Why plastic is a travel problem: how to use less plastic on your travels
Sitting in our hotel room in Nepal in 2016, we stared at the 10 empty 1.5l bottles of water lined up against the wall in horror.
What were we doing?!
On our year-long trip around the world, we’d noticed plastic-filled rivers in Nepal, layers of plastic folded into the dirt on farms in Malawi, beaches filled with rubbish in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, and cigarette butts scattered along Aussie beaches.
It was heartbreaking every time we saw it, and we felt powerless that governments, industries, and locals weren’t doing more to combat the problem. We felt (and often still feel) like we were suffocating under the weight of plastic in our oceans and streams, forests and animals.
But it wasn’t until we sat staring at those empty plastic bottles lined up in our hostel room that we finally realised: as travellers, we were just as much part of the problem. From our bottled water to the plastic bag we’d carried our snacks home in earlier that day, we were just as complicit in the growing epidemic of plastic pollution, and we had to make a change.
That day was the start of us making huge positive changes in the way we consumed plastic, and while it’s been a long road, we finally feel like we’re in a place where our plastic consumption is pretty minimal, both at home and when we travel.
Reducing your plastic consumption might seem hard initially, but we’re here to tell you it absolutely isn’t. In fact, armed with a little knowledge and a willingness to make change, you can drastically change your impact on the state of our planet.
Our guide is packed full of the insights and advice you need about the plastic problem and why we as travellers need to care about it, plus stacks of practical tips and easy swaps to plastic-free products, to help you cut down on the amount of plastic you use when on the road.
As travellers keen to see the wonder and beauty of our planet, we hope that you’ll be inspired to take these small steps towards a positive future for our planet.
13 EASY WAYS TO USE LESS PLASTIC ON YOUR TRAVELS
BUT FIRST, WHY PLASTIC IS A TRAVEL PROBLEM
Thankfully, most people are becoming aware of reducing their plastic consumption at home. But for some reason, all that hard work tends to go out the window once we’re travelling.
Between buying bottled water when we’re worried about clean drinking water, the airlines serving up meals wrapped in single-use plastic, the hotels who fill our rooms with tiny single-use bottles (or as we’ve seen recently, shrink-wrapped remote controls!), or having to opt for the plastic wrapped food because we don’t have access to our regular ‘stuff’; travel tends to exponentially increase our plastic consumption.
What’s more, we all tend to love a good tropical island holiday every now and then, which means that it’s when we travel that we’re most likely to encounter the true reality of plastic litter in our oceans, beaches, and towns - for example, Bali, whose plastic pollution has been the subject of much media attention (and which we can personally vouch for being hideously covered in plastic).
As travellers, it’s time for us to step up and start questioning things like plastic bottles, mini toiletry bottles, straws, and all those tiny, seemingly insignificant items that add up to a disgustingly large amount of waste in our oceans.
It’s time for us to start making eco-conscious decisions from the minute we decide on our destination, until the minute we walk back through our front doors again.
SECONDLY, RECYCLING ISN’T THE ANSWER TO YOUR PLASTIC CONSUMPTION
Before we get into the crux of this post, there’s a pretty common belief that using plastic is okay as long as you’re recycling it. It’s something we hear pretty often from fellow travellers too; that it’s okay to buy this bottle or use this bag, etc., because they’ll recycle it or they do so when at home.
This is great in theory, but the reality is nowhere near as perfect.
What many travellers don’t realise is that until recently, most of the West’s waste was actually shipped offshore to low and middle income countries like China, Indonesia, and Malaysia (often the very ones you’re visiting on holiday!), many of whom don’t actually have adequate recycling programs or accountability in place and are now choking under the weight of our plastic waste.
The majority of plastic also isn’t recyclable, and if it is, it can only be recycled a few times before becoming landfill anyway.
We’re obviously not experts, so we’d highly recommend reading up on recycling and why it’s actually a bit of a myth (this Independent article is a great place to start). But one thing is very clear: if we want to halt the insane plastic pollution affecting our planet, the answer is to drastically cut down our overall consumption of plastic first and recycle as a last resort.
