Plastic. It’s everywhere – physically and figuratively. From our supermarkets to our bathrooms; images of beaches on Bali or the Philippines overflowing with waste take turns with films about birds on far away islands who died with bellies full of plastic. It is constantly on our minds, in our newspapers, on our social media feeds and on billboards. All the time. We’re flooded with wave of reports about the environmental issue of plastic pollution. Companies and businesses are dropping press releases promising to eliminate single-use plastic from their stores left, right and centre. Governments ban plastic bags or at least introduce a charge for them. The demand for plastic-free alternatives reflects in the sprouting of zero waste supermarkets and petitions to introduce bottle-banks to British supermarkets.
This article is not just another lecture listing facts and figures of the problem – although there will be some number-dropping for emphasis – but wants to take a moment to reflect on the role each of us can play in this literally life-threatening game. Especially those of us who – like myself – love to travel.
In my last travel feature, I talked about how the negative impact of travelling and the pollution caused by travel-friendly convenience products is my least favourite part about being a traveller. Let’s think about some of the ways you’re increasing your foot print by traveling:
First, you have to get to your destination somehow. You might be able to take an eco-friendly way, but most holiday destinations will require you to fly. On a long-distance flight they might offer you a meal that comes on plastic plates, is served with a piece of break wrapped in plastic, and guess what – the cutlery is in plastic too. Once you arrive, you might pick up a rental car to explore the local area, or take busses and taxis to get around, either because it’s convenient or simply safer.
At your hotel, you sleep in freshly washed bed sheets and receive fresh towels every day (often despite hanging them up to reuse). You use the little complimentary bottles of shower gel and shampoo, because that’s on page one of the carry-on packing rule book – don’t weigh your luggage down by bringing your own toiletries. You grab a plastic bottle of water from the mini bar, because you are not sure whether you can drink the tap water, and off you go. You’ve not eaten since your mediocre airplane meal, so you’re headed to the first street food stall you can find. Your meal is served on a plastic plate and you’re handed a plastic fork. You get the gist – how much waste and greenhouse gas have you produced since you left your house?
The reality is that transport accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a considerable amount of that is caused by aviation. 284,493,786 passengers departed or were in transit at UK airports in 2017 alone. Add to that the amount of printed boarding passes, plastic-wrapped cutlery and airline food trays, single-use water bottles bought after security checks and plastic bags used for duty-free purchases, and you’ve got yourself a dilemma. Travelling has a huge impact on the planet and considering how many people today are able to travel (and how many more will be able to in the future) is not making it look any better.
The obvious solution is not to fly at all, only travel on environmentally friendly modes of transport, like trains, bicycles or on foot. Yet, while I can get excited by the thought of a long-distance hike, I also believe that the positive benefits of travel on our personal experience and development are a good counter-argument.
Here are a few things you can do to reduce the impact of your wanderlust on the planet and its people.
Zero-waste essentials to pack for travel
I talked about my favourite items to travel with, in my eco-friendly packing list, but just to recap: a reusable water bottle plus a pocket filtration system, a reusable coffee cup, a metal straw for cocktails or coconuts, reusable cutlery and a cotton napkin and a couple of tote and produce bags for markets. You will significantly reduce the amount of waste you produce on your trip!
Knowing what to prepare for is already half the preparation. When you plan your trip, don’t just read up on things to do and sights to see. Try to find out about the quality of water and whether you will need a filter for the tap water. Read up on waste management and recycling schemes – there are places, like Zanzibar, where travellers are encouraged to carry their recycling waste back off the island, because there is no system in place there. Save markets on your Google Maps app. It is these little things that will make your impact even smaller.
If you cannot avoid flying with your travel style, try to fly less. With every short distance flight you are about to book, check if there are other options, like trains or carpooling. If there is no way around the plane, fly economy. Yes, it can be nice to treat yourself to a business upgrade, but the reality is, the more people are on that plane, the smaller is each individual’s carbon footprint. Speaking of which – offset your foot print! Many airlines offer the option to offset the greenhouse gas produced by your flight directly in the booking process, but there are also websites like CarbonFootprint.com where you can enter your flight details retrospectively. The money goes towards environmental projects that are often designed to reduce future emissions. On the day of your flight, do not forget to bring your own accessories, like a blanket and headphones, as well as reusable cutlery. You can reuse that at the next street food stall!
Hotels, hotels, hotels
When you choose your hotel, check out their sustainability policy. You might not always have many options, but if you can, book a hotel that actively engages in the debate and is consciously trying to reduce the amount of waste produced on site. Websites like Green Pearls can help you finding eco-friendly accommodation around the world. Once you have moved into your room, be aware of the resources you use, whether that is water or electricity. You can re-use your towels or even bring your own to encourage the housekeepers to remove the ones they put out for you. Fingers crossed they will realise you have not used them and put them straight into the next room. Finally, I like booking accommodation with a fridge or even a small kitchen, as I can store a few essentials I bought at local markets and further reduce my impact of eating out.
Eat out like a pro
I have already mentioned it above: if you plan to eat at markets a lot, bring your own set of reusable cutlery and a cotton napkin to avoid using single-use ones. Refuse straws and plastic cups and show the bartenders that you brought your own – a coffee cup also works for takeaway soups for lunch and cocktails on the beach at night.
Shop locally sourced and fresh produce from the markets and support small businesses and independent makers when souvenir shopping. Not only is it more eco-friendly to do so, it is also a more sustainable way of supporting the local tourism industry. When you shop for souvenirs, go for the ones that are plastic-free and made from natural materials.
When you travel, you want to take it all in. Tours and guided experiences are a great way to do this – as long as they support eco-friendly and sustainable activities. When I look for a tour company, I find it important that they have an environmental policy, work with local tour guides and are embedded in their communities. I have seen some great examples of this around the world and can honestly say, those were always the best experiences.
Personally, I’m far from perfect. I am not a zero-waste traveller yet, but I’m starting to incorporate some of these changes and add new ones with every new trip. This month I signed up for the #goplasticfree challenge by the Marine Conservation Society and so far I’ve made some incredible progress. I am about to head off to hike the Hebridean Way soon, and preparing a plastic-free trek was really tricky. I found some pretty neat solutions to reduce the impact of my personal wanderlust, and if you’d like to see how I get on or find some inspiration for plastic-free alternatives, follow my adventure on Instagram.
Travellers produce a lot of plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions, but there are many actions you can take to reduce the impact your wanderlust has on the planet.
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