HOW TO REDUCE Plastic Pollution While Traveling

It’s easy to complain about plastic pollution and poor waste management. Recycling is still in its infancy in most countries. But what are we travelers and visitors doing to help? Are we making things worse? Instead of waiting for better infrastructure, we can all immediately start taking a few simple steps to drastically cut the amount of plastic waste we generate.

Why We Need To Act On Plastic Pollution As Travelers

plastic pollution cycle
That sums it up.

If you have been to remote beaches you will already be familiar with the unavoidable washed up plastic waste. But it doesn’t stop there. A recent German study found plastic byproducts in the blood and urine of 97% of teenagers tested. Our toxic trash has crept up the food chain, and ironically is returning to where it came from.

But putting our garbage in a bin is not enough. For example in Lebanon most of the collected trash simply gets discarded straight into the Mediterranean. Or piled up high in open-air dumps for the wind to carry. Even in countries where recycling works we all too conveniently forget that reducing and reusing should come first.

Achieving a zero waste lifestyle might be very difficult. Reducing plastic pollution directly caused by our habits is not. We cannot simply wait for others to come up with solutions. We have to do our part too.

Tackling Plastic Pollution From
Disposable Water Bottles

Disposable water bottles: a common sight

In hot climates drinking 3 to 4 liters of water a day is a must. Rather than mindlessly consuming disposable water bottles, look for alternatives instead. I’ve written a detailed article about water purification for travelers.

  • Get a reusable bottle and find a place to refill it.
  • If tap water is safe but tastes bad, get an activated charcoal filter.
  • If tap water is ok but there are doubts about microbiological contamination, get a small filter.
  • Get a big refillable jug of purified water if you are staying a few days.
  • Get a big disposable jug if truly no other purified water alternative is available.
  • Consider reusing PET bottles when you buy a soft drink. They make great water bottles that won’t leak in your pack.
local safe drinking water services reverse osmosis
Widely available: refillable water jugs

There will be a few situations where buying a disposable bottle is unavoidable. But it’s easy to reduce them to less than a dozen a year. Pro tip: for greedy airports that don’t offer free drinking water (wink wink Istanbul) bring lots of fruits. They pass security and will keep you hydrated.

Plastic Bag Alternatives

Canvas bag, mesh bag and reused plastic bags

Many countries have adopted a ban on plastic bags, but it’s often only partially enforced. Or the alternatives are impractical, such as the fragile little paper bags made out of newspapers. Instead:

  • Always use your backpack or a canvas bag when shopping.
  • Favor reusable string, net or mesh bags for fruits and vegetables.
  • Otherwise, reuse plastic bags as much as possible. A thicker plastic bag can last several months.
With these 3 simple steps you can bring down your annual plastic bag consumption well under a hundred. It’s still a lot, but considering that a trillion plastic bags are produced each year, it’s a good start.

reusable Plasticware

Travel tupperware, a reused tub of sweets and airline spoons

Disposable cups, plastic forks, styrofoam boxes… A single takeaway meal can generate an enormous quantity of trash. That doesn’t mean that you have to renounce the delicious street food. A simple tupperware can replace single use plasticware for years.

But it doesn’t stop there. A tupperware is great to store leftovers. Or carry lunch for the day. Or transport ripe fruits. It doesn’t even have to be a fancy expedition grade model. A former ice cream tub can get a good second life.

And if you are a takeaway coffee/tea addict, get a reusable mug or cup. Carrying a durable spoon and/or fork (or the hybrid spork) will eliminate the need for single use cutlery. It might not seem like much, but over the course of a year it really adds up.

Buying Bulk

bazaar theran
Favor bazaars, farmer's markets and bulk shops whenever available

From the humble bazaar to the fancy bulk bin shop, it’s often possible to refill your own bags and containers. Or at least avoid the unnecessary packaging so common in modern supermarkets. Daily staples, snacks, sometimes even cosmetics and toiletries, you name it.

In countries where the local bazaars and markets have all but disappeared, this might not be an option. However, assuming it’s practical, you can still favor bigger formats. Wholesale markets in North America are a good example. And even across the supermarkets of the Arabian peninsula you can find family-sized products. Granted, a gigantic pot of yogurt is a poor choice if you don’t have a fridge or travel alone. But if you are around for several days, the bigger format of dried nuts makes sense, for example. It should be cheaper too.

Lots of individually wrapped tea bags VS a big ziplock full of loose (and slightly suspicious looking) tea

Plastic Pollution From Snacks

plastic pollution snacks
Can you spot the snacks wrapped in banana leaves?

The food and consumer staples industries have adapted to poorer countries largely by reducing the size of individual portions. The resulting plastic waste is phenomenal. If you’ve been to India you will have seen the long strips of mini snack bags for 5-10 rupees. The attractive pricing makes it tempting, but the plastic waste is yet another good reason to favor healthier options.

Local food vendors too have discovered the convenience of plastic packaging for individual portions. If you can’t use your tupperware or own bags, encourage merchants still using biodegradable or reusable alternatives. I’m thinking banana leaves, paper bags, refillable glass bottles, etc. Your patronage keeps them in business.

Effective Communication
While Traveling

market china kunming
Can you say "no bag please" in Mandarin? Kunming, China

All our clever strategies to reduce plastic pollution are of little use if we can’t communicate efficiently  in the shops, restaurants and street stalls. Learning a few extra phrases in the local language is often the key to success. As a bonus you have better chances to pass for an intriguing character instead of foreign weirdo.

The most important phrases:

  • Do you want a bag? No thanks (duh!)
  • No bag please / I have a bag.
  • I don’t want this / a bag / a cup / a box.
  • Can you put it in here please?

I have started adding them to all the travel guides published on this website, in the sustainable travel section.

Final Thoughts

If you avoid disposable plastic bottles, shop and snack using reusable bags and containers as much as possible, and favor minimal packaging for anything else, you can easily reduce your personal plastic footprint by 80%. It doesn’t even require much effort. Sadly, when you are surrounded by generalized carelessness and indifference from both tourists and locals alike, it’s difficult to remain motivated.

But things are changing. Awareness is growing around the world. Every time we turn down a plastic bag or opt for a refillable container, we send a small but important message. As the saying goes, let’s be a part of the solution, not the problem.