Plastic. It seems that’s all we’re talking about right now, thanks to eye-opening documentaries like A Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet II. Specifically plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Single-use plastics. Things that become waste products within minutes, sometimes even seconds after we lay our hands on them.
Plastic isn’t inherently bad. It’s cheap, lightweight, hygienic, versatile, and virtually indestructible. But as a society we’ve become overly dependent on it, manufacturing more than 300 million tonnes a year, and generating far more waste than the planet can handle. Not enough is recycled, landfill is filling up, and invariably some plastic waste ends up in rivers and seas. And it’s virtually indestructible.
We have become addicted to plastic. We have transformed the nature of the ocean. Without the ocean, life on Earth could not exist – including us.
Dr. Sylvia Earle
According to recent research, there is now no corner of the earth which is completely free from plastic contamination, from the polar seas to the deep ocean. And the problem is multi-stranded: large, free-floating items pose a risk of entanglement or choking; medium to small items are ingested, filling stomachs without providing nutrition; and tiny fragments of degraded plastic floating in surface water accumulate toxins, poisoning through the food chain. Marine ecosystems face catastrophic damage.
Read: 10 Must-Watch Films about the Oceans
Whilst various governments, NGOs and businesses have recognised the scale of the problem and made commitments to future change, how long til the effects percolate down into our everyday life? I think it falls to us to take our own steps, and force change from bottom up.
Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity – and indeed all life on Earth – now depends on us.
Sir David Attenborough
There are several ways we can reduce our reliance on plastics, especially single-use items, take responsibility for what we consume, and use plastics only when there’s no better alternative. And the good news is that many of these measures are simple and can be incorporated into our everyday lives, at home and on the road.
These are just a few of the tips I’ve picked up from my work in conservation and on my travels, and some of the bits and pieces I’ve invested in to help make it easier to avoid unnecessary single-use plastics. I hope it gives a few practical and affordable solutions you can use on your travels, and at home too.
Carry Canvas Bags
The nations of the UK, along with many other countries in Europe, introduced small levy charges on single-use plastic carrier bags as a prompt to encourage people to think about their reliance on them. A success, the amount of bags distributed has been cut by up to 90% in some countries, and the proportion of plastic waste made up from bags found in marine surveys has dropped significantly.
Other countries, particularly across Africa and South Asia, have gone further and outlawed the use of plastic bags completely. I always have a canvas bag or two in my handbag or daypack while I’m on the move, and I store others in my car and office desk drawer so I always have one handy for shopping. You can pick up canvas bags almost everywhere, and sometimes promotional bags are available for free.
Bring your own bottle
I always carry a refillable water bottle with me, a habit from many years of working outdoors and in remote areas. Using a refillable bottle also has the added benefit of saving you money in the long term. Bottled water is an unnecessary expense in most locations, and more and more places are now providing water fountains or free refills to help tackle plastic use. Just be sure to empty your bottle before going through airport security.
Find My Plastic Reduction Packing List Here
Just say no to straws, spoons, and stirrers
Until recently most of us rarely gave straws a second thought. Then we all saw that footage of the turtle, and realised these small, single-use items sum-up our throw-away relationship with plastic. Cheap and convenient, but rarely essential, most of us can easily do without them.
However straws help some drink independently, make it easy for small children to avoid spills, and make cocktails feel, well, fancy. So if you can’t do without, pick up a pack of paper straws instead, or invest in a reusable bamboo or metal alternative (which usually come with their own cleaning kit), and channel that old fella drinking maté you saw in Buenos Aires.
Take a reusable cup to the coffee shop
Takeaway drink cups are usually lined with polyethylene to stop leaks, and in the UK alone more than 7 million of these “disposable” cups are given out every day. This adds up to an astonishing 2.5 billion a year, and due to the mixed materials in their composition only around 1% are ever recycled. The remainder will end up as litter or in landfill.
Many cafés and coffeehouses, both chains and independent stores, offer a discount for customers bringing their own cups. I keep my reusable cup, by ecoffee, in my car for an occasional takeaway drink, others are available including collapsible cups to pack for travelling.
Read: Six further ways to cut your plastic use
Change your Coffee Culture
Takeaway coffee is not that common in many countries. In the Scandinavian countries, the world’s largest coffee consumers, most people will sit down in a café, with or without friends, and savour their brew in a glass or ceramic cup. Even Italians stop for espresso in a dainty demitasse at the bar rather than grab something to go.
So next time you fancy a coffee, think about taking the time to sit in and savour your drink. It’s one of the nicest and most affordable experiences when you travel, and cuts the need for single-use drinks cups at the source whether you’re home or away.
Take your own eating tools
A spork is a simple, small thing that you can stick in a daypack or handbag to cut out the need for single-use plastic cutlery with your takeaway lunch, street food snack, or budget hotel breakfast. It’s an essential for hiking and camping trips too.
If I’m travelling anywhere for more than a few days, I might also stick a lunchbox, a clip-top tupperware tub, into my bags. It lets me prepare my own lunches, and save leftovers, and cuts down on the amount of waste I create from buying pre-packaged salads, sandwiches, and pasta. To minimise the space it takes up in my bag, I stuff my toiletries inside, reducing the likelihood of liquids leaking into my clothes too.
In winter, I have a food flask I use to take hot meals or soup with me while I’m off exploring the outdoors.
I realise there’s likely to be times where I don’t always follow my own advice, but I hope that I’ve made you question your reliance on plastics, and given you some suggestions that can be easily incorporated into your routine. They’re just small steps, but if more of us make them, and keep raising awareness of the issue, we become part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.
How do you cut out single-use plastics on your travels? Share your tips in the comments below.
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