TRAVEL FOR GOOD: OUR 26 BEST RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TIPS
HOW TO USE LESS PLASTIC ON YOUR TRAVELS
#1 JUST SAY NO | REFUSE PLASTIC PRODUCTS ON YOUR TRAVELS
Learning to say no to plastic is the first step in reducing your plastic consumption on your travels, and allows you to positively influence those around you.
It’s opting for an alternative, asking for no straw/spoon/sauce cup etc, and remembering to pack an alternative for the times you really want that meal or coffee to go.
We get it, it’s hard. Really hard, and sometimes really awkward. Sometimes it also means missing out on that cold drink, ice cream, or takeaway meal that you really want. But until manufacturers learn to wrap things in non-plastic wrapping again, it’s essential.
Avoid buying plastic products if at all feasible, say no to plastic bags, and always choose the more sustainable option, like glass or aluminium packaging.
Where possible, gently educate those around you on the negative consequences of plastic. It doesn’t need to get preachy; a simple ‘no thanks, I don’t like plastic as it’s bad for the environment’ will suffice.
Vote with your feet and your money for a better, plastic-free world.
#2 STOP BUYING PLASTIC BOTTLES AND USE A WATER FILTRATION SYSTEM OR REFILLABLE WATER BOTTLE
If you’re buying bottled water in countries where clean drinking water and waste management are huge issues, we’re sorry to tell you but you’re directly contributing to the problem.
Picture this: you’re on a dream two-week holiday to Bali, Indonesia. You buy a bottle of water or two a day, and when you’re done you throw them away properly, like a good, responsible citizen, right? But where is ‘away’ in a place where recycling programs are virtually non-existent and waste is extremely poorly managed?
It’s burnt on rubbish piles or dumped in landfills or river systems that flow into the ocean. And by the end of your trip, you alone will have added a minimum of 14 bottles to the plastic problem
| There is absolutely no reason for a modern-day traveller to buy bottled water on their travels.
We haven’t bought one in over 18 months despite travels through SE Asia, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and eastern Europe. That’s not us virtue signalling either, but showing you that it is entirely possible to stop buying plastic bottles and anyone can do it. In turn, we’ve saved a heap of money, and upwards of 1,000 plastic bottles too.
Here are some simple solutions, all of which we’ve personally tried over the last three years travelling around the world:
The Grayl | Our daily go-to bottle on the road is the Grayl GeoPress, a water purification + filtration system which allows you to use water from just about anywhere, meaning tap water in Bali or Bangladesh is now perfectly fine. Honestly, it’s the best investment we’ve ever made
Water-To-Go | is an all-in-one device: a reusable water bottle meets powerful filter device (designed by NASA!), which removes 99.9% of all nasties from any water source you fill it up at. Muddy river or contaminated tap water? No problems! Our only complaint is that it tends to leak, often.
The Lifestraw | which you can either purchase separately (it comes on a handy chain you can wear around your neck), or with a 1l bottle as well, can be used to purify water sources when travelling
Purification tablets | are the original solution. Just drop the tablet into affected water and it’ll be drinkable in around 30-60mins. They make water taste pretty gross, though
SteriPen | is a gadget designed to sterilize water, making it safe to drink and cook with. A compact device which uses ultraviolet light to sterilize water and make it safe for drinking
We personally recommend the Grayl GeoPress for getting your safe drinking water for travel anywhere in the world.
Also, giving up plastic bottles doesn’t mean you can’t have that soft drink or juice anymore - simply switch to the canned stuff!
#3 REFUSE PLASTIC BAGS AND USE A TOTE INSTEAD
Each year, one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide.
If you’ve ever visited Thailand or Vietnam, where plastic wrapped fruits are wrapped in plastic bags that are wrapped again in plastic bags, this won’t come as a surprise.
Earlier this year, a whale washed up on shore with 40kgs of plastic bags in its stomach. If that doesn’t tell you the scale of the problem worldwide, nothing will.
The traveller’s solution? A humble tote/canvas bag. We’ve used ours to keep our electronics and valuables together when travelling through airports, to carry our lunch and jackets on a day of exploring, separate our washing, and fill up with goodies and souvenirs from the local market. They're small, easily foldable, and can pack a surprising amount in! Check out Etsy’s range of beautifully designed, personalisable totes bags here.
