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Is Zero Waste Travel Possible?

As (un)sustainable living, consumer consumption and environmental issues have steadily crept up the agenda over recent years (which is a good thing), so too has the buzz around zero waste living, and in particular in ways to lead a plastic free lifestyle.

We are and have always been advocates of the “experiences not things” mantra and are firm believers that travelling for months with a 40L backpack is one of the best lessons in reduced consumerism that there is. Someone once told me, there’s a direct correlation between the amount of “stuff” you travel with and the amount of fun you have: The less “stuff” the more fun. They were right. With no more than four changes of outfit, I had the time of my life. Travel can be a great prompt to review what we do – and don’t need – in our lives.

But the travel industry was born out of the leisure industry – that is – obviously – something to do in our free time. While an increasing number of us do our best to reduce our waste at home, we find it challenging to do so while on our holiday. The Carbon Emissions generated through long-haul travel are significant, and in some ways it can be said that travel is high-waste. Often products are imported specifically for tourists in destinations where they are not natively available, large-scale and intrusive construction is put in place specifically for tourism, and the impact of travel is lasting: in many ways.

In this light, it is perhaps difficult to see Zero Waste travel as 100% realistic (or yet at least).

Fortunately though, more and more travel agencies and tour companies, such as Better Places Travel, are stepping in and making a stand against use of single-use plastics, plastic waste and helping to offset carbon emissions caused by travel. Although such change will not take away pressure on travellers to be discerning of what they buy and support while travelling, it does help to promote a more environmentally supply chain when it comes to tourism.

So is Zero Waste Travel possible? Not really. However, single-use plastic free travel is possible – increasingly – and we can certainly do a lot to minimise our environmental impact while we travel. Read on for ideas on how to do that!

plastic free travel

Why Ditch the Plastic?

By now, we’ve all heard about the plastic menace. In 2015, 320 million tonnes of plastics were manufactured around the globe.

Every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still in existence today.

We’ve all seen the pictures. Of birds strangled by beer-can rings around their necks. Of marine wildlife who starve on a stomach full of plastic bottles and fishing debris.

It’s often on our travels that we often see the full impact of plastic pollution and waste first hand. While in the developed world we are brought up with the mantra to recycle and we often do not see the full scale of our waste. While our waste may be nicely taken away at home (regardless of the fact that a whopping 91% of plastic that we put for recycling is not recycled), overseas we often cannot escape the plastic that lines exotic beaches, backwaters, and other spots that are otherwise ones of outstanding natural beauty.

Continuing to buy and use plastic on a large scale is no longer workable as a solution. Recycling is largely a myth aimed at making the consumer feel better, and – while it can be effective on a small scale – revising what plastic you have around your home, for instance, the only real way to confront the plastics problem: Is to stop buying it.

36% of plastics consumption is for the purpose of packaging – and it’s this which we can do the most to avoid if we refuse to use single use plastics. We’re not talking about the plastic that makes up parts of cars, trains, interior decoration or other industrial and large-purpose plastic here in this article. 

When we travel, one of the biggest challenges to reduction of plastics is arguably the “holiday mentality” itself. When we’re on our hard earned 2 weeks out of the office, we don’t necessarily want to think about piles of plastic floating out to sea in front of us. It’s easier to just to say yes to the freshly cooled bottle of drinking water that has just been handed to us.

There’s also the challenge of knowing how to avoid the plastic when we’re away – particularly without some of the resources we might have at home.

top responsible travel tips

The piles of plastic that have become a depressingly familiar sight.

Suggestions For Single Use Plastic Free Travel

Eliminating plastic from our travels is certainly a challenge, but can be done. In this guide we cover our favourite tips (successfully used by ourselves to avoid plastic), your complete plastic free travel packing list, tips on sustainable transport options, hotels & accommodation that are environmentally friendly, the best countries for plastic free travel – and more!

How to Avoid Bottled Drinking Water

One of the biggest differences between being at home and travelling is you can’t necessarily drink the water from the tap, thereby adding the menace of plastic-bottled water into the mix. The tourism industry has built itself on a culture – especially in developing countries where tap water is not necessarily clean – where tourists are expected to drink bottled water both because it’s “safe” and.. is not free.

Grab our favourite Steripen water filter here!

We’ve travelled countries for weeks to months filtering our own water or drinking filtered water, only to come across business-minded restaurant owners who try to convince us that filtered water is not safe to drink and we have to buy their plastic bottles. No thanks.

The good news is that avoiding plastic water bottles is fairly easy to do in most parts of the world, if you are prepared. Namely, depending on where you are travelling you need a refillable water bottle(s) and a water filtration / purification method.

First off: If you’re travelling somewhere that has safe drinking water, simply refill your Klean Kanteen (we love this one) or other re-fillable bottle and away you go! We also really like the Dopper bottles that double up as a handy cup to drink out of (although they are made out of BPA free plastic).

