So, some of you may know I had amazing intentions of a whole week full of conservation-minded content. Unfortunately, cellular data service and wifi signals in Egypt have both been far weaker and rarer than I prepared for – oops! It’s alright though, every week is Earth Week around Alex in Wanderland — stay tuned for posts on a rundown of my favorite reef-safe sunscreens, a review of a coral propagation course, and how you can green-ify your travel tooth-care routine.
It’s Earth Day, and unlike some other holidays that pop up on the calendar, there are no greeting cards to buy, no flowers to send, and no gifts to feel obligated to buy. Instead, I like to take this day to look around and feel gratitude for this crazy planet I got lucky enough to live on, and try to celebrate small ways we might serve it better.
One of my personal little passion projects is finding fun new ways to reduce my plastic use. What’s so bad about plastic, you ask? Plastic quite literally lasts forever — it never biodegrades, instead, it slowly breaks down into smaller microplastics, making it even easier for it to seep into our food chains and ecosystems. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This isn’t about plastic-free perfection, it’s about always striving to make slightly better choices. Am I missing any ideas from the list below? Let me know in the comments — I learn so much from all of you!
1. Just say no to hotel toiletries
Once upon a time, (ahem, when I was broke AF) I loved raiding hotels for tiny toiletries. These days, I rarely touch them. I mean, I’m not a saint — if I’m staying at a fancy boutique hotel with one of my favorite brands on the sink, you better believe I’m lathering on that tiny lotion. But if it’s anything less than swoon worthy, I leave it.
True, some hotels are starting to recycle donate and up-cycle soaps and toiletry bottles. But there are flaws to that system — sending plastic bottles, wrapped in more plastic, via huge trucks to warehouses and then via more trucks or ships to remote destinations where the plastic bottles end up in landfills and the chemicals end up in rural rivers is far from the greenest choice.
Bring your own solid shampoo and conditioner. It’s a spill-free, plastic-free option! You rub these bars on your head like soap, and they work exactly as effectively as their liquid cousins. Better yet, they tend to last longer, and you won’t have to worry about recycling the bottles when they are finished. Read my full reviews of solid shampoo here and solid conditioner here. No more exploding bottles or tubes in your suitcase! I’ve also recently bought my first solid face wash from Lush in an effort to eliminate the last plastic bottle in my shower, but it’s a little too soon to deliver a verdict.
If I do indulge and use single-use hotel toiletries, I always take them with me and use until they are gone, and make sure any bottles are properly recycled, if possible. And if you stay in a hotel that has dispensers in lieu of individual toiletries, give them some kudos to let them know you care.
Warning — avoiding disposable convenience items will feature heavily on this list!
2. Find a water filtration system
To this day, one of the biggest things that shocks me about the travel industry is how few travelers are using personal water filtration systems that allow you to drink tap water anywhere in the world safely and conveniently. Guys! They save money, they save the planet, and they arguably are healthy for you. If I could convince even a fraction of my blog community to ditch plastic water bottles in favor of one of these methods, I think it would be one of my greatest accomplishments as a blogger.
While I’ve extensively reviewed the Steripen and the Clearly Filtered bottle in the past, I’ve actually recently switched to the Lifestraw bottle and I’m obsessed — so expect a review of that headed your way someday soon.
Only 9.5 percent of the total plastic waste generated in America was recycled in 2014. While that number is increasing every year (yay!) that’s just the USA we’re talking about. A quick glance out the window of a taxi in Cairo suggests Egypt’s figure — along with much of the planet’s — is far lower. Those un-recycled single-use plastics end up in landfills where they take hundreds of years to decompose into micro-plastics, and leak pollutants into the soil and water in the meantime. Just try to find a recycling bin in a remote corner of Peru.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find a recycling facility in your travels, you can’t un-use the staggering amounts of non-renewable energy resources that went into producing and shipping that single-use bottle in the first place.
3. Don’t suck
Just say no to plastic straws — or bring your own reusable version. The vast majority of us don’t use straws to drink water or other beverages at home — so why must we have them when we are out and about? Straws are the worst because they are not recyclable, and Americans alone use 500 million drinking straws every day. Whoa.
