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Last year I re-dubbed Earth Day to it’s more statistically appropriate moniker of Ocean Day — after all, 70% of the planet’s surface is water! — and made a few simple pledges. This year I’m back trying to use this day to pause and reflect on how I can be more ecologically conscious in my travels. It is something that is in my thoughts year-round but that I often stumble in my attempts to do right by. Today I’ll start by sharing a few products I feel should be in every traveler’s bag!

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1. A Reusable Shopping Bag

Last year I pledged to stop using single-use plastics, and plastic shopping bags make up a huge portion of offenders. I admit that with time my resolve has weakened from its previous vigilance (I once realized while checking out at the grocery store that I forgot my canvas tote and proceeded to have the bemused cashier pile my items into an eyeball-level pile in my arms rather than take plastic), though I’m hoping that writing this post will snap me back on track.

When packing for my current jaunt around Southeast Asia, I made sure to pack both a rip-stop nylon oversized shoulder bag and a black canvas tote to alternate between. Both are large enough to stuff little purchases throughout the day in, so that I’m always able to request no plastic. Wanderland Totes are compact, cheap and stylish — be sure to throw one into your backpack before leaving on a journey!

2. Steripen

Steripen for TravelThe SteriPEN Handheld UV Water Purifier was my great experiment for this trip — and it’s had mixed results. On previous trips to Southeast Asia I’ve been crushed by guilt over the amount of plastic water bottles I’ve used, so for Christmas I requested this handheld UV water sterilizer. It works like this: I fill up my reusable bottle with tap water which would typically be un-drinkable, and then turn on the Steripen and stir the water with it for 90 seconds. And via some sort of voodoo science-y magic, the water becomes safe to drink!

The benefits are obvious — less plastic use, can be used to replenish water supplies on long hikes, and over time, a financial savings (I never drink bottled water stateside, so I find it quite painful to pay for when traveling!) However, after only a few days I admit that I found the process to be quite laborious and irritating, and I missed having ice-cold water on demand. For the first two days I used it I did have a queasy stomach, though I think in the long run I would actually put this in the benefits column because I think it boosted my immunity — I’ve sipped water straight from the tap occasionally since and been fine. In conclusion, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks and I’m really happy to have access now to clean drinking water from the tap!

Unfortunately, there are times when the Steripen is simply useless. Here on Gili Trawangan the water coming out of the majority of the taps (and certainly all that I have access to) is brackish water, and no amount of sterilization will make that drinkeable. So here I utilize water refill stations whenever possible as compensation.

Update: Read more about other portable water purification systems I’ve tried here.

3. Earth-friendly Products

Sunbum SunscreenLast year I watched Earthlings for the first time and it solidified my decision that I would never again buy a dog (and only adopt instead). This year I watched it for the second time, and decided that I’m going to eliminate products that are tested on animals from my life. I better be careful — watch it too many times and I might become a vegan!

I was surprised to find how easy of a transition this will be for me. For example, I didn’t even realize that my favorite brand of sunscreen is free of both animal cruelty and of CFCs — the harmful toxin in many aerosols. For this trip I packed two Sun Bum Continuous Spray Sunscreens, a Sun Bum Face Stick, and Sun Bum SPF Lip Balm. (Note that I’m not affiliated with Sun Bum whatsoever, I just love their product and want to share!) They are slightly more expensive than other similar products, but for me it’s a small price to pay for something that gives me a clear conscious and makes me smile every time I use it.

Unfortunately, when traveling abroad it can be difficult to find familiar earth-friends brands. While it might make for a sightlier heavier backpack at the beginning, I advocate stocking up on products that are important to you before leaving home. The free PETA shopping guide can help you decipher the products on your shelves!

4. Collapsible Tupperware / Reusable Snack Bags

Lunch SkinsThis is actually an item that I do not have with me on this trip — and it’s killing me. My friend Wes was the first to give me the idea to bring tupperware along when traveling for the inevitable takeaway meals. All that styrofoam makes me want to cry! But what an awkward thing to pack, I thought. Then I found collapsible tupperware! Every time I get takeaway (which is pretty often) I think of the elusive collapsible tupperware and dream about the day that I have a set tucked away in my backpack at all times. I did pack a thick plastic spork on this trip, but it recently broke — well, there’s always room for improvement. I was also recently alerted to a new product called Lunch Skins which hopefully will someday make plastic snack and sandwich baggies obsolete. These would be great for travelers to bring along for trips to the market and picnic lunches.

5. A Loud Voice!

If you’re walking down the street and a restaurant tout tries to draw you into an establishment serving shark, tell them why you’re going to keep walking. If your tour operator uses re-usable containers rather than styrofoam when serving lunch, tell them how happy that makes you. If we can show those working in the travel and hospitality industries that caring about the environment is not only the right thing to do, it also affects their bottom line… that is where real change happens.

