The future is now, and plastics gotta go. Because of the average consumer’s preference for single use items, and the fact that plastic is so cheap to manufacture and utilize, plastic waste is everywhere – in our lands, rivers, oceans, and even in our food. It adversely affects entire ecosystems, and as the global population continues to rise, the problem will only get worse.
Thankfully, it’s not too late. We’ve still got time to change our ways. You know the saying – the best time to start was yesterday and the next best time is now.
My goal in writing this article is to share with you some of the most effective ways to reduce plastic usage while on the road. I want to show my fellow travelers that cutting out plastic, even if only partially, is not only easy, but fulfilling. If you’re interested in finding out how to do so, read on.
REPLACING DISPOSABLES WITH REUSABLES
1. Travel With a Reusable Water Bottle
One of the easiest and most effective ways to cut out plastic while traveling is to drink from a reusable water bottle.
It’s nearly 2020, and there’s virtually no reason to be consuming plastic bottles anymore – not when there are tens of thousands of reusable options that are not only better for the environment, but will save you money in the long run.
For those of you who are on a budget, you can find them at pretty much any major store for $10 or less. If you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks on upgrades, you can nab a bottle with a built-in water filter, insulation, or an LED temperature display. They even make some now that are spill-proof, which will come in handy while traveling, like this one made by Contigo.
2. Pack a Water Filter
If you’re going to be carrying around a reusable water bottle, I recommend you pack a water filtration system of some sort, or buy a bottle with one already built-in.
Depending on where you travel, there’s not always going to be access to clean water, and if you’ve got no way to filter water, you’ll have no choice but to buy clean water – often in the form of plastic water bottles. This leads to unnecessary plastic waste.
A great product to buy specifically for this issue is the LifeStraw universal water filter kit. It turns virtually any water bottle into a water filter and removes up to 99.9% of waterborne bacteria and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites.
3. Bring a Reusable Shopping Bag
Plastic bags are being phased-out all around the world. There are several countries that have outright banned them, and many others who have adopted some form of legislation to regulate them. Even a few US states, including New York, California, and Hawaii, no longer allow their use.
And really, it’s no surprise why. They’re very difficult to recycle, and often end up wasting away in delicate environments. So why depend on them while traveling, when you can easily pack a reusable shopping bag? They’re cheap, you can find him at pretty much any supermarket, and they’ll last you much longer than any plastic bag will.
4. Nix the Produce
Going hand-in-hand with reusable shopping bags, using natural fiber produce bags is an easy and effective way to cut down on plastic.
Instead of using the flimsy plastic bags offered at most supermarkets, invest into a set of 100% cotton mesh bags. They’re eco-friendly, cater to a zero-waste lifestyle, and don’t break the bank either. They’re lightweight, foldable, washable, and will last you a very long time. These are the ones I use, and I love them.
5. Eat With Your Own Cutlery
Humans gotta eat, whether at home or traveling, and a large portion of us prefer using utensils when doing so. That’s not inherently an issue – the issue lies in the fact that most travelers don’t bring their own silverware, and that most disposable utensils are made of plastic.
When you’re at a street food stall in Bangkok enjoying a papaya salad, you’re likely not going to be thinking about where your fork will end up or how much plastic you’re using. But let me tell you, it adds up.
Don’t worry though, this issue is easy to remedy. Just get a set of travel cutlery. The two most popular materials are stainless steel and bamboo, both of which are great options. They’re durable, easily packable, and most importantly, reusable. This pack is made of 100% bamboo and comes with a case that makes everything easily packable.
6. Pack a Reusable Straw
Even worse of a problem than disposable utensils (due to more frequent usage), plastic straws are a menace.
A combination of hygiene assurance and an easier on-the-go drinking experience have made plastic straws commonplace worldwide, and until recently, most people had no qualms using them. Thankfully, the cringe-inducing viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose has created awareness on this subject.