If you never know when the need for a mojito may strike, keep your very own set of bamboo straws or steel straws on hand like I do (I tend to bring two or three in case a friend wants to borrow one too). While I found it a challenge to finally nail the habit of requesting “no straw, please” while placing drink orders, I’m pretty much there and while the request isn’t always accommodated (even the concept of reducing plastic use is still foreign in many areas of the world), I know I’m trying.
4. Be a bag lady
Pack a reusable shopping tote to keep on you at all times so you can refuse plastic bags for any and all purchases – or just use the purse or backpack you’re likely already carrying. I try really hard to be zen and not judge anyone who is at a different stage in their path to sustainability than I am, but dang does it burn me to see someone with a daypack on take a plastic bag for their smaller plastic bag of potato chips or whatever. Face palm!
If I forget a bag and buy something a bit too large, I often just walk back to my hotel or my car or whatever with that item in my hands. You might get some strange looks — but they build character 😛
Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and only processed in extremely specialized facilities, meaning that every one that ends up in your hands has a pretty good chance of heading to a landfill or to the ocean. If you do end up with a plastic bag (even I know it’s inevitable sometimes!), stash it to reuse as a garbage bag, for picking up pet waste, or for traveling with wet clothes, etc. If you end up with a big stash, many large grocery chains and retailers like Wal-Mart and Target provide collection bins for clean and dry soft plastics such as grocery bags, newspaper delivery bags, bread and produce bags, and beyond. If you end up with them on the road, stash them in your suitcase until you can recycle at home.
5. Snack smart
If you eat street food and takeaway often on your travels, pack a cutlery set, reusable snack bags, and collapsible tupperware along with you. I keep my cutlery on me at all times – you never know when you’ll need a snack! – and bring my tupperware when I know I’m picking up takeaway for a night of catching up on work in my hotel room.
Like reusable straws, these items tend to invite plenty of giggles and conversations with locals in remote destinations — it’s fun!
6. Pimp your teeth
Ready to really rid your toiletry bag of plastic? Consider swapping to toothpaste tabs and bamboo toothbrushes. I’ve got a full-blown review of Bite Toothpaste Bits in the pipeline, but in the meantime, here’s the scratch on these organic, cruelty-free and plant-based toothpaste bites in plastic-free packaging.
Bite Toothpaste Bits are a small passion project started by my fantastic friend Lindsay in Los Angeles, who constantly inspires me to live a little greener! Bites are simple to use — just wet your toothbrush, pop a Bite on, and brush as usual.
The average American will throw away 300 toothbrushes in their lifetime — over 850 million toothbrushes are discarded and end up in landfill every single year in the US alone! Pair with a bamboo toothbrush and a steel tongue scraper for a stylish teeth cleaning kit that puts less chemicals in our bodies and less plastic in our landfills.
7. Ditch tampons, period
Ladies, this one is for you! And as the average woman uses roughly 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, it isn’t a trivial one.
I’m going to get real frank up in this end-of-the-list item. Thanks to my IUD birth control implant, I haven’t had a period in years. But prior to getting an IUD (which, for the record, I find to be the most travel-friendly birth control on the planet), I long ago moved away from the plastic-fest that is applicator tampons. For years, I was wildly loyal to o.b. applicator-free tampons, which my British friends raved about but have only recently seemed to gain any popularity in the US. They are teeny tiny, thus perfect for trace, and produce almost no plastic waste (they are wrapped, unfortunately, in a thin layer of cellophane, and of course, there is the waste of the tampon itself.)
So, right before getting my IUD in, I decided to finally try the silicone menstrual cups my readers had been telling me about for years. I was thrilled when it arrived but my timing was off — I haven’t had a period since. Whoops! Regardless, my friends who use them are obsessed, and there isn’t a greener period management solution on the planet.
If you simply can’t fathom the idea of going applicator-free, getting an IUD or switching to a menstrual cup, consider testing out the new re-usable applicators that have recently hit the market.
