The world has a plastic problem. We’ve all seen horrifying images of the Great Pacific garbage patch and overflowing landfills, and if you haven’t, well, one Google search will paint the gruesome picture. In this post, we’re going to talk about how to embrace sustainable travel and reduce your plastic footprint.
Traveling the world often allows us a first-hand glimpse of just how catastrophic the world’s piling plastic problem is.
From the rubbish-filled beaches of India to the mountains of plastic on the streets of the Bangkok night market… the plastic problem is real, and it is destroying the earth.
With more and more backpackers hitting the road each year, the impacts of non-sustainable travel are felt across the globe.
The single-use plastic culture is a major contributing factor. Remember, every plastic bottle and bag you use will sit in a landfill and float through our oceans until it is broken down into micro-plastic pieces we inevitably digest.
On any given travel day, you are confronted with choices. Many of us don’t think twice about using a plastic fork or buying a bottle of water when we need to. Sometimes, the only practical option is to buy that 1-liter bottle of water.
We all need to drink and I get that, but as we barrel towards the peak of the plastic age, it is more important than ever to pivot towards sustainable travel and actively strive to reduce our plastic footprint.
Below I cover tips and tricks for how to embrace sustainable travel and reduce your plastic footprint. Unable to decompose, plastic is perhaps one of the most urgent issues humanity faces. Until our politicians ban plastic outright, it is up to us to make responsible choices…especially when traveling to parts of the world ill-equipped with the resources to manage plastic waste.
Reducing your plastic footprint doesn’t take much effort, and in time, a little effort becomes routine… and healthy, sustainable travel routines are a beautiful thing to behold indeed.
Now, let’s take a look at the best ways we backpackers can reduce the amount of plastic we consume on the road.
Top Tips for Reducing Plastic Consumption While Traveling
1. Travel With a Refillable Water Bottle
Carrying your own water bottle is a great way to reduce (or eliminate) day-to-day plastic water bottle purchases. In addition to upping your sustainable travel points, you save a ton of money over the course of a long-term backpacking adventure.
Have you seen those 5 oz plastic water bottles that only give you a few sips of water at best? They make me want to scream. They are truly pointless, a waste of money, and thrown away within seconds of opening them.
If you are a hiker/runner/or trekker, you know how important it is to always pack a water bottle. Do the planet a favor and pick up a tough travel water bottle. Refillable water bottles are not only sustainable travel tools, but they are also perfect for everyday use when you are at home as well.
For every Active Roots water bottle sold, they donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single-use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans.
2. Pack a Water Filter
In many parts of the developing world, we westerners can’t drink the tap water. To do so would condemn us to days of sickly torture and hours of sitting on the toilet. So, we need to buy filtered water (in plastic bottles), yes? Wrong!
You do have options! Pack a water filter for every travel adventure. There are so many awesome travel water filters on the market. I have used a Steripen and a Life Straw, both of which work great (and have never resulted in me getting sick from bad water).
You can actually find a water bottle with a built-in filter as well; the Life Straw water bottle is excellent.
It may take a little extra effort to use a water filter, but once you integrate a filter into your daily routine, it becomes quite normal. This is how we become more sustainable travelers. A little bit of effort goes a long way.
3. Don’t Eat Airline Food
Airlines package their meals in an appalling amount of plastic. Plastic wrapped food. Plastic wrapped cutlery. Plastic cups. Plastic straws. Plastic wrapped everything! To think about the amount of plastic waste generated by airline companies on a daily basis truly is mind-boggling.
These airline practices are unacceptable. So what can you do about it? Everyone has to eat, right? True, so bring your own food! Make sandwiches at home. Pack your own snacks and fruit. Buy food before you go to the airport. Travel with a little food storage box; you will use it more than you think.
Do everything within your power to avoid consuming the plastic ridden meals provided on flights.
And frankly, airline food is disgusting. Even if it was wrapped in a way that promoted sustainable travel, airline meals are one of the least ideal food choices available.
Not only is packing your own food on a plane great for the planet, but it’s also much better for your health. Let’s try to avoid getting sick before we land, shall we?
4. Carry Your Own Cutlery
You are now starting to see a common theme. Items that you use on a daily basis all have plastic-free alternatives! Carry a pair of travel chopsticks, a spoon, fork… or…wait for it… a camping spork! Maybe you have a stick that you have carved into a scooping feeding shovel—whatever your preferred utensil of choice is, pack it and put it into use.
There is simply no reason why anyone should use plastic cutlery. We have all become complacent in the culture of single-use plastic as a means of convenience.
Sure, plastic forks can be super convenient sometimes. But if you plan ahead and change your habits, packing a pair of chopsticks just becomes normal.
5. Avoid Plastic Containers when Buying Street Food
Street food vendors looooove plastic. Plastic containers are the easiest vessel for them to dish out their delicious food to you, the hungry customer.
