting litter, it encourages them to be responsible about their waste disposal. With this understanding, they can lobby for better litter disposal methods for their communities, and they also become less likely to throw litter into their environment themselves. 
  7. Leaving No Trace. We are all accustomed to the phrase “take only photographs, leave only footprints.” Well we have expanded the “Leave No Trace” concept, to “take only photographs and 10 pieces of litter, and leave only footprints.” 
  8. Forward planning. There’s no point collecting litter if it’s disposed of incorrectly. Before offering 10 Pieces on a trek, we ensure that we can dispose of litter responsibly. In some cases, this means transporting it to the nearest city to be delivered to a recycling plant, and in other cases it’s the clean and thorough incineration of the litter at our campsites. 
  9. Inspiring others. We encourage other travel companies to build the 10 Pieces initiative into their offering, turning this into a collective movement that is propelled forward by travelers globally. 
  10. And finally: because 10 Pieces helps make the world a better place!

Donna Lawrence is Responsible Travel Manager for World Expeditions. Photos courtesy WE.

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