During one of my tourism management classes at University, the lecturer stated that any form of travel involves a degree of pollution of the destination. You can see how this represents a major problem for all the mindful travel enthusiasts out there. The truth is that the previous generation has caused untold damage to our environment, to the extent that we now have – by some account – a little over 10 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.
But we also want to travel. So, how can the new generation solve the plastic problem, the growing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, and ocean pollution without tampering down their love for travel and exploration. Here are some simple steps that anyone can embrace to be a sustainability hero on the road.
Often the locals have their own way to encourage travelers and tourists to be responsible while abroad. Single-use plastic is so rooted in our culture that we are often blind to it. Apart from the obvious plastic water bottle (we all have to drink, right?), any of our toiletries, medicines and hygiene products are sold in plastic containers. In most cases, plastics can be so well disguised that we don’t even realize we are using them.
There is microplastic in our face scrubs and in the beanbag you’re comfortably sat on in your villa in Bali. That is if you don’t count charging cables, purses, clothes, waterproof items, and flip flops. It seems like a crazy amount, right? There is however a simple solution to reducing the list of plastic you use on a regular basis while traveling, with a bit of research and forward planning, and a little trial and error of course.
Stainless steel water bottles: Being sustainable doesn’t have to make you look like a flower child, it can also be glamorous. There are hundreds of companies that produce beautiful and eye-catching stainless-steel bottles. Most of the flasks keep the liquid hot for up to 12 hours and cold for 24. For me, it was a lifesaver in both the -20’C of Norway and in the +42’C of Mexico.
This can represent an investment at the onset of your trip. Notwithstanding this, it’s actually cheaper to refill your own than frequently buying plastic bottles each day at your travel destination. Apart from being very dainty, the bottle I use has lasted for over 5 years now and it is still going strong. Just make sure that it has a carabiner on it to attach it externally to your gear.
Also, buy it from a company that makes you happy. Many brands such as S’Well, Earthlust, and Klean Kanteen invest a portion of their income to driving forward various humanitarian projects around the world, and remember to pick the one you feel most strongly about. Thanks to my flask, I’ve bought less than 10 plastic bottles in the 6 months I spent traveling through Southeast Asia. Winning!
Once you’ve got the bottle of your dream and are ready to give up on the bright orange carbonated papaya juice sold in 7-11s, the only thing left is to find a refill station. Their accessibility varies widely depending on the country you are visiting, but in many less privileged areas the water is poison even for the locals so there is always bound to be a refill station around the corner, but it is often up to you to find it. Keeping that in mind, if you do find yourself driving through the Vietnamese countryside, you will most likely have to knock on someone’s door for water, so come prepared.
Bring a reusable bag: hold your thoughts, it’s not shopping time yet! I am sure everybody already has one laying on the bottom of their wardrobe. It’ll be your best friend on your trips to the beach or the market. Mine sometimes holds my toiletries, sometimes groceries and in all honesty, it is starting to disintegrate now, (at least I know it’s biodegradable). Take your forgotten bag on your trip, she too wants to see the world.
Bring a plate and cutlery set: In Southeast Asia, plastic cutlery is still fashionable, can you believe it? However, if you are a foodie or a budget traveler, you will be eating in the markets a lot. The food is usually surprisingly cheap and is reflective of the eclectic local cuisine. Unfortunately, this also means that your fried rice will be sold in a plastic box with a plastic fork and served in a plastic bag, so be prepared. I am by no means a fan of stylish cutlery sets and reusable plates, partly because I travel very light. However, in many countries, it is even encouraged to eat with your hands, so a tub with a lid will work too.
Buy reserves beforehand: If you are almost ready to start your trip, this is a good time for shopping. Find your local (hopefully zero-waste) store and buy a bulk of these few incredible items. In some countries, unfortunately, sustainability is not a priority so there is limited availability.
Toothpaste tablets (you can bring thousands of these instead of one travel-size tube)
Soap and shampoo bars
Electric epilator (to avoid buying plastic razors)
Menstrual cup (I prefer reusable pads)
Safe for coral sun cream
A bamboo straw (if you really can’t do without it)
Plastic-free hair bobbles
…. Now pack a snack for your flight and you are ready to go!
Sustainable experiences sometimes come with a price tag. However, these are the best way to experience the local culture and beauty. reducing your carbon footprint while traveling is a worthwhile goal, especially given the increasing evidence of the significant impact it is having on our climate.
Very few adventure lovers reach the status of zero-waste God, but for us, mortal travelers, cutting down on plastic bottles shouldn’t be enough. It is also important to create a positive impact on the environment. Don’t worry if your budget doesn’t stretch to $3000 for a week of volunteering in the turtle conservation centers, there are many things that can be done. These are the ones I tried so far:
Beach clean-ups: this would be an incredible initiative on your part. However, do your research in advance. I organized a beach clean-up in Kudat in the Malaysian Borneo. Spending a day trying to pick up all the diapers, purses, clothes, and pieces of a washing machine on the bay was both satisfying and upsetting. After 6 hours of hard work, I brought my piles of trash to the owner of the main hostel, just so he could tell me thank you, but we are going to burn it now. Often in many of these communities, there are no systems in place to dispose of the waste, so, have a plan B ready.
Always book eco-friendly tours: Often environmentally friendly experiences are still considered a luxury, so you will be forced to pay for the privilege. Eco-tours are generally more expensive, but it is still a low price to pay to save the planet. While they can be difficult to fit in your budget, don’t let the price tag stop you. Usually, these tours offer the best local experiences, away from the mass tourism and they will certainly offer a uniquely different perspective to the country you’re visiting.
Research the facilities you will stay in: Hotels and hostels around the globe are changing their policies, and you can now find a growing number of them that operate a plastic-free environment policy. Just be aware that sometimes the sustainability programs on display on their websites are mainly used as a marketing tool and does not reflect the reality on the ground.
Eat vegetarian: It is ethical, yes. But also, most of the unpleasant (and hilarious) stories of traveler’s sickness come from eating poorly cooked meat. Take one for both yourself and the planet!
Taking ownership of the problem will get you further
Realizing that there is a problem is the first step to improving our habits. However, it is even more important to understand that often we are an active part of the cause. It is true that today’s pollution comes mostly from a generation’s mistakes, but we have an unmissable opportunity to solve it.
It is easy to blame developing countries for burning their plastic or be scandalized by the amount of rubbish that are found on once picturesque beaches. What we need to comprehend is that it is mostly western countries that bring their “recyclable” products to places like Sabah, Borneo, and it is mainly western tourists that have fuelled the use of plastics in Thailand. Media outlets do tend to touch on this phenomenon quite a lot, however, it is difficult to truly realize the magnitude of the damage until you have traveled to affected areas and had a first-hand experience.
One of the many examples is Borneo. This island used to be the ultimate destination for the adventurous traveler in search of the hiding wild orangutan. Today over 70% of Sabah’s rainforest has been turned into Palm oil plantations and the once stunning beaches of the tip of Borneo have been irreparably damaged. As travelers, we have had the privilege of seeing not only the beauty but also the destruction of this side of the world. It is, therefore, our duty to protect, educate and create a positive footprint.