In Asia in particular, street food vendors account for a staggering amount of plastic waste backpackers are likely to consume. Don’t get me wrong. I am a street food addict. Eating cheap, tasty street food is one of my favorite parts of traveling. That said, with every bowl of Pad Thai you buy in a plastic container, you are directly becoming part of the problem.
The solution? Travel with your own camping bowl or food box. I have been traveling with some kind of bowl for a few years now. It might sound weird (and street food vendors will look at you as though you’ve lost your mind), but having your own bowl is a great way to combat plastic consumption!
Unable to order street food in Malaysia without plastic-guilt, I bought a bowl for about $2 made from a dried coconut. I still have it today, actually!
There are endless options out there for bowls. Whether it is a light-weight titanium camping bowl or part of an old coconut, each time you break it out you will be contributing to a more sustainable travel world.
6. Don’t Use Single-Use Hotel/Airbnb Shampoo Bottles
We have all walked into a hotel room bathroom to find an array of shampoo, conditioner, and bath gel waiting for us. Whilst this may seem like a nice gesture on the part of the hotel, single-use shampoo bottles are one of the most common plastic waste items found in the ocean.
Pack your own shampoo/soap/conditioner in reusable leak-proof bottles.
An alternative to liquid soaps and plastic containers, shampoos, and conditioners all together is to buy them in bar form. Thats right, shampoo in a bar! Plus, shampoo bars will never leak in your bag!
7. Shop at Farmers Markets (Bring your own Bags)
Farmers markets take many forms around the world, but they all have one thing in common: abundant fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, and a boatload of other delicious products. Often, these markets feature vendors selling stuff free of plastic packaging. Hurray!
Unfortunately, the person selling you that fresh fruit will inevitably put the goods in a plastic bag. Buzzkill. To combat this chronic plastic bag usage at markets, simply bring an empty bag with you (such as a day backpack.
The good news is that most farmers/outdoor markets in the USA, Europe, New Zealand among many others have banned the use of plastic bags at markets altogether.
Places in South East Asia, South America, etc are still catching up in that regard. Bring your own bag with you, load up on awesome fresh produce, and reduce plastic packaging from your hostel cooking night shopping list.
8. Stop Buying “Travel Sized” Everything
Whilst I get that airport security regulations significantly limit what sort of toiletries one can bring on a plane, you should still seriously reconsider buying travel size products. A tiny “travel size” tube of toothpaste doesn’t even last a week. That means that after only a handful of tooth brushings, you chuck the tube in the rubbish.
If stopping with the travel size stuff means you just have to buy a tube of toothpaste when you land, so be it. You can buy toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant everywhere!
9. Purchase Beverages in Glass Bottles instead of Plastic
Really have a hankering for a Coke or Iced Tea when traveling? I know the feeling. When possible, avoid buying drinks that come in plastic bottles. This is the same principle as the single-use water bottle problem. More often then not, shops sell cold beverages in glass. If they don’t, think twice about whether or not you really need that soda.
The next best option is aluminum cans, which can also be recycled.
10. Carry your own Head Phone/Ear Buds
Ah, the airlines again…
On long-haul flights, airline companies distribute low-quality, uncomfortable earbuds that people use once and then throw away. In this day and age, most travelers carry their own earbuds and don’t rely on the airlines in order to watch a movie in flight. However, without fail I still see dozens of people take them from the flight attendant on every single long flight I take.
The airline earbuds are doubly problematic because they come plastic wrapped and are themselves plastic. Do yourself a favor and invest in some high-quality badass headphones and never think about using airline earbuds again.
11. Say No to Plastic Straws
This one is easy. You don’t actually have to do anything other than say, “no straw please,” at the end of your drink order.
Whether you are drinking your favorite cocktail or simply sippin’ on a cup of juice, stop using straws! Unless you are incapable of fluid intake without a straw (even then, they make metal and bamboo straws), there is simply no need to ever need a straw!
Plastic straws are so entrenched in the DNA of servers, bartenders, baristas, and the corner orange juice guy, that you have to be quick in your communication. Your words must be faster than the quickest straw-to-drink movement.
If you are traveling in a country where English is not readily understood, learn how to say “no straw please” in the local language.
12. Use Bio-Degradable Wet Wipes
I never thought I would see the words “wet wipes” in one of my articles. But hey, let’s be honest, all of us use (or need to use) wet wipes from time to time when showers are few and far between.
Conventional wet wipes are anything but eco. To quote one study, “the wipes wash up on beaches all around the world. A 2014 estimate from the MCS (Marine Conservation Society, UK) says there are approximately 35 wipes per kilometer of beach in Britain – a 50% increase from 2013.”
That’s a lot of fucking wet wipes.
