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!