Instead of drinking from a plastic straw, get yourself a reusable straw. Many travel utensil sets (like the one above) come with one included, so you may not even need to buy one separately.
7. Invest in a Travel Mug
As the venerable Johann Sebastian Bach one said, without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of roast goat. There’s nothing like a cup of coffee or tea to wake you up in the morning, and it’s something many people don’t want to part with when they begin their travels.
If that hits close to home for you, I’d recommend investing in a travel mug. They don’t take up much space, and if you get a decent one they’ll keep your drinks hot for several hours. Most importantly, they’ll prevent you from having to use disposable cups, thus cutting down on your plastic usage. This mug made by Takeya keeps drinks hot for 12 hours, cold for 24 hours, and is both leak and spill proof.
8. Bring Collapsible Tupperware
Bringing some sort of reusable food container with me when I travel is crucial. I don’t like having my food choices restricted, and enjoy being able to grab a can of soup from the grocery store if I want, knowing that I’ll be able to heat it without having to scrounge for a microwave-safe container.
Not only does it give you more freedom in the food you choose, it’s a great way to cut down on plastic usage. The less takeout you eat, the less Styrofoam and single-use plastic you use. My favorite type to bring is collapsible Tupperware because it’s super easy to pack.
9. Don’t Use Ziplock Bags and Plastic Wrap
I know, they’re convenient. You can cover and store anything with them for cheap, and they preserve food pretty dang well.
But that ease of use comes at a cost. They’re so convenient for the same reason they’re so environmentally unfriendly – they’re disposable. That means you don’t have to worry about cleaning them, but do have to worry about where they’re gonna end up. Ziploc bags may be recyclable, but cling wrap isn’t, and in the end, plastic is plastic. Recycling is not fix all and should not be treated like one, it’s just something designed to alleviate some of the damage.
The only reason we use products like Ziploc bags and cling wrap is because of our own laziness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Laziness and necessity are the parents of innovation – some of the greatest inventions known to man were invented by people who were too lazy to perform a particular task. The difference is that, while some inventions cause no real strain to the environment, plastic products do.
Instead, consider getting a set of reusable food wraps and silicone storage bags. These food wraps are made of organic cotton, beeswax, jojoba oil and tree resin. They’ll last you a long time, and you’ll feel good knowing that you’re storing food responsibly and sustainably.
10. Don’t Use Hotel Laundry Services
Another easy way to reduce plastic usage while traveling is to refuse Hotel laundry services. Instead, wash your clothes yourself with a Bernon Wash Ball.
Laundry detergent is the most common clothing cleanser, and while it’s guaranteed to make your clothes fresh, it’s packaged in plastic. Laundry balls are a great alternative. They last for up to 1,500 washes, are eco-friendly and hypoallergenic, and will save you loads of money.
11. Carry Your Own Ear Buds
Don’t use the earbuds that airlines offer you during long flights. Their sound quality is weak, they’re laughably breakable, and they’re designed for one-time use. (which is not eco-friendly at all)
Instead, just pack your own. That way, you’ll be able to pick a pair that fits your needs. There are tens of thousands of options, with tons of cool features including noise-canceling, extreme durability, and waterproofing. Just choose your favorite pair and don’t forget to pack them for your next trip.
12. Use a Menstrual Cup
This is for all the ladies reading. While it is not my place to tell you which feminine hygiene product you should use, if you’re interested in sustainable travel, I’d recommend you take a look at menstrual cups.
Strictly speaking, they’re the most environmentally friendly product in the feminine hygiene market. This is due to their reusable nature, which results in less waste. They also cost less than alternatives, are much better at odor reduction, allow more time between changes, and don’t disturb your pH and beneficial bacteria the way tampons do.
If that’s not enough to get you to consider switching, think about how much plastic you’d be cutting out. Other products such as tampons and pads come with plastic applicators or liners, which ultimately end up in landfills (or worse) because of their inability to be recycled. Embracing the menstrual cup is an effective way to cut back on personal plastic usage and is one more big step towards sustainable living.