How to Clean Water while Travelling

There are several options available for purifying / filtering your water while travelling. Here are some we have tried and tested:

  • First off – the free one: Boiling! Requires a bit of pre planning, but if you are staying somewhere with access to a kitchen you can easily boil water (it’s better to boil it in a saucepan and let it boil for 10+ minutes), allow to cool and decant into your bottles for the following day. On many occasions where there was no alternative around (e.g. the sundarbans in Bangladesh where I didn’t want to filter mangrove water) I drank boiled water to avoid plastic bottles.
  • UV Filtration. Our favourite and go-to device for ensuring clean water is our Steripen Adventurer. UV filtration is one of the most effective water purification methods, is very easy to use, and doesn’t leave any nasty taste in the water – it kills bacteria, viruses and protozoa and is 99+% effective. It requires batteries (you need to order these in advance of travelling, online as they’re not a size commonly found) but the batteries last for 25-50L of water purification. We treated water in Iran, India and Bangladesh with our Steripen and didn’t get sick once.
  • Carbon & Mesh Filter Bottles. There are a number of water bottles with built in filters such as the Grayl, Lifestraw Go, and Water-to-Go. Our favourite is Water-to-Go as it’s the only travel filtration system that filters out chemicals as well as bacteria and viruses (it also gets out ultra-nasty flouride) and is safe to use on cloudy water as well as clear water (it’s only not suitable for salt water).
  • Purification Tablets. These are a handy backup option to have with you – especially if trekking, but given the nasty aftertaste of many purification tablets we don’t recommend them over the UV and filter bottle options given above.
  • Ask for Filtered water. In many countries (such as India) filtered water is safe and readily available. RO Water (reverse osmosis) is very safe (but unfortunately lacks the minerals that occur in natural spring water). It’s usually available in restaurants at no cost and at many public sights labelled as “drinking water”. If you’re unsure, ask a waiter or staff member if it is “filtered water”. They may try and sell you bottled water instead – however In my 1.5 years of travel in India I’ve drunk filtered water 99% of the time and never got sick. If in doubt, you can always give it an extra blast with your steripen. 

NB – The above methods are not appropriate for salt water, some not for cloudy water, and not all remove chemical contaminants. Check the instructions carefully on the water purification method you choose, and if in doubt, check with the manufacturer.

As a last resort, if you can’t purify water but where you are staying has large filtered water dispensers, it is better to fill your bottle up from these vs buying plastic bottles yourself. If you’re in a situation where you have to buy bottled water go for as large a bottle as you can (these are more efficient as they use relatively less water to make per litre of water that they carry.

plastic free toiletries for travel

Plastic Free Travel Packing Essentials

Here are your sustainable travel packing list essentials that will set you up for successful plastic free travel!

Toiletries

We always recommend organic toiletries as not all countries / destinations have proper waste water treatment systems, and what we pour down the drain goes straight into our soil, into local water sources, and the food chain…

Essential Plastic Free Kit

Clean Water Kit (Filter method + Bottle(s)) – See above!

We’ll be publishing a full packing list for sustainable travel soon – so keep your eye out for that! 

How to Find Eco-Friendly Accommodation

Now that you’ve got your plastic free packing all sorted, you’ll want to find somewhere to stay that supports your philosophy and is sensitive to its local environment!

Luckily, the range of eco-friendly and sustainable lodges, resorts and hotels is ever increasing. Although you do have to keep an eye out for “greenwashing” (that means, claiming to be eco-friendly for marketing purposes but not doing much). At least, look for places that: Avoid plastics, use natural cleaning products, have furnished and built the hotel with natural and up-cycled materials where possible, practice recycling and composting, and give back to the local community through employing locals and other initiatives.

Hotels that claim to be “eco-friendly” by simply putting a card next to the bed that you can place the card on the bed if you don’t want to have your sheets and towels changed everyday are not doing enough 🙁 .

Read our full guide on how to find sustainable accommodation.

eating without plastic while travelling

Tips for Eating Plastic Free

When you’re travelling and often don’t have access to your own kitchen, it can be tricky to navigate eating without coming up against plastic in some form or another. Restaurants may have bought food packaged in plastic, in developing countries food might be served with plastic cutlery, etc.

The best tactic is to avoid taking out and choose to eat in wherever possible. Seeing as the majority of plastic is used for packaging, the more you can cut out the need for food to be packaged, the better. You can’t always prevent all use of plastic in the food chain, but seeking out higher end / locally run establishments that support organic, locally grown produce should provide some reassurance. Bring your own cutlery and straws with you to avoid situations where you have to say yes to a plastic version.

If self-catering is an option, sourcing out the local vegetable or farmers market will likely be better than visiting a regular supermarket. These cotton mesh produce bags are great for carrying groceries home.

Carrying a mug / container for hot beverages makes it easy to avoid take-out coffee or tea cups (which are lined with plastic) – we love our Stojo for coffees on the go, which is made from silicone and folds up super small! Freshly made juices are unfortunately often served in plastic, try drinking in and asking for a glass (you can use your bamboo/metal straw) or else give them your Stojo or other drink cup to fill instead.

 

Avoiding Plastic When on the Move

Avoiding plastic when flying, especially, requires some dedication, regardless of the fact that the world’s first Single use plastic free flight has already taken off. Although some airlines are more “sustainable” than others, the level of plastic waste is high from flying – just think of all the plastic cups for drinks, the food wrapping, cutlery, the individual headsets…

All water consumed on the plane comes from plastic bottles – the only way to avoid this is to bring on as much water as you’ll need to drink on the flight with you. You’ll have to bring your refillable water bottles with you, make sure they are empty for security, and fill them post security and prior to boarding from water fountains (or you can request restaurants/ cafes to do it for you in some places). Depending on the length of flight it might be a bit of weight to carry with you, but should be worth it!

When it comes to food, it’s a bit harder- unless you want to bring all your own food for the flight, which is certainly one option for shorter flights. A mixture of tin foil, metal trays and plastic are often used for hot food – with not much way to tell in advance what is packaged in plastic.

One can only hope that airlines take a step back to the days when food was served to all on “real” crockery.

What are your favourite tips for plastic free travel? What advice would you add for those looking to practise zero waste travel as much as possible? 

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