While it would be difficult to live a completely plastic-free life in this day and age, it is fairly easy to reduce our dependence on plastics without sacrificing our creature comforts, as some people fear. Just making a few good decisions every day can make an impact. Most travelers I know care about the same things I care about, so here we are, with some tips to help reduce our plastic dependency while traveling.
Food and Drink
STOP DRINKING BOTTLED WATER
There is very little need to buy bottled water except in emergencies, when tap water may not be safe. Always carry your own reusable bottle while traveling, just make sure you empty it out before going through airport security. to prevent some last-minute chugging. The majority of airports have water-bottle filling stations after security that provide cold, filtered water (in Delta terminals, these are by the bathrooms). There are public fountains all over Rome so you can fill up on the go (though the picture above is just a joke). Even in countries where it is said the tap water isn’t safe, any good hotel or restaurant will typically have containers of filtered water in the lobby. This feels like a no-brainer since you’ll also save money by not buying water each day.
I totally understand the fun of trying every unique chip or crisp flavor available in whatever country you’re visiting, but instead of snacking at the grocery store, head to the local farmers’ market or a bakery and wrap your goods in a napkin, use your own container, or enjoy them right away.
Reduce Single-Use Plastics
Unless you’re eating exclusively at fancy restaurants, chances are you’ll encounter plastic plates and utensils. Travel with your own utensil set (you don’t need to buy a fancy kit, just ring them from home) or use your hands to eat, as is totally acceptable in many countries. If you want a to-go beverage, don’t use a lid or a straw, or carry a reusable straw if you must. If you really feel like you need to take a plastic lid, fork, knife, whatever, rinse and reuse it your whole trip or on other trips. Also forget the condiments if they’re in individual plastic packages, you will survive without sweet and sour sauce.
Personal Care Items
A decade ago, I too relished in walking down the travel-sized aisle of CVS, finding cute miniature versions of my face wash, deodorant, and body wash, even though the miniatures aren’t significantly smaller than the full-sized products. I’ve also enjoyed sampling the fancy shampoos and conditioners I’ve found on the bathroom counter at hotels. But the majority of these bottles get thrown out by staff even if there is product left, since each new guest expects new stuff*. Sure, you can bring them home with you, but the small bottles are still difficult to recycle, and chances are, you’ll just keep them in a drawer until you decide to toss them in a few years.
Buy a reusable travel-sized bottle kit from your local drugstore and fill up the containers with your own products. If you’re checking luggage or not flying, bring your regular items and you won’t even have to transfer anything. If you’re worried about spillage, reuse some flexible plastic you have already (a scrap from a dry-cleaning bag or a cereal bag) to put in between the opening and the screw top.
*If you remember the non-profit I volunteered with when I was in Myanmar, Sundara, they take used soaps from hotels and recycle them into new bars to donate to those in need, but unfortunately this isn’t done everywhere.
Switch to Plastic-Free Personal Care Items
If you want extra-credit, and I’ll write more about this in the future, switch to stuff in your everyday life that is plastic-free. I haven’t used bottled body wash or face wash for years because I’m obsessed with the all-natural soap bars (wrapped in tissue paper) from a shop back at home, Little Egg Harbor Soap Company. Their “Olive Oil Smoothie” is my face wash—I chop the bar up into 6 or 7 tiny bars for easy use and travel. I also love visiting local shops while I’m traveling to find soap bars with smells to remind me of other places when I use them back in Brooklyn.
Shampoo and conditioner bars are a little less conventional, but they can be found at natural beauty stores, LUSH (I love the Seanik seaweed and sea salt shampoo bar), and at my favorite store in Bangalore, Ants Cafe. Just lather them up in your hands and use like bottled shampoo.
You do have to let soap, shampoo, and conditioner bars dry out or they could dissolve faster, so bring a flexible soap dish to drain them and keep tissue paper to rewrap them if you are traveling from place to place. In a pinch, you can also just dab them on a towel, but don’t try this with a brightly colored bar if you like the towel.
Another issue is deodorant, but I’ve found there are lots of all-natural formulas that come in cardboard tubes now-a-days. Just search plastic-free deodorant on Etsy and you’ll find a ton of options.
On the Plane
Ignore the Beverage Cart
I’m not one to normally refuse free food, and flights are of course different lengths, but on a flight that’s a few hours long, do you really need that tiny bag of Cheez-Its? Do you really need that half serving of Coca-Cola in a plastic cup? If you’ve already followed my previous advice, you have refilled your water bottle at the gate so you shouldn’t be too parched, and it’s relatively easy to pack a snack bag with stuff you already have at home or have already purchased on your trip.
Say No to Free Headphones
Chances are, you already have a pair that will last 10,000x longer and work better than the Billboard-branded plastic ones your flight attendant is handing out for the television screens in front of your seat, so this should be an easy refusal.
“I don’t need a bag” is probably one of the top ten phrases I say. Bring an extra bag with you while traveling and carry it with you so you don’t need a plastic one when you see a souvenir you NEED to have. Stick postcards you buy in a book, wrap that Canadian maple syrup bottle in a sock in your luggage, wear that handcrafted bracelet from Guatemala out of the store.