13. Shave with a Metal Razor
Shaving is a phenomenon that has deep roots in humanity. It’s been around for over 40,000 years, when men began harnessing rock slivers and sharpened shells to rid themselves of unwanted hair. Nowadays we have easier, safer ways to shave, and it is prevalent worldwide, transcending gender, age, and origins.
The most common way that modern humans shave is by razor. And while some of your first instincts may be to reach for a pack of disposable razors, I ask you to reconsider. They’re a throwaway product designed for 6-9 uses and are a big contributor to plastic pollution. In most countries, disposable razors are non-recyclable, which leads to billions of pieces of plastic piling up in our landfills each year.
Instead, invest in a metal razor. Unlike disposable razors, safety razors are meant to last a lifetime. The only thing that ever need replacing are the blades, which results in much less waste than plastic alternatives. They’re also gentler on the skin, reduce the chance of nicks and cuts, and will save you money in the long run.
This is an affordable safety razor kit that comes with five extra blades, and is hand-made by skilled craftsmen.
CONSUMER HABITS & SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES
14. Avoid Plastic Containers when Buying Street Food
Avoid Plastic Containers when Buying Street Food
Eating street food is one of my favorite things about traveling, which can be problematic at times. While I love the food itself, the packaging it comes in, not so much. It’s often served in plastic bags or Styrofoam containers, complete with a set of plastic silverware. And if you eat as much street food is me, you know that it quickly adds up.
No matter how much I love Tteokbokki, I can’t justify eating it when I’m consuming so much plastic. So here are a few guild lines I like to follow when deciding what street food to eat.
1. Find food that you can eat with your hands. This eliminates the need for you to dig out your travel cutlery, or for you to use the plastic silverware offered. Honestly, it’s more convenient anyway – it’s a lot easier for you to take a bite out of something then it is for you to have to scoop it up and eat it with a spoon.
2. Look for stalls that package their food in biodegradable materials such as cardboard, paper, or leaves. They’re actually not that hard to find. More and more people become interested in sustainable travel each year, and businesses have begun catering to that. Now more than ever, you’ll find businesses wrapping their products in banana leaves, providing bamboo straws and utensils, and overall, catering to a more eco-friendly traveler.
3. If you’re craving a street food that doesn’t fit the criteria above, are dead set on enjoying your tasty treat, and have packed your own collapsible Tupperware, ask the chef if it’s possible for them to package your food in a container you provide. They won’t always say yes, but they won’t always say no, either. Don’t be afraid to ask.
15. Don’t Use Single-Use Hotel Shampoo Bottles
Don’t do it. I know how enticing it can be if you’re a budget traveler. Who says no to free stuff, amirite? Well if you consider yourself a sustainable traveler, you do.
Just like any other single-use product, they produce a ridiculous amount of plastic waste – and for what? So you can save $0.10 on shampoo and conditioner? It’s just not worth it.
And the argument that they’ll throw it away anyway doesn’t hold. While five-star hotels change the bathroom toiletries every day (even if they’re unused), most hotels will reuse the shampoo and conditioner bottles as long as they’re untouched. So do yourself and the world a favor and don’t forget to pack your own toiletries on your next trip.
16. Use Bars instead of Bottles
Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are just a few of the liquid toiletries that make our lives easier, and help us become cleaner, healthier versions of ourselves. And although they get the job done well, if you’re interested in becoming a sustainable traveler, you may want to look into using bars instead of bottles.
You might be surprised by how many solid toiletry options there are out there. Whether it’s mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant, or lotion, you can find bar alternatives to your liquid favorites. They work just as well, are better for the environment, take up less space, and are more convenient to use, too.