#4 SHOP AT LOCAL MARKETS TO FIND PLASTIC-FREE GOODS
Exploring local markets is a favourite pastime of ours. There’s the swirling cacophony of smells, colours, and shouting so unique to these bustling places, the delicious street food on offer, and the chance the spend time with locals and get to know a destination.
But there’s also another reason we love shopping at local markets; most of the produce can be purchased plastic free!
Unlike the aisles and aisles of unnecessary plastic we’re faced with in most supermarkets, local produce markets tend to sell fruits, vegetables and other goods in their own skin (you know, the skin that protects them from all the bad stuff!).
Not only will you enjoy a plastic-free shop, your hard-earned dollars directly support the local communities you’re in, rather than going straight to the pockets of large corporations.
#5 BUY A BAMBOO TOOTHBRUSH
Unfortunately, standard supermarket or drugstore toothbrushes tend to be made of plastic - so every single one you’ve ever used is still somewhere on this planet.
We switched to bamboo toothbrushes about 12 months ago and have never looked back. They’re just as good as regular toothbrushes, but do take a little getting used to initially. These simple, eco-friendly options are the perfect way to combat unnecessary plastic in the bathroom.
We use this compostable toothbrush, which is 100% recyclable, vegan, and the company is committed to sustainable resource usage and education about oral hygiene.
If we’re travelling long term, we’ll grab this 4-pack vegan-friendly bamboo brush before we leave and keep them stored for our journey. That way, we don’t need to buy unnecessary plastic on the road.
#6 NO STRAW, PLEASE - INVEST IN A REUSABLE METAL STRAW
Plastic straws infuriate us like nothing else.
Having now done dozens of beach clean ups around the world now, the number one item we pick up off shorelines is without fail, the seemingly harmless plastic straw. We’ve all seen the viral video of a turtle, clearly in pain, with a straw stuck in its nose (if not, watch it here). It’s distressing viewing.
Frankly, if that’s not enough to get you to say “no straw, please” we don’t know what is.
Those straws in your cocktails, coconuts, and smoothies (don’t even get us started on drinking coffee through a straw in a takeaway coffee cup) often have a lifespan of around 20 minutes before being tossed in the trash where they’ll stay for up to 450 years. The crazy thing is we see this happen most often at the bars and cafes that line beachfronts globally — the same places that rely upon beautiful beach and ocean views!
The truth is most of us really don’t need straws to drink from a glass - we’ve just become so habituated to having them in our drinks that we think we do.
Instead, “no straw, please” is a simple statement with wide-ranging positive implications on the planet.
Better yet, invest in a metal or bamboo straw (like this pack of 4 printed metal straws or 12-pack of Bambaw straws) instead. We have a pack of metal straws and they live in our daypacks so we’re never caught without!
#7 STOP USING MINI PRODUCTS, SUCH AS HOTEL SHAMPOO OR CONDITIONER
We used to love all the mini products in hotel rooms. We’d drop our bags, run into the bathroom and see what little presents we had (we’re super lame!).
Now, we look at them and cringe; they’re just so wasteful. So many tiny bottles of single-use toiletries are wasted in hotels around the world today, and most of the time, even if you only use a tiny portion of a bottle the entire thing is thrown out. After all, no guest likes feeling as though they’re using someone else’s sloppy remains, right?
Skip the supplied toiletries and take your own (solid bars are a great way to cut down on plastic and weight, if luggage space is limited).
If you do need to use one of the hotel’s bottles, take them with you to reuse down the track. They’re particularly handy for carry on baggage where the maximum fluid amount is 100ml.
#8 AVOID USING PLASTIC UTENSILS AND CONTAINERS WHEN EATING OUT, ALTERNATIVELY USE COLLAPSIBLE CONTAINERS
In countries where there’s a strong street food culture, it can be tricky to avoid using single-use takeaway containers, plastic utensils and bags. But it’s definitely not impossible.
We now take our own reusable food containers and ask the vendors to fill these up instead. We also use our own spork rather than take a plastic fork from their stand. Sure, it’s a little awkward and slightly daggy, but to save on unnecessary plastic it's a no-brainer.
