Our need for convenience and cleanliness combined with a lack of forward-thinking, allowed us to rush this chemically produced material into our lives and onto the shelves on an astronomically mass-produced scale, without a second thought given to what happens when its life is finished.
The problems it creates don’t really need much of an introduction, as I’m sure you’re aware of them…
– Toxically polluted oceans and waterways
– Plastics in food chains (including our food chain)
– Indirect harm to disadvantaged people through plastic pollution
– Deadly harm to animals and entire ecosystems
It can often slip into our subconscious, and if we’re not actively working on making a difference, unless we have reminders, or until it becomes drilled into us. The documentary Blue Planet narrated and presented by David Attenborough, has brought the issue of plastic pollution right into the minds and hearts of many people worldwide. His documentaries are watched by millions, and not only in the UK.
We’d all heard about plastic pollution, and many people were already actively helping. But having the greatly respected David Attenborough, eloquently explain our destruction of nature through plastic, just seemed to do the trick in hitting it home.
A brief history
Invented way back, in 1907, interest in plastic slowly grew until it finally exploded throughout the world with the initial surge beginning in the 1960s. And it hasn’t stopped or slowed down since. Easily and cheaply created, but not so easy to disappear.
The worst offenders
Single-use plastics are one of the most notorious. Food packaging, menstrual products, plastic straws, plastic bags. With images of pre-peeled oranges in plastic tubs, and individually plastic-wrapped bananas hitting our social media feeds. It’s astonishing how far we’ll go for the sake of convenience. Re-wrapping a fruit that already bears a natural protective coating, just so an individual on their lunch break doesn’t have to take the time to peel it themselves…
Another huge culprit is fishing gear. Discarded nylon nets, lines and ropes are frequently found on shorelines, wrapped around marine wildlife, or even in their stomachs. Cheaper to discard and buy new than to repair any damage or bring it back to shore. Fishing gear makes up about 50% of all discarded marine plastic.
While we are rushing to develop initiatives and alternatives to stop commercial plastic waste, there are small things we can do as individuals, every day.
At home VS on the road
When you’re at home it’s generally easier to keep a tab on your plastic use. You might have a regular recycling routine, you’re familiar with the brands that use recycled plastic or none at all etc.
But on the road, tiredness, unfamiliarity, convenience and a general lack of sustainable options creep in. It’s hard to be perfect all the time, and I think as long as we are aware and actively trying, that’s great. We shouldn’t shame individual people for ‘not doing enough’ when at least they’re doing something.
We should be actively emailing our political representatives, and businesses that we shop with, and campaigning for change altogether.
12 tips to reduce your plastic waste when travelling
So, to help remind you, or to make you aware of things you perhaps hadn’t considered, I’ve collated some tips, which have helped in reducing my own plastic impact on the road.
1. Don’t replace/throw away plastic items that still work!
It’s brilliant that bamboo, reusable, biodegradable etc. products are now becoming so widely available. But, it completely defeats the object if you have something that works, and throw it away to introduce an eco option. I often see influencers promoting eco/sustainable alternatives, which is awesome!
But I wish they would encourage people to only buy them when their current product has worn out. As an example. Toothbrushes. I carried on using a plastic toothbrush I had until I was able to replace it with a bamboo alternative.
2. Look for more environmentally friendly clothing
If you feel like you need new clothes for travelling, try looking for more eco-friendly options. From moving to t-shirts, jumpers and skirts made from natural fabrics (cotton/linen/wool), to fleeces and coats etc. that are made from recycled or sustainable materials. Or browsing vintage stores and marketplace apps like Depop, eBay and Vinted. There are some amazing alternative options out there!
From brands like Patagonia, Thought Clothing and People Tree. Plus many other brands are now including more sustainable edits and clothing lines now too, like Monki and H&M.
Alternatively, it might be worth checking whether you really need to buy anything new! If you’re backpacking, using hostel laundries, hiking, sweating, or unexpectedly delivering babies… (yep, that happened!), it would be best to use old things hanging around your closet!
3. Refill old toiletry containers
Instead of constantly buying new tiny ‘travel’ versions of your favourite toiletries, try and refill some old mini bottles (from old Christmas gift sets maybe), with soap, shampoo or conditioner from your bottles at home.
It becomes tricky if you’re on the road for a long time, as of course, these products will soon run out. But when this happens buying a larger bottle is always more efficient than a tiny one.
If you need to catch a flight and can’t take it with you, leave it in a hostel bathroom or ‘free’ box. I guarantee it will be used and you will make another budgeting backpacker very happy.
4. Review which toiletry/hygiene products you use
Have you ever tried using solid soap bars, or even solid shampoos or conditioners? These products have come such a long way in recent years, and the formulas have become much more effective.
You might need to invest in a little tin to keep them stored in your wash bag, but it’s an amazing step in reducing your plastic use as they’re mostly packaged in cardboard and paper.