17. Look for Biodegradable Makeup Wipes
Makeup wipes are convenient for travelers. There will be times when you won’t have access to running water or are too tired to wash your face with a traditional face wash, and that is where makeup wipes come in handy. Just a quick wipe down will remove dirt, oil, and makeup, all with no need for water. They are perfect for camping, hiking trips, long flights, and post-workout cleanses.
That being said, most makeup wipes are made of plastic. While I love brands like Burt’s Bees, Neutrogena, Aveeno, and Cetaphil, none of them offer biodegradable face wipes. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as the beauty industry has always been slow on the adoption of sustainable practices.
It’s okay though – brands like Yes To and Rawganic offer biodegradable makeup wipes that work just as well as their plastic competitors, all while being good for the environment. My favorite are Rawganic’s Anti-aging Hydrating Facial wipes. They’re made of 100% organic cotton, are cruelty free, fragrance-free, and contain Aloe Vera.
18. Don’t Eat Airline Food
It’s as simple as that. Whether you’re on a 3-hour flight, or an 17-hour flight, don’t eat the meals and snacks that the airline provide. I know they’re free and that everybody likes free stuff, but I also know that the vast majority of Airlines package their food in plastic, and create millions of tons of plastic waste each year.
Instead, if you know you’ll be starving, or for medical reasons need to eat every few hours, pack your own food. That way you can eat the food you enjoy without having to worry about producing plastic waste. Also, I can almost guarantee that the food you bring will taste better than what they’re offering on the flight.
Another option that may suit some of you is to fast. This is beneficial particularly on 10-17 hour flights, when you can get a nice, long fast in. I love, and know that when done correctly, fasting can make you healthier and happier.
19. Stop Buying Travel-Sized Toiletries
At most grocery stores, you’ll find a whole section of travel-sized toiletries. If you’re going on a short trip, it may seem more convenient to just grab a tiny bottle of shampoo, instead of worrying about having to check your bag or transfer your own shampoo into a reusable travel container. But this is a big No-No. As I’ve already touched on quite a few times in this article, single-use plastic is not good. It’s the single biggest contributor to worldwide plastic pollution, and should be avoided at all costs.
What I use during short trips instead, are bar toiletries or reusable travel-sized containers. You can find them at your local supermarket in the same section you find travel-sized toiletries. They hold 3 ounces, and you can reuse them as many times as you want. Just transfer the products you use at home into the bottles, and you’re good to go.
20. Purchase Beverages in Glass or Biodegradable Bottles
Whenever you decide to purchase a drink, look for ones packaged in non-plastic materials. You’ll be able to find plenty of glass and paperboard alternatives in most areas, and may even find some bottles made of hemp or seaweed. New biodegradable packaging materials are being invented every year to reduce consumer plastic use, so who knows what we might be drinking from in the future?
Sidenote: I prefer buying beverages in glass bottles. Biodegradable packaging is great, but it produces methane when it breaks down in landfills. Glass doesn’t!
21. Buy a Compostable or Reusable Toothbrush
For most of my life, I used disposable plastic toothbrushes. It wasn’t until recently that I switched to reusable and compostable options.
The American Dental Association recommends that you replace your toothbrush every three months. This means I’ve gone through nearly 100 toothbrushes throughout my life – and that’s just me. Multiply that by a few billion and you begin to see the picture.
Disposable plastic toothbrushes are no good, and we’re lucky to live in a time in which we have other options. For instance, we’ve got electric toothbrushes and bamboo toothbrushes. While they are very different products, they both have their positives and negatives.
Compostable bamboo toothbrushes have been the recent craze, and while they’re a better option that disposable plastic toothbrushes, they aren’t as perfect as they’re being made to seem. They do cut back of plastic waste, but their bristles are usually still made of nylon, so they aren’t plastic-free.
They’re also not so great for the climate. When biodegradable material, such as bamboo, breaks down in a landfill, it produces a ton of methane, which is even more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the second largest source of man-made methane emissions in the US, and most of this methane is being attributed to the decomposition of organic materials, such as bamboo toothbrushes. If you’re worried about climate change, I’d instead use an electric toothbrush.
