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How to Reduce Your Plastic Waste When Traveling Abroad

Everyone is interested in the concept of eco-friendly travel, at least in theory. Finding ways to put that into practice can be a bigger challenge. One thing we can all do is to reduce plastic consumption when traveling abroad.

When you read the information below and follow the tips it includes, you can meaningfully reduce your plastic waste and immediately make an impact on local communities and the world. Or, as the old adage says, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

Why is Plastic Such a Problem Around the World?

One reason the topic of plastic pollution comes up so often–in conjunction with eco-friendly travel in general–is that increased plastic consumption affects all of us. Countless beaches around the world are now covered in plastic, not so much because of local pollution, but because ocean currents can literally carry improperly disposed plastic across the planet! That’s assuming they don’t get stuck in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is now the size of Texas.

More terrifyingly, although plastics can take centuries or even millennia to fully breakdown, the process by which they do decompose is changing humans—literally. So-called “microplastics” can get into our bloodstream and even our cells, and scientists don’t yet know the long-term side effects of this.

It’s especially important to be mindful of plastic pollution if you travel in developing nations within Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. Although many Western countries have robust recycling programs, which limit the introduction of plastic products into the natural environment, some countries discard plastics directly into waterways or even burn them, releasing carcinogenic chemicals directly into the air.

How to Reduce Plastic Waste When You Travel

Learn How to Say “No Plastic Bag” in the Local Language

A great way to reduce plastic waste is simply not to use plastic in the first place. One easy way to do this is not to take plastic bags from grocery stores or supermarkets. Although it’s often possible to say this in English, or to gesture that you don’t want a bag, you should use your phone’s “Translate” app to look up how to say this in a local language. This way, you can not only be more environmentally aware when you travel, but more culturally aware as well!

Travel with a Reusable Metal Straw

Plastic bags contribute heavily to the great problem of plastic waste, and so do plastic straws. On the other hand, paper straws–that some countries have introduced to curb this problem–tend to be flimsy, especially when submerged in your drink for longer than a few minutes. A great solution is to purchase your own metal straw and take it everywhere with you. Even if you don’t also learn how to say “no straw” in the local language of the place where you’re traveling, flashing your straw to the cashier or shop attendant should send the message and help you go plastic-free.

Avoid Bottled Water (but do so Smartly)!

Bottled water consumption is at odds with eco-friendly travel on many fronts. What you should know is that water bottles represent a huge number of the piece of plastic washed up on beaches around the world. This doesn’t mean you need to risk getting sick from tap water, however. Many cities have dispensers of purified water—shopping malls and public sports and recreation centers are a great place to find these. Your hotel or Airbnb might also have a dispenser, which you can use to fill your eco-friendly stainless steel water bottle!

Plastic water bottle on counter next to tea kettle
Reduce plastic waste by avoiding plastic water bottles

Minimize Consumption of Packaged Foods

It’s not just bottled water that can be a plastic disaster, either. Packaged foods contribute heavily to this problem, be it snacks from convenience stores and supermarkets, or ordering food “to go” (and using plastic utensils) instead of eating it in the restaurant.

Being conscious about what and how you eat is not only good for the planet, but can enhance your overall travel experience. Why not buy a few loose pieces of fruit, instead of snacking on a packaged and unhealthy bag of chips?

Likewise, sitting down for a meal, especially at a locally-owned establishment, can allow you to interact with locals, or at a minimum to observe local dining and drinking customs. If you do decide to take food away from the restaurant, bring your own container (preferably) made of glass.

Bring your Own Toiletries to Hotels

A final way (well, for the purposes of this article—in the real world, options are endless!) to reduce plastic waste is to bring your own toiletries to hotels, apartments, and hostels. Although some properties are already countering the effect of disposable single-use shampoo and body wash by directing staff to refill the properties’ own large containers, you can do your part by not using these items, even when they are available.

Obviously, you can take other eco-friendly moves at hotels as well. Make sure to hang clean towels so they don’t need to be washed more often than necessary; only use heating or air-conditioning when absolutely required, and turn off lights and other power-sucking room facilities when you aren’t using them. You can even take it one step further and look into different types of hotel options that look to furnish their hotel rooms and feed their guests in sustainable ways.

Other Ways to Be Eco-Friendly When You Travel

While using less plastic benefits both the country you’re visiting and our planet’s oceans, in general, it’s not the only way to lessen your impact when you travel. Here are a few other great ideas:

  • Stay at eco-friendly properties
  • Eat more vegetables, eat less meat
  • Purchase carbon offsets with airfare
  • Support local businesses

More generally, being conscious as you travel—in other words, asking yourself what the consequences of each action you take during each day on the road will be—is a great practice to get into. Even the smallest adjustments in your behavior, and the most seemingly minimal positive intentions can have a huge impact!

Conclusion

Although eco-friendly travel is a broad topic, and can often seem quite theoretical, there are many easy ways to put it into practice. Most specifically, taking action to reduce plastic waste when you travel is a great place to start. In addition to making sure you don’t contribute to pollution in the specific countries you visit, you’ll do your part to slow the devastating plastic pollution choking our oceans in recent years. Once you’ve set a positive, planet-friendly intention for your next trip, begin browsing flights on Skyscanner below. 👇