Easy Ways to Use Less Plastic on Your Travels

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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.

Pakiri Beach, New Zealand

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??

Pranang Beach in Railay, Thailand
Thailand is struggling with the plastic bag blight – let's hope they can keep beaches looking like this!

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.

Amanda in Badlands National Park
Me and my Chute in Badlands National Park

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.

Sea turtle at Laniakea Beach, Hawaii
You don't want turtles like this to die, do you??

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.)

The Little Fleet food truck corner in Traverse City
Bring your own utensils for street food or food trucks!

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.

Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris

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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How to use less plastic when you travel

Note: This post is brought to you in collaboration with the World Travel and Tourism Council.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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26 Comments on “Easy Ways to Use Less Plastic on Your Travels

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  1. Cutting out the amount of plastics we use is good. I have always used reusable shopping bags. It’s more an increasing trend here in UK to use our own bags since they started charging for plastic bags a few years back. Other countries like the USA can follow a similar model. No need to ban the bags, just charge for them. People will naturally gravitate to save money and use their own.

      I agree! And some states are starting to implement those sorts of things now, which is good to see.

    Yesss this is great! Plastic can be hard at first to cut out because it is everywhere, but once you make the habit it’s so easy and you wonder how you could ever have done things differently! One of my biggest pet peeves is the amount of plastic that stores in the U.S. use. I love that most (if not all?) countries in Europe charge for their plastic bags, so most people bring their own. I really wish the U.S. would move to that model. Every time I go back to visit (I’m an American expat in Spain), I always have to remember to remind the cashier like 5 times not to put my stuff in a bag (sometimes even 2!!) since they’re not used to people bringing their own bag. Another thing that I think people really need to be conscious of is the takeaway coffee cups. So easy to get and use a reusable cup just like you mentioned w/ the water bottle. I’ve even gotten a collapsible coffee cup for travel. It’s a great conversation piece and gets people thinking about their daily garbage production.

    Cheers for bringing awareness to this subject on your site, it’s so so needed!

      It’s like with any other thing, I suppose – once you make it routine in your life, it becomes quite easy!

    I have to confess that when I first saw the headline I thought this article was about how to cut down on use of credit cards when travelling! (Big Sheepish Grin) This just goes to show how jaded I have become in my mature years. In my youth I was a member of Friends of the Earth and attended Greenpeace demonstrations (before Greenpeace was fashionable).

    I guess holidays and vacation are the time when people forget their environmental principles. Even if we are conscientious at home, we tend to become more selfish when we’re on away turf, as it were. Good article! A timely reminder not to leave our principles at home.

      I’m not sure if we’re more selfish when we’re away, but it’s definitely more difficult to stick to all the eco-friendly routines we have at home! Especially if you’re visiting places that are maybe a little less eco-conscious.

    Love this post! I love the fact that your blogging about sustainable travel and tourism!
    such good tips especially about the one about carrying about your own water bottle. Its the little things that make the biggest difference… like not buying a ridiculous amount of plastic bottles that will ultimately end up on landfill.

    Do you mind if I share links to your article on my blog? I write to inspire young girls to travel solo and backing up my advice with popular articles like this would be so helpful! Especially if the advice help them develop sustainable travelling habits in the mean time!

      I don’t mind you sharing links at all. 🙂

    Great point – I always make a point when I´m home to recycle and reduce the plastic I use but it´s much more difficult whilst travelling. You´ve given some really good tips, I hope people become more conscious of what they consume and the impact it has.

      It’s definitely more difficult to stick to when you travel, but these are all things we can do pretty much all the time!

    I think these tips are the steps which can lead us to a different World of cleanliness and health. Most of the beaches and tourist destination gets waste from the outside visitors and this is the situation of every part or place in this World. Glad to read these tips and I assure you that I will always keep them in mind and as much as I can, I will spread these tips.

    Cool tips Amanda!

    I live in Berlin, so Germany is very big on recycling, and has been for years. It’s the law to separate your rubbish and trash for recycling, and you have to pay for larger items to be removed.

    I always take reusable bags for shopping. I have loads and depending on the event, I change and mix! Sadly, I too would have an issue with straws as I don’t like drinking from bottles, and I can’t even drink from the same glass twice, not to talk of re-using a recyclable straw, ‘cos if it hasn’t been in the dishwasher, I can’t use it! Eek!

      You could always look into the steel straws – you can clean them yourself and reuse them. 🙂

    Such an inspirational post! I do think it’s important that from the onset that we consider the material of the things we buy. Higher quality stuff (which are often not made of plastic) tend to last longer because of their quality make and the value we assign to these items. As a result we also consume less because our things last longer with us.

      Definitely. It’s tough to commit to, though, because things like fast fashion and cheap products are so appealing to young people who maybe don’t have the extra disposable income to spend. But I do think it’s important to try where we can!

    Great post! Thanks so much! Every little bit we can do will help. These are great ideas.
    Live Unstoppable!

    Excellent tips … the use of plastic is such an egregious sin in travel!

      I mean, sometimes it can’t be helped. But these are easy things we can do to reduce unnecessary plastic.

    I think it’s great that you brought up tampons. Some studies have shown that women create up to 300 pounds of trash in their lifetime just with trash related to menstruation. Menstrual cups are a great option, especially when traveling. Other options can include period underpants like Thinx, reusable pads you can make yourself or purchase on Etsy, or natural sponges.

      Just sucks that men don’t even have to worry about this one! 😉

    Great Post. If more travellers adopted reusable bottles and reusable bags, attractions would free of litter. Kenya recently became a plastic bags-free country after almost 20 years of packaging everything in plastic bags. Some parks like one in the capital Nairobi has also banned plastic bottles. You can imagine the chaos as we adapt.

      Definitely! I really commend the countries that are enacting these bans, though. Yes, it will take people some time to get used to it, but it’s a great move in the long run!

    Would be interested in the metal container you use for soap bars! I’m trying to move toward bar soap from liquids and would love an alternative to the plastic boxes 🙂

      I just bought one from Lush when I bought my soaps the first time. 🙂

    I always just refill my water bottles when I’m traveling in places with safe tap water. I don’t travel with shampoo either cause I extremely rarely wash my hair with shampoo (it’s short lol) so a bar of soap is all I need. The one I really suck at that would be so easy to change is the straw thing; I love using straws and haven’t gotten around to getting a reusable one! This is a good reminder that I really should get on that! The reusable utensils one too; I hate to think of how many plastic forks I’ve thrown away

      Yes! Giving up the straw is so simple, yet a lot of people don’t even think about it!

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