Electric toothbrushes aren’t perfect either. Although the body is reusable and only the head needs to be changed, that’s still a good amount of plastic being consumed. Even still, to reduce my carbon footprint, I use an electric toothbrush. To mitigate plastic waste, use your toothbrush until it is inoperable, then send it to an electronics recycling bin for safe recycling.
22. Shop at Farmer’s Markets
Farmer’s markets are the best. I love them and I shop at them whenever I can. They are so much better for the environment and community than large-scale food companies and grocery stores. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Reduced plastic usage. At most farmer’s markets, you will not find plastic grocery or produce bags. Instead, they offer brown paper bags or cardboard boxes. This is noticeably different from what most supermarkets practice.
2. Lessened carbon emissions. The food sold at farmer’s markets are generally produced by small-scale farmers, who grow their crops as close to the market as possible. Because the goods are grown so close to the market, they don’t have to be transported great distances. Less fossil fuel use = less carbon emissions!
3. Farming practices that don’t degrade the environment. Because shoppers at a farmer’s market care more about sustainability than the average person, farmers adopt practices to cater to that crowd. They want their goods to sell, so they often opt to forgo pesticides, chemicals, and preservatives. Supply and demand at its finest.
23. Don’t Wear Synthetic Clothes
Synthetic fabrics are great to work out in. They’re moisture-wicking, cheap, breathable, and stretch in ways that natural fibers don’t. That’s why they make up over 60% of clothes manufactured worldwide. But, as it turns out, they’re not so great for the environment. Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and rayon are all forms of plastic. When they’re washed, they release hundreds of thousands of microfibers into our water.
Think of the lint you clean from your dryer – It’s composed of tiny bits of natural fiber that have separated during the wash. The difference is that when synthetic fabrics are washed, the microfibers they shed are too small to be caught by the machines filter, and instead are released into our water supply. They then make their way to sewage treatment plants, who most often aren’t equipped to filter out such small particles, and from there are free to travel anywhere – be it our rivers, oceans, or food.
Keep this in mind when you’re shopping for gear and try to buy clothes that are made up 100% natural fiber. If you don’t wanna give up your stretch leggings, buy them from second-hand stores. At least that way, you won’t be directly supporting businesses who use those types of fabric.
24. Buy High Quality Items
Whether you’re buying a sun hat, backpack, pair of earbuds, or hiking boots, buy something that’s meant to last.
One goal of sustainable living is to consume as little as you can. When you buy products that have longer life spans, you don’t have to repurchase them as often as you usually would, and end up producing less waste because of it. So the next time you’re shopping for gear, remember to buy products that are so well made, you’ll never have to buy them again.
25. Pick Up Trash
This one’s not really a tip on how to use less plastic, as much as it is a tip on making the world a better place.
Wherever you go, you will find plastic. You’ll find it in gutters, alleyways, on the side of the road, washed up on the beach, and everywhere in between.
And as a traveler, since you’re going to be visiting some of the most beautiful places on the planet anyway, why not clean some trash while you’re there? Bring a bag designated for picking up trash everywhere you go and fill it before you leave. Do something nice for the beautiful world we’re blessed to be a part of, and do your best to make sure that the place you’re visiting will still be around in 100 years.
Reducing plastic usage is not only good for the environment – it’s good for you, too.
I sincerely hope that this article has answered some of your questions, and has shown you some unique ways to cut down on plastic while traveling. Hopefully, these tips prove useful, and you can implement them in your own travels.
Please note that this article contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using one of them, I earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I 100% stand behind.
Hi, I’m Ash!
I’m a laid back traveler who loves experiencing new things and spontaneity. My favorite hobbies are hiking, gardening, skincare, and all things tea.
My biggest goal is to spread the word about sustainable travel and show everyone how easy it is to partake in. If you wanna learn more about that or get to know me better, feel free to click here.