On the road, we use these reusable silicone food containers from Reuseit to store anything from lunches, to herbs and spices. If you’re short on packing space, these collapsible plastic containers are a fab alternative too, and one which we’ve just invested in.
To avoid plastic cutlery, carry this bamboo cutlery set (or at least a spork - our favourite travel invention ever!) in your daypack and you’ll be prepared for that next pad thai from a Bangkok street stall!
#9 DITCH THE PLASTIC COFFEE CUPS AND USE A COLLAPSIBLE COFFEE CUP OR KEEP CUP INSTEAD
A day without coffee is like, well… a day that Mim never wants to face!
Did you know that paper-based takeaway coffee cups are usually lined with a plastic membrane, which means the cup is not recyclable alongside other paper or cardboard? And more than 500 billion coffee cups are produced each year, which is a lot of single-use coffee cups ending up in the trash.
Fortunately, there are solutions; KeepCup and the collapsible silicone Stojo cup are our favourite ways to get our coffee fix while minimising our impact. Honestly, Mim loves her Stojo cup an insane amount; it folds down super small in her day pack but is still big enough that we’ve used it for milkshakes and iced coffees. It also comes with a removable silicone straw.
Alternatively, slow down, and do as the Italians do; enjoy your coffee fix at the cafe before moving on to explore!
#10 SHIFT YOUR TOILETRIES TO PLASTIC-FREE OPTIONS
Look inside your bathroom cabinet or toiletries bag and you'll soon realise that 99% of it is plastic. Shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, razors, make up - almost everything we use for our personal hygiene is wrapped in a layer of plastic.
We replaced all of our single use plastic toiletries with sustainable, solid options in 2018 and haven't looked back. Our toiletries are now smaller and lighter too which has been an unexpected benefit, especially for us long-term travellers.
Here are some of the swaps we’ve made:
SHAMPOO + CONDITIONER
Our favourite toiletry change is the humble shampoo bar, which is way more practical than lugging around big plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner. We bought ours from Lush and we're in LOVE with the cinnamon smell (and brilliant washing) of their 'new' shampoo bar. Just pop them into a tin and they're totally mess-free too.
We’ve actually found that since switching to shampoo bars we rarely need conditioner, but we’ve got a Lush ‘Jungle’ bar for just in case too.
SOAPS + MOISTURISERS
We’ve also swapped all of our regular toiletries; body wash, moisturisers, shaving bars, etc, to solid versions. Most of these we’ve purchased from Lush, or from stores like the Clean Collective, Flora + Fauna (both Aussie suppliers).
Mim also has a face ‘soap’ bar from Green + Kind — which technically isn’t soap but saponified olive oil with activated charcoal and pink clay — which is the only facial cleanser that hasn’t dried out her skin.
Switching from your regular plastic tube of toothpaste can seem daunting, but Lush's toothy tabs (or Bite) exist and they’re awesome.
They’re essentially toothpaste tablets with an effective and fluoride-free combination of ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, kaolin, sea salt, menthol crystals, peppermint and lemon oils. They’re easy to use too, simply bite down on your tablet, brush, wait for it to foam, and repeat twice a day. They can also be taken on carry-on with zero worries.
DITCH THE DISPOSABLE MAKEUP WIPES
They might be convenient, but regular wipes are made from a nasty combination of polyesters, rayon fibers, polypropylene and wood pulp, many of which aren’t biodegradable, and are destined to end up in landfill where they’ll take years (or decades) to break down.
These sustainable face and body wipes are seriously a game changer. They’re fragrance, allergen, and toxin-free, entirely plant-based, biodegradable, and wind-power manufactured - so they’re good for you and the planet!.
Alternatively, switch to a pack of reusable makeup wipes and clean them as you go.
#11 GO BACK TO THE FUTURE AND USE A METAL SAFETY RAZOR
Disposable razors are even more of a problem than toothbrushes, with upwards of two billion thrown away annually. They’re distinctly average too; how often have you got more than a couple of good shaves out of them before they get blunt and crap?