8. Speak Up
Honestly, this is what I struggle with the most on this list. While reducing my plastic use has been an eye-opening, rewarding and overwhelmingly positive experience, I sometimes struggle to share it with those closest to me for fear of seeming preachy or judgemental.
When I see a close friend or family member making a convenience choice that I don’t agree with, I often struggle because on one hand it feels like it’s about something bigger than the two of us or our feelings — but on the other hand I’m so conditioned to be polite and not offend, it can be hard to force myself to broach the subject.
Think about ways you can keep conversations light, friendly, and non-judgemental. In the market trying to do a big shop for a group trip and see a friend reaching for styrofoam? “You know, it really hurts my heart to think of these plastic plates going in a landfill — I’d be happy to be in charge of all dishwashing if you guys don’t mind us skipping the disposables for this camping trip.” Notice that when you visit your amazing little sister, she’s using plastic straws in all her morning smoothies? Send her a cutely wrapped gift of a set of steel, glass and bamboo straws with a lighthearted note about trying them all. Notice a friend about to accept a plastic bag for something that would easily fit in your tote or purse? Jump in and generously offer to carry it for them without further comment.
Okay, so now I’m super excited to hear your ideas! Tell me about the ways you’re going plastic free in your life and travels!
Not sure if you have this already and I just couldn’t find it, but would be great to have a category on your homepage like confessions, destinations etc that’s all about sustainable travel so these tips, reviews, and such are all in one place!
Hey Anne! I actually do have a section for Responsible Travel, which is under the “arrivals” tab on my top-level navigation 🙂 So glad you enjoy these posts!
This is awesome! Thanks for sharing. You are really going for it–I feel inspired to do better.
Thank you Alexa! I am always feeling inspired by the places I go and the people around me to be greener. Glad to hear it’s mutual 🙂
I am one of those readers of yours that obsessively reads all your posts (I actually went back to the very beginning and only just got back to Page 1) but never comments.
But I really want to say a massive thank you to you for putting these ideas out there. I was already trying to reduce my use of single use plastics but had never really thought about plastic straws until I read one of your previous blog posts that mentioned it. I am now in the phase of trying to make it a habit to ask for no straw. It’s hard to remember but I’m working on it.
One thing I found recently that I love (that will apply more to people at home) are little mesh bags for your vegetables at the grocery store. I’ve been bringing my own large reusable bags for years but would still find myself utilizing those little plastic bags in the produce section on occasion. Now I have reusable mesh bags for those occasions and have got my Mom and cousins on board too after they saw me with them at Christmas.
Love your blog and love all of your ideas!
Aw, thank you Rae! The straws is a tough switch to make, I guess because you probably don’t normally see it until its too late (since drinks are usually prepared out-of-sight). I am planning to get some of those mesh produce bags this summer when I’m in the states — I’ve seen them on Amazon, such a good idea! Maybe I’ll gift a bunch for Christmas!
3 words…biodegradable trash bags.
Trash bags weren’t something I thought of as a significant source of plastic waste, until I saw these babies in the store and had a “oh, duuuh” moment.
I did a bit of research into those a while back, and because of the ways most landfills “seal” the garbage, the biodegradable bags don’t actually break down. So it costs more for basically the same thing as a regular plastic bag–unfortunately. Though maybe they do work in some places, I think they’re mostly a feel good product rather than a solution.
Interesting thoughts on biodegradeable garbage bags! I actually was thinking about them lately when I borrowed one from a bar to do a beach cleanup. I actually don’t buy trash bags… I live alone and don’t produce too much garbage so I just use whatever little plastic bags I can’t avoid (food delivery, etc) But I don’t think that’s a working solution for most people.
Andria, is there a better alternative you’ve found?
Nope! I’ve gone the same route as you–just trying to make a lot less trash. I have a compost service that picks up at my house e/o week, so between my husband and I, we only have to take out the trash once a week at most (and I’m working on cutting that down too).
That’s awesome! I think composting is going to be one of my next big projects… my mom did it at our house when I was growing up, so I don’t know why I haven’t carried on the tradition!
