I've written before about sustainable travel and why it's important to start thinking more seriously about how we affect the world as we roam. After all, we only have one planet, and it's not getting any younger.
But when it comes to participating in sustainable tourism practices, I understand that it can all seem a little daunting at first.
After all, how do you make sure you're “buying local” in a destination you've never been to before? How do you know which carbon offset programs are legit? How can you tell if a wildlife encounter is good or bad? How do you know if the tour company you've chosen *actually* participates is responsible tourism?
Who wants to do all that homework before a holiday? It's easy to get overwhelmed and to decide that sustainable tourism is just too difficult to commit to.
But here's the thing: Sustainable tourism practices can start small and still have a huge effect.
One of the first things I challenge every traveler to do is to commit to reducing the amount of disposable plastics they use on their travels.
Plastics and our oceans
You may not realize it, but plastic is the biggest polluter to our oceans. It kills mammals and fish and coral, not to mention makes beaches look really gross.
Here are a few staggering facts about disposable plastics in our society today:
- According to Earth Policy Institute, globally we humans use over 2 million plastic bags per minute. And each of those plastic bags can take up to 500 years to decompose.
- The average American throws away roughly 185 pounds of plastic per year. In Los Angeles alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments (like grocery bags, straws, and soda bottles) are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.*
- One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans.
Plastic pollution has gotten so bad that it has collected in some parts of the ocean to form floating masses. The largest of which, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California, is twice the size of Texas. And you know how big Texas is, right??
Many countries are trying to combat the unnecessary use of disposable plastics by taxing or even banning plastic bags. But until this becomes a global initiative, we need to pay attention to how much plastic we're using and disposing of.
(*Learn more plastic facts at EcoWatch.)
How to use less plastic when you travel
When you're at home, it's fairly easy to recycle and pay attention to how much plastic you're buying in your everyday life. But it can definitely be harder when you're on the road.
The good news is that there are little steps every traveler can take to use less plastic. And even these small steps can help lessen the burden on our ocean environments in the long run.
Some easy things you can do when you travel to use less plastic include:
1. Carry your own reusable water bottle
This one is so, so easy – no need to buy a bunch of disposable plastic water bottles that you'll use once and throw away. Get a reusable bottle instead that you can refill. In most parts of the US and Europe, tap water is perfectly safe to drink.
My CamelBak Chute has been on multiple continents with me. I love it because you can easily fill it up (and fit ice cubes inside), and the part you drink from is covered and protected from road dust.
And if you're traveling in a part of the world that doesn't have safe tap water? Consider getting a reusable water bottle with a built-in water purifier/filter. I like this one, called the Grayl.
You can extend this tip to coffee mugs, too. If you're going to be working at a cafe (or hanging out at one for a while), make sure you speak up and ask for a glass mug instead of a disposable cup. And if you're going to be getting your coffee to-go, consider carrying your own thermos, or a collapsible coffee cup.
2. Skip the plastic straws
According to the National Park Service, Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day. You might say, “But they're so small – surely they can't contribute *that much* to pollution.” The sad fact is that it's exactly because they're so small that they're such a problem.
Straws usually don't make it to recycling bins, and therefore head to landfills and our oceans instead. And because they are small, they're extra dangerous to marine life.
You only need to watch this viral video of a sea turtle having a straw removed from its nostril to never want to use a plastic straw again.
Straws are unnecessary anyone – we don't NEED them to drink. Skip the straw when you can.
(And if you just can't stand the thought of ice cubes knocking against your teeth when you drink, invest in some stainless steel straws instead.)
3. Bring your own reusable bag for shopping
I've already mentioned the ridiculous amount of plastic bags we use every day (nearly 2 million!). These don't degrade in water, and instead end up getting eaten by birds and turtles and other marine life that confuse them for jellyfish.
It's super easy to pack a lightweight, foldable tote bag or backpack for your travels and then use that for any shopping you might do. These bags won't take up any extra room in your luggage, but can definitely help you do your part to reduce the number of plastic bags flowing into our oceans.
4. Forego the hotel shampoo
You know those tiny bottles of shampoo and lotion in your hotel room? Don't open them if you can help it. Most of them will just get thrown away, regardless of whether you use the whole thing or just a palmful.
I often travel with a full-sized bottle of shampoo/conditioner combo for longer trips. Sure, it takes up more room in my luggage, but it will last a lot longer than those tiny travel-sized bottles.
The *best* option is to either bring your shampoo in bottles that you can refill yourself at home, or to travel with solid shampoo that doesn't require plastic packaging at all (I love my Ethique shampoo bar and conditioner that lives in a metal container inside my bag).
You can do the same thing with bar soap and just travel with your own. (Ethique makes body bars, too.)
5. Bring your own utensils
If you love to eat street food or other takeaway meals on your travels, consider how often you use plastic utensils once and throw them away. Instead, invest a few dollars in an all-in-one utensil that you can easily keep in your bag and use over and over. (I like this one because it includes a spoon, a fork, and a serrated knife edge.)
6. Ladies, be smarter about tampons
Fellas, I hate to bring this up because I know it will probably make you uncomfortable, but let's talk about tampons. Most of them come in plastic casing and packaging, meaning a lot of plastic waste once a month. (Not to mention that they're really annoying to have to pack!)
Instead, consider trying out a menstrual cup, which completely negates the need for tampons at all.
Of course, I know menstrual cups don't work for every woman – we're all built a little bit differently, after all. If you're someone who can't (or just doesn't want to) use a menstrual cup, you can still look for tampons that contain less plastic. Multiple brands now make 100% organic cotton tampons (which are way better for you anyway), most of which use either cardboard applicators or no applicators at all.
In most cases, these tips won't cost you any extra money as a traveler – in fact, you may actually save some money along the way.
And, probably the best news is that you can extend these tips into your everyday life to reduce your plastic usage overall.
What other tips do you have for using less plastic when you travel?
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Note: This post is brought to you in collaboration with the World Travel and Tourism Council.