We’ve invested in this metal safety razor to include in our travel toiletries bag (well, Mim has - Mark uses an electric shaver/is lazy and never shaves!). And you know what, it’s been a brilliant change. Now, Mim’s legs are as smoother than ever and she's getting around far more usage out of one blade than any disposable razor that came before it.
You might think this solution is cost prohibitive, and sure, the upfront cost of a metal safety razor is substantially more expensive, but the cost over time is much, much less making it a worthy investment.
#12 SWITCH TO A MENSTRUAL CUP
Alright boys, you can skip this one!
Girls, using a menstrual cup like the MoonCup is a really easy way to cut down on the amount of sanitary waste produced from one-time use tampons and pads.
They also reduce the risk of TSS (toxic shock syndrome), which means they're a healthier alternative for our bodies too. There are plenty of different types to choose from, so take some time to work out which is best for you personally - but try to avoid cheap knock-offs as they tend to be more prone to breakage or leaking. Personally, I'm a big fan of the Mooncup.
#13 PICK UP TRASH EVERYWHERE YOU SEE IT
Picture this. You’re hiking in your favourite national park, enjoy the incredible natural environment when you stumble across someones rubbish dumped on the path. What do you do? Do you leave it, or do you pick it up?
You pick it up.
The excuse that someone else’s rubbish is not your issue doesn’t fly anymore. It’s everyone issue.
This year, we’ve taken to picking up trash in whichever natural environment we’re in. It’s not pleasant; in fact it’s absolutely horrid, but it’s a simple act that helps in a small way, and we recommend you do the same.
To do this, take a tote bag on your hike (or reuse a plastic bag from home), and pick up any trash you see. Then, recycle or dispose of it later.
There are no more excuses - if you see it, pick it up!
OTHER WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR PLASTIC WHEN TRAVELLING
Embrace the 5 R’s - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle
Not so long ago, the 3 R rule applied to personal trash management- reduce, reuse, recycle. But times have changed and the world has moved on. Now, plastic pollution is the biggest issue facing the planet today, so two more R’s needed to be added to make the rule relevant in today’s day and age.
They’re pretty simple rules:
#1 Refuse plastic where possible
#2 Reduce your plastic consumption. Find alternatives, think outside the box, or simply read the points above!
#3 Reuse any single-use plastic items you come across
#4 Repurpose your plastic. Plastic bottle? Use it to store chemicals, or petrol, or soap. Just repurpose it!
#5 Recycle as a last resort, only when the item can no longer be used anymore
MORE RESOURCES ON THE PLASTIC PROBLEM
Plastic Free July | A global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution by cutting out plastic in July (or any other month!)
A Plastic Planet | A great resource that covers the plastic crisis across media, industry, government lobbying, and education.
UN Beat Plastic Pollution | A global look at the facts surrounding our plastic crisis, and ways to move forward.
FILMS + DOCUMENTARIES
A Plastic Planet | Interviews with world experts in biology, pharmacology, and genetics about how plastic affects our bodies and the health of future generations.
Plastic Ocean | how plastic is affecting our marine life and our oceans
Straws | interviews with marine biologists and researchers, that viral turtle/straw, and follows the #nostrawchallenge
Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch | an independent documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Bag It | all about our reliance on plastic shopping bags and other plastic products
PLANNING A TRIP SOON?
Check our these essential posts to help you have the most sustainable, responsible trip ever.
OFFSETTING YOUR FLIGHTS | A step by step guide to offsetting your flights
USING LESS PLASTIC | A guide to using less plastic when you travel
ANIMALS + TOURISM | 10 Ways to be an animal friendly traveller
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world? Click here to view our detailed photography gear guide, as well as our top travel photography tips!
Do you have any further tips for how to reduce plastic in your travels? Or even how to use less plastic at home? Share your experiences of going zero waste in the comments below!
TRAVEL MORE RESPONSIBLY WITH THESE GUIDES
Disclaimer: some of the above links are affiliate links.
If you choose to purchase using the above buttons we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please know that by using these affiliate links, you’re directly supporting The Common Wanderer to stay wandering.
If you use our affiliate codes, you’re officially a legend.