Now… I want to hear from you! What steps do you take to be an eco-consious traveler? I’m always looking for ways to be greener! Leave your tips in the comments below.

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47 Comments...
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    April 22 2013

    We picked up a SteriPen prior to leaving on our trip as well and have found ourselves similarly ambivalent about it. For us, the biggest problem we have found is that we have to take the batteries out of it whenever we are not using it because otherwise it drains them insanely fast (nowhere near the 100+ purifications it claimed) even if it was sitting in our bag not being used. Plus, as you say, it kind of sucks not being able to actually have cold water, and I always feel a little bit leery of the water we “make”, like I can’t fully trust I am not going to wind up violently ill. We have certainly used it, but we also still wind up buying big bottles of water and tend to use it more as a backup…
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..That Time I Almost Died in Cagayan De Oro

    • Alex
      April 23 2013

      I definitely trust the Steripen and happily drink all water from it… though I admit that I am a bit lax about these things ha! The battery point is a good one though and as they are slightly irregular sizes they can be hard to find in remote areas.

  • memographer
    April 22 2013

    Mother-Earth will not forget you, Alex 😉
    Regarding #2. I bring with me Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets. 1 tablet per quart of water destroys viruses and bacteria in 15 min Giardia in 30 min and Cryptosporidium in 4 hrs.

    Plastic bottles and bags are the worst! They should stop producing them. One day they will.
    memographer recently posted..Machu Picchu – The Lost City of The Incas

    • Alex
      April 23 2013

      I’ve heard those tablets taste funny… do you find they have an aftertaste?

  • Olivia
    April 22 2013

    “I think of the elusive collapsible tupperware and dream about the day that I have a set tucked away in my backpack at all times.”

    Who knew I could make my sister’s dreams come true for $12.99 at the container store!

    • Alex
      April 23 2013

      I loved waking up to this… make my dreams come true!

  • Awesome tips girl!

  • Gaelyn
    April 22 2013

    I wondered about the SteriPen. Thank goodness I could drink the tap water in South Africa so I only bought one bottle of water and reused the bottle. And like Asia, I carried a large bag for groceries. Well usually. Otherwise like you I carried them out in my arms. 🙂
    Gaelyn recently posted..Celebrate Earth Day 2013

    • Alex
      April 23 2013

      I didn’t realize you can drink the tap water in South Africa… that’s amazing!

  • Margaret
    April 23 2013

    OK, so sorta, kinda, not really along these lines is that with my running, I’ve been training with a water bottle (It actually takes a lot of getting used to). Ive invested in both the hand held and belt hydration pack. Why run with sloshing water attached to your body? Because the amount of Dixie cups that I see littering a race course after each water stop is obnoxious. Not only wasteful of materials, but also the volunteers time since they then have to pick up the far and widely dropped cups.

    • Alex
      April 24 2013

      That’s really cool Margaret! I will have to look into this because even though I’m not really running races I’m ALWAYS thirsty when I run. Way to be an eco-runner 🙂

  • Caty
    April 25 2013

    I also always drink tapwater when it’s safe to so. In the village where I lived in Sri Lanka it was safe to drink the tapwater.So we had one bottle that we always refilled. (funny thing is my lonely planet adviced not to use tapwater there, but I never got sick from it) And for take-out Sri Lankans reuse school papers. So when you buy a road side snack you can also check someone elses homework. It’s quite entertaining. Bigger food items are wrapped in newspapers. So I’d say it is quite the eco-friendly country even though they still have lots of issues recycling wise to work on

    • Alex
      April 26 2013

      That’s really encouraging to hear Caty! They seem to have similar take out system here on Gili Trawangan where everything is either wrapped in brown kraft paper or put in paper boxes. Much better!

  • Raymond @ Man On The Lam
    April 28 2013

    Hmmm…I will have to look into the collapsible tupperware — I’m a big fan of leftovers! 🙂

    • Alex
      April 28 2013

      That would require me to leave something on my plate… a true rarity! 🙂

  • Ayngelina
    April 28 2013

    I travel with a steripen as well. I drink far too much water and could not bear to leave behind all those plastic bottles.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Dolled up for roller derby

    • Alex
      April 28 2013

      Yeah, as I mentioned I can’t use it right now due to the brackish water and it’s breaking my heart. I try to do refills whenever possible but ugh.

  • Emily in Chile
    April 28 2013

    I always feel so bad when I buy a bottle of water in the airport after security. I wish more airports would have good-tasting water fountains – airport bathroom tap water never tastes good enough to make me want to fill up a reusable water bottle.
    Emily in Chile recently posted..The Cathedral of Christ the Savior

    • Alex
      May 