The usual… reusable water bottles, canvas grocery bags, etc. More recently, when our family expanded, we asked for hand-me-downs rather than buying anything new, especially plastic stuff (toys, high chair, nursery accessories, etc). We got a lot of weird responses to that – some people seemed almost offended that we weren’t buying our kid everything brand-spankin’-new! But we’ve felt really good about reusing rather than being one-time users of all the plastic baby stuff that’s out there! Great post – intrigued by the toothpaste!
That is awesome! I wish more new parents would do the same
I can imagine that some people would be odd about that — good for you for sticking to your guns. I agree with Jen, more parents should follow suit! Plus, it’s nice to think of families and friends sharing all those good baby vibes down the years 🙂
This is so inspiring! I love that you are doing your best to be sustainable and protect this beautiful planet. I definitely try to do my part as well and hope to learn from you.
Thank you Riley! Love that you guys loved this post — going to keep cranking out content on this topic for sure!
Not plastic reduction, but I love composting. Why put it in a landfill when it can naturally break down & feed the Earth? Also menstrual cups are sooooo superior to tampons!! They don’t bleed through, less costly, no trash, more comfortable.
I would loooove to compost. Actually just before I left Thailand this year I chatted to one of my friends who does it there in an apartment and just puts the compost under wild fruit trees…. she inspired me, I think I’m going to try it! I didn’t really imagine it was possible with apartment living in Thailand before!
Yesss! I love to compost. You can do it differently depending o where you live. When I lived in England, I could just dig a hole in the backyard. Staying in an apartment in LA though, I had compost bins and kept them on the balcony. If you drill holes into a big bin, you can keep adding to it (by creating layers of fruit&veg compost, dirt, dried leaves, and water occasionally. Stir a bit) There’s virtually no foul smell if you do it right, though expect some odd insects in there, and the occasional cute baby plants growing!
Hey Nicole, this is awesome! I’m definitely curious to start composting. I’ll have to read up about doing so in Upstate New York because I’m assuming the winter temps would be somewhat of an obstacle. We have a great local CSA that does workshops, I’m guessing they’ll do one on composting eventually.
‘Love the post Alex.
I live in Germany. Recycling is taken seriously over here!
I really like your last point about how to get your views across without seeming preachy. “Notice a friend about to accept a plastic bag for something that would easily fit in your tote or purse? Jump in and generously offer to carry it for them without further comment.”
Yep! A positive attitude goes far further than “You’re an idiot. Don’t do it!”
Putting people on the defensive never works! There are definitely ways to spread knowledge that don’t shame people for what they didn’t know or understand before.
Americans user 500 millions straws a day?? That is like 1.5 straws A PERSON. How is that even possible??
Actually I’m kind of surprised it isn’t more. Every time you eat a restaurant meal you’re pretty much guaranteed two straws (one in water, one in another beverage) if you don’t beg them not to. Add in night out drinking cocktails, plus take-away sodas, iced coffees, iced teas… not to mention those that use them at home!
Thank you for pushing me to be a better Earthling!
I have some ideas for you this summer 😉
Alex, these green lists are so good! You’ve reminded me I need to be better about bringing my own cutlery. All I’ve had for years is one sad spork that really isn’t fun to eat with which probably explains why I never pack it. I need to invest in a good travel cutlery set.
You or may not know that a plastic revolution is suddenly underway in the UK after an episode of Blue Planet covered the issue & woke up the nation. I am hearing things from ordinary people, government & even the royals that I hoped but never dreamed would come to pass in my lifetime. The Queen banning plastic from all royal properties. My neighbourhood building refillable water stations to discourage plastic bottles. My boss – who didn’t even have recycling when I first started 2 years ago – banning plastic bottles from the office and buying everyone hip Swell bottles instead and the UK government announcing a ban on plastic straws & drink stirrers. Obviously I’m thrilled by all of this positive action. On the other I’m like, I can’t believe this is only just starting to happen now. Jesus, where has everyone been?!
Also I total relate to struggling with seeming preachy/judge-y. Knowing when to speak up and when to bite my tongue and how to deliver this information with the right amount of humour, humility and goodwill is a work in progress for me for sure.