A bonus point is that solid bars tend to last longer, and can be carried with carry-on hand luggage, perfect if you’re travelling light.
Another big area to review your product usage is period products. Throwaway pads and tampons take a scarily long time to break down in landfills, so take the time to explore other options. From menstrual cups to period underwear, reusable pads, organic cotton tampons with reusable applicators etc.
There are so many great options on the rise. Brands like DAME, Wuka, Thinx and the Hannah Pad are great places to look! Travelling and having a period sucks, and feeling guilty about having to use plastic-filled products while travelling also sucks.
Being away from home and working out how to sanitise your menstrual cup/wash period underwear seems daunting but with a little extra prep it could be possible. Items like the DAME wet bag allow you to store things until you’re able to wash them.
5. Carry a reusable water bottle/coffee cup
One of the biggest problems in the plastic world is single-use drink containers, especially water bottles. We are so dependent on water, but it is hard to access clean water in some areas unless it is packaged in plastic.
In some countries, where drinking water is considered unsafe or hard to come by, bottled water is often the only choice. Luckily, more and more hostels, airports, and cities are providing refill stations. So refill your reusable bottle safely where you can.
Some reusable water bottles can even sanitise water on the go, so you can refill from streams and usually unsafe taps. But, do your research on where you’re travelling to, and analyse the bottle to fully understand where and when you can use it.
Also coffee… sweet morning nectar. If you can’t sit in a cafe to have a coffee, bring your own reusable coffee cup to take it away.
6. Eating in VS Takeaway
If you have the option to eat in a restaurant/cafe try and do that instead, it’s generally better to sit in and use their plates and cutlery etc. I think it also helps to always make that clear when ordering, as sometimes you might be handed a tiny cake in a big plastic tray. This happened to me several times before it bothered me enough to start saying something beforehand.
I think cities/big tourist attractions tend to be worse offenders for this, as of course, we’re all in such a rush… and the norm is probably to take things away.
7. Carry a reusable bag
A canvas/cotton tote bag is best, but if you already have a sturdy plastic one that packs away small, bring it! While in Australia, I ended up carrying around the most random canvas bag, that I think once contained a birthday gift that someone gave to me.
It belonged to a financial planning company, and I always wore it with the text facing in, just in case someone queried me for advice on their financial assets (!?). It carried many a market haul and snorkel mask and is extremely battered and a bit holey, but still going strong.
8. Carry some reusable utensils
Carrying on with the reusable theme, carrying around your own small set of utensils is a brilliant way of reducing any takeaway utensils you might need to take. It’s something I hadn’t considered before I set off on my first long-term travel escapade, but at the first street food stop, I cringed as I had to take the plastic fork they had.
Luckily, I soon came across some utensils that a girl was leaving behind in a hostel dorm as she was going home, I snapped them up. They were a little heavy/bulky to carry as they were typical dinner utensils (I do wonder where she found them, I didn’t ask!). But I used them often. I now have a great little bamboo set of utensils from Mabboo, a company based in Bristol 🙂
9. Buy from local markets
Not only does this support the local growers and farmers, it can massively reduce the amount of plastic you use. Fruits and vegetables are sold as nature intended, and as long as you bring along your reusable bag, no plastic needs to be involved.
10. Cook for yourself, and make extra portions
This will depend on the availability of, for example, hostel fridges, or camper van fridges, and the general climate, as some things won’t keep well.
But just like you might at home, cook a little extra and then store additional meals. I took two old takeaway tubs (Tikka Masala if you were wondering) away with me on my travels. I stored some socks in there most of the time, but if I made any extra food, I could whip these out and chuck them in a hostel fridge. Not only does it save money, but it saves you from buying more food and therefore plastic packaging.
11. If it’s safe to do so, pick up plastic litter when you see it
OK, this isn’t reducing your plastic waste, but others. But the more often we see each other picking litter up that isn’t ours, hopefully, the more ingrained and aware we’ll become. I remember wandering along the beaches at Cape Tribulation, Australia and being so visually impressed with the beauty and remoteness.
But as I turned my eye to the shoreline, globalisation was there… in the form of fragments of plastic. So I began picking it up… until my hands and pockets were full.
Plastic has now been found in the Arctic and Antarctic. Any pieces we can pick up and remove ourselves may be small, but it’s better than it ending up in the most pristine and precious places on earth.
12. Talk to others about it
This is an important one. If you notice a hostel/hotel not recycling, maybe ask nicely if they have plans to introduce a system. It depends entirely on whether that country or particular area even has a system for recycling, but it’s worth talking about.
Don’t be afraid or feel awkward about asking in shops/cafes to use your own little container or cup. The more people talk about, question and encourage it, the more normalised it will become.
At the end of the day, we can all only do so much as individuals. What we need is a larger structural change in companies, brands, councils, governments, countries, and continents, to take more responsibility.
But for now, it’s up to us to make that difference.