How to Reduce Your Trash Impact While Traveling

We’re choking our oceans with plastic, but what can you do to reduce the amount of plastic you throw away while traveling?


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The much-publicized pictures of the island-sized raft of plastic off Honduras following the 2017 hurricane season are shocking and alarming. This has to stop.

The photographer who took the shocking images of the garbage has given us permission to use her photograph, and also asked that we urge our readers to make a donation to the Roatan Marine Park to help fund their environmental work.

How Much Garbage Is There In The World?

According to the World Bank in 2016, nations generated 1.3 billion tons of waste every year. That’s predicted to rise to 4 billion tons by 2100.

46% of waste is organic, so hopefully somewhere in the world there’s an enormous compost pile – there’s not, only 1% of waste goes to compost. 27% of waste is plastic and paper.

More than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection. So most rubbish gets dumped on the street, buried or burned.

Even in those nations that do have trash collection, 60% ends up in landfill – which is pretty much the same thing, just with men in hi-viz jackets and trucks.

“I was in Kashmir a few years back. They guy who came to clean my room picked up my trash can and tipped it out the window. I said “what’re you doing?” and he said “the dogs will eat it”. What dog is going to eat a plastic wrapper?” Andrew, World Nomad.

Barring the evolution of plastic-eating dogs, much of the rubbish eventually makes its way into the rivers and waterways and then to the oceans.

According to a study by Marcus Eriksen from Five Gyres Institute which was published in 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, there are 269,000 tons of plastic in our oceans.

What Are The Most Common Types Of Garbage Found In The Ocean?

Ocean Conservancy and Ban The Bottle have done studies and came up with similar results;

  • Plastic bottles
  • Bottle caps
  • Plastic bags
  • Cigarette butts
  • Food wrappers
  • Food containers
  • Plastic utensils
  • Straws
  • Soda/beverage cans
  • Paper bags
  • Styrofoam cups

By far the most common plastic rubbish in the oceans is bottles. Water bottles, soda and other beverages. Yes it’s important to stay hydrated and drink clean water, but is it necessary to use a new “disposable” plastic bottle every time?

Notice how many of the other most common items are also to do with food consumption. Perhaps what we’ve learned about taking our own reusable water bottles with us (and other methods of getting purified drinking water) we could apply to these other items? Try this instead:

  • Lightweight camping utensils don’t take up much space in your pack.
  • You could take your own reusable metal drinking straw.
  • Sit down at the street food stall and use their plates rather than getting it “to go” wrapped in plastic.
  • Look for food that has a natural wrapper - banana leaf in SE Asia for example.
  • Shop for snacks at farmers’ markets rather than the supermarket where everything is triple wrapped.
  • Avoid plane silly plastic. The restriction on taking on to a plane any liquids over 100ml contributes enormously to plastic pollution. Millions of people buying disposable mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner and soap from airside shops, when they could buy reusable bottles and fill them at home.
  • If you want to take this to the next level and be a hardcore low plastic footprint traveler, then you should look at getting an eco-toothbrush. No, seriously, think of all the plastic toothbrushes thrown away every year! The eco-friendly ones are made from bamboo.
  • Team it up with natural charcoal tooth cleaning products (not chemical paste) for extra eco-warrior points.
  • Then pack those ear buds with paper stems instead of plastic.
  • Women, maybe consider the reusable product known as a moon cup to replace tampons.

Here’s One Thing You Can Do To Reduce Your Plastic Pollution

TAKE YOUR TRASH HOME WITH YOU – all the way home, back to your country of residence.

Sounds super inconvenient, right? It’s supposed to be. If you have to take it with you, if you have to find space in your luggage, you’ll be incentivised to find ways of reducing your plastic usage.

Impossible you say? This guy did it, biking across the USA for 104 days and finishing with a bag of trash that weighed just 2 pounds (1kg).

If we all did that, imagine what a difference we could make to our oceans.

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  • Zara said

    Excellent article. Really made me think about the impact my travel has on the planet. And you're right, if we all made even just small changes, it would have such a positive effect on the environment. Sharing this on my blog's FB and Twitter.

    Just a side note: I tried using your share buttons but when you click on them nothing happens.

  • Gwen Meythaler said

    Each time I travel to another country I think of using a water filter instead of plastic H2O bottles. I get sick from bad water so easily. Do any of you have a water filter you trust for countries like Nepal and India?

  • zoo said

    I tried GRAYL water filtration system

  • [email protected] said

    Hey Zara,
    Thanks for flagging this! It appears social share tools aren't working on mobile. We'll investigate and get it fixed asap.
    And @Zoo, I'm going to try using a GRAYL in Nepal next month. I've heard great things so far :)
    [email protected]

  • Janine said

    I love travelling to the poorer countries, where most people seem content. It is so sad that they aspire to be like us and have embraced the plastic bag. The locals are shocked when I refuse a bag offered to me, while shopping. They look very confused when I tell them why. Responsible travellers needed!

  • Tman said

    Essentially zero plastic is recycled in the developing world. A relatively developed country, Mexico recycles 5% of plastic, 2% in Turkey according to the OECD.

    Travelers can and must make an effort to go zero-plastic waste when they travel. Bring a water purifier, eat fresh foods (not packaged), reject straws and plastic bags... and carry a small trash bag so you can bring home the plastic waste you do create.

    It starts w/ us, people...

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