This is so incredible! People really are waking up… love your boss’s Swell bottle swag 🙂 And oh my gosh Mary that would kill me! Is it because they don’t trust people to wash up after themselves?
Great post! Where do you get your bamboo toothbrushes? Thanks!
Hey Kara! In the states I order them online and on Koh Tao I buy them at an organic shop called May + Co!
I like the idea of reusable straws, but cleaning them can be so difficult! How do you keep yours clean?
They usually come with a skinny cleaning brush–it couldn’t be easier!
What Andria said, Allie! They always come with a little pipe cleaner 🙂 You can get cute little cases but I’m a dirtbag and just throw them in my purse. Lol.
Like you I have been period free due to an IUD but a recent replacement has left my body settling down again. Reusable/washable pads have been my saviour (no tampons after IUD fitting due to infection risks). Hopefully I won’t be needing them much longer but recommend for those who don’t like the idea of the cups.
I’ve heard of those but never actually talked to anyone who uses them. Do you throw them in the machine or hand wash? Also, not sure if I knew that about tampons and IUDS…. the more you know! Zoink!
I was told to avoid tampons for the first 3 months after fitting but i’d never been told that before. I just throw the pads in the wash with everything else, if they are ‘messy’ I rinse with cold water after use. They dry overnight. You could also handwash. I found out loads on the zero waste groups on facebook. I do the same thing with reusable face pads (dramatically cut down on cotton wool pads). Every bit helps as sadly i am not zero waste.
Egypt looks amazing! looking forward to the blogs about it.
Cool, Abi! Thanks for sharing! Definitely something I would consider in the future if I had a home base and a period again 🙂
Great post! These little changes definitely add up.
I agree! And they are infectious… some of these things look weird at first but they spark conversation and change!
Oh man, the speaking up can be really hard – I get teased a lot about being a tree hugger (is that supposed to be an insult? trees are great!) when I try to encourage or even just model earth-friendly behaviors.
I love that you write about this, and am committing to getting a Life Straw bottle before I go to Ghana for 6 months this year! My plastic use always goes up a ton when I’m there for water consumption, so this will help a ton! I also just got my first set of bamboo tooth brushes, AND my first reusable dental floss! https://www.dentallace.com/
Ummmmm I floss so embarrassingly little I’ve been working my way through the same massive Sam’s Club portion of plastic tooth pick-style ones for years. I’m sadly addicted to them but have already vowed I can’t buy them again, it’s ridiculous given my beliefs. So thank you for the recommendation, I’ll try making the switch to this when I’m ready to restock!
Alex, this is a fabulous post and from the comments of other readers it is resonating. Keep up this kind of posting. It has great impact and contributes to the greater awareness of what everyone can do.Tom and I have tried to make a point to refuse plastic straws when ordering drinks and water in restaurants and more conscious of our plastic use in general (as well as water here in SoCal).
Finally got into your Instagram pics from Egypt. Tucker wants to know if you are bringing the Camel home with you. He thinks he would be fun to hang out with.
Glad to hear you guys are cutting down on plastic! Excited to see it for myself soon when I VISIT! (Yayyyy!) Tell Tucker camels are pretty grumpy and I’ve yet to win one over, despite my best efforts. Which, come to think of it, feels like they’d probably get along quite well…
Oh and as for the water, after living in countries where fresh water is a precious commodity, it always strikes me now (mostly on the East Coast) to go to restaurants with a group, and the waiter brings water and no one touches them and just leaves the table with like half a gallon of beautiful drinking water just sitting there. Some of those waiters are so eager to refill your glass after a single sip I have to have cat-like reflexes to catch them and stop them from refilling when I know I’m getting full and won’t be able to drink anymore. I can’t stand to waste clean drinking water now that I view it as such a precious commodity! I like that you have to request it in California.
Very helpful tips. I am trying to be more eco-friendly but I know I have a lot of room for improvement. I already travel with a reusable water bottle and shopping tote but bringing my own straw is a great idea.
If you’re used to carrying some reusable things, you’re already half way there! Straws is a tough one to switch to for some reason, but once you start, you’ll feel so good every time you use a steel one! (Or whatever material you choose.)