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Travelling is an amazing thing. You get to experience different cultures, cuisines, wildlife and learn so much about the world, but it is also a large burden on our planet (think about the carbon footprint from air-travel alone). It makes you realise the negative impact humans have when you see waste everywhere. However, all is not lost! You can still have incredible experiences by just travelling more sustainably and being mindful. Here are five common pitfalls I have encountered when travelling and ways to combat them.
1. The excessive packaging on the plane
This is a tricky one. To reach your destination, you often need to fly, which is not without its issues. Most airlines do not recycle a lot, and there is so much single-use packaging used.
Solution: Opt out of flying altogether – this way you reduce the amount of waste you use and your flight carbon footprint. If travelling by plane is your only option, don’t worry. You can call the airline in advance and refuse a meal then bring your own food and snacks in containers and eat them with your own utensils. Refill your own water bottle after security, and the flight attendants are usually very happy to refill it for you too. Refuse the single-use headphones and blankets and bring your own; use your own headphones to watch the in-flight entertainment and bring a scarf or blanket to keep you warm.
2. The tap water is unsafe to drink
It makes me so sad walking along a stunning beach and seeing plastic bottles and rubbish everywhere. In most developing countries, plastic bottles are rarely recycled and instead are burned or end up in the landfill or the waterways and oceans. Furthermore, in a lot of places the tap water is not safe to drink, so what do you do?
Solution: There are loads of products on the market to make any water safe to drink, so you do not need to buy bottled water. If you are in a jam, get a 5L bottle so at least you are using less packaging. I use Steripen Ultra to make my water safe. It’s super easy to use and I haven’t been sick from it once! Some people prefer a water bottle filter which is great for really mucky water. The LifeStraw Go is simple to use and can double up as your normal water bottle.
3. Your cocktail arrives kitted out with straws, umbrellas and scuba gear
I have yet to walk along a beach without seeing at least one plastic straw in the sand. There are some awesome places I have been to that refuse to serve plastic straws, but sadly these are few and far between. Most places abroad love to put two or three straws and paper umbrellas in one measly cocktail, smoothie or fruit juice.
Solution: Refuse the extras. Everyone says this like it's super easy and it should be, but I have received many straws in my drinks despite asking for no straw. So my ways around this are whenever I order a drink I say, “no straw please”. You can try and learn this in the local language too. You can also bring your own reusable straw to illustrate the point. It doesn’t always work but I would say about 95 percent of the time I do not get a straw, so I take that as a win.
4. Grabbing lunch on the go
One of my favourite things to do while travelling is experiencing the culinary delights of street food. I have some of the best meals of my life doing this – it is usually super cheap and really lets you experience the food culture of a country. However, most of the time they serve it in styrofoam containers, plastic bags or tubs, etc. I am currently in Sri Lanka, and they serve these amazing lunch packets, which initially I thought were only wrapped in newspaper but have a plastic sheet inside. These plastic sheets are thrown away and are either eaten by animals or just sit around the environment for years and years to come.
Solution: Take a container with you and give it to the vendors to fill, and don’t forget to take your reusable cutlery too. You do get some odd looks initially but once the locals get used to you doing this they love it! I also like the fact that other people see you doing this; you can lead by example and they might start to bring a container too. I’ve had fellow travellers and locals ask me why I do this, and once I’ve explained the environmental ramifications of takeaway containers, they all think my reusable tins are a great idea.
5. Wandering the markets and outdoor shops
Exploring local markets and stalls can be really fun, and it's exciting to see what fruit and veg you can buy. It can be very cheap and you are supporting local communities too. Luckily a lot of these items have no packaging, but the shops always try to put the loose veg in plastic produce bags and you often see these lying around as litter.
Solution: Bring a reusable shopping bag, refuse any plastic bag you are offered and bring a cloth produce bag. I always carry a small one with me so I am never without. It is also handy to take a cloth napkin too; they’re great for wrapping up baked goods and delicious pastries!
It may require a bit of forward planning, but it is possible to travel sustainably. Yes, sometimes it can be tricky to find things without packaging and you might have a few blips along the way, but it’s also an adventure and a great way to get people from all corners of the world talking about reducing and taking action against waste. Happy travels!
Marja Kipperman is a vet by day, plastic vigilante by night! She has travelled the world and met some amazing, inspirational people along the way, but she has also seen the impact that waste has on the environment and wildlife. Marja’s passion has led her to make simple changes in her own life that she is hoping to share with you.