I have good news for you (and your bum) though. Biodegradable wet wipes exist and you should know about them. Biodegradable wet wipes are exactly the same as their polluting cousins, except for the crucial fact that they are typically made from a natural fiber, and this breaks down quite quickly.
I am proud to report they work quite well when a real shower isn’t possible. Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes are of good value, especially if you are traveling to rural places or camping a lot.
13. Buy a Bamboo/Compostable Tooth Brush
Cutting down on your plastic footprint whilst traveling is the cumulative effort of a series of small life changes. We have probably been using plastic toothbrushes since the moment our first teeth to root inside our mouths. After a month or two (or ten??!) the spent toothbrush winds up in the rubbish and—as history has shown us—most likely into the ocean.
Picking up a bamboo toothbrush is a viable option. Opting for a toothbrush with changeable heads is another great way to reduce buying the whole plastic brush each time you wear out the old one.
14. Stop Using Face Wash with Micro Plastic Scrubbing Beads
Have you ever used a face wash with those little tiny scrubbers like grains of sand embedded in the cream? Most likely, those are plastic microbeads. Plastic microbeads are toxic little bits of plastic that end up in our water supply, oceans, and in the bodies of animals and humans.
Many countries, including the UK, have banned the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics altogether.
If you are using microbead infested products, I urge you to please stop! Don’t worry, you can still scrub your face! There are many natural alternatives (which our ancestors used for thousands of years) to microbeads, including apricot stones, clay, sand, and even coffee grounds. Better still, make your own!
15. Pick Up Plastic Bits and Rubbish when Hiking
If every person picked up the little bits of stray plastic— bottle caps, granola bar wrappers, chewing gum foil, etc— while out on a hike, the trails of the world would be much cleaner. Most daypacks have side pockets. It doesn’t take much effort to stoop down and pick up a piece of rubbish that you come across on any given trail. Fill up those pockets!
Not only will you make the trail more beautiful, but you will prevent any number of animals from ingesting the particle in question.
Not to toot my own horn, but to give you an example/idea, I probably pick up 5 kilos of trash (mostly plastic shit) a year on hiking trails. That’s a whole lot of plastic bottles, caps, wrappers, etc. Again, imagine if everyone did that!
In theory, backcountry spaces should not need people to pick up after other people. But that just isn’t the world we live in. Plus, people are less likely to litter or be careless with their little bits of plastic trash if they don’t see other bits of trash present.
16. If you Book a Tour, Book an Eco Tour
The term “eco-tour” is about a generic a term as the phrase “white bread.” That said, some tour companies really do make an effort to cut back on plastic waste, practice Leave No Trace principles, and make overall positive impacts on the communities and natural environments they visit.
Other companies might claim to be “eco,” but in reality, they are about as eco as 100 dudes with chainsaws in the Brazilan Rainforest.
My point is this: if you book a tour, do your homework. Make sure the company has a positive environmental reputation. Ask questions! Read reviews! Spend some time checking up on the company.
If you come across information that suggests that a company is anything but eco, I recommend that you expand your search.
17. Invest in Quality Backpacking Gear
A great way to reduce your plastic footprint and limit your overall rubbish output is to buy quality backpacking gear that lasts. Many top outdoor gear companies like Osprey, MSR, Patagonia, REI, etc will repair your gear for free…for years.
Just last week I needed a replacement buckle for a chest strap on my Osprey Backpack and the company sent me a replacement part within five days time. Amazing! Just replacing a part is way cheaper obviously (it was free) than buying a whole new backpack. Furthermore, the backpack doesn’t end up in the rubbish pile after only a few years of use.
A quality backpack can easily last you a decade. By contrast, a poorly constructed backpack, jacket, water bottle—whatever the product—won’t last a year. Save money, reduce waste, reduce plastic. It’s a win-win.
Final Thoughts on Reducing Your Plastic Footprint While Traveling
As you have seen, reducing your plastic footprint isn’t that complicated. In most cases, consuming plastic revolves around daily routines. Us humans are creatures of habit, and with new habits come new routines. With plastic reduction routines come a healthier planet.
We have the ability to change our relationship with plastic. As travelers, we do not need to use plastic, and even when we think we don’t have options, we inevitably do.
On any given backpacking adventure, you will be confronted with choices. Sometimes avoiding plastic is easy; other times it can be quite difficult and frustrating since plastic is literally everywhere now!
If you are thinking about reducing your plastic footprint and traveling sustainably, you are already headed in the right direction. Now, it’s time to put some of my plastic-reducing tips into action as you develop your own plastic-reducing routine.
And don’t stop there. There are plenty of other travel practices to put into place. For more tips, check out our responsible travel post, here.
The health of our natural world is at stake. As backpackers set out in search of adventure, it is our duty to show the world some respect and stay the hell away from plastic products as much as we can (or entirely!).
If you have any plastic-reducing tips that I missed on this list, please share your knowledge in the comments below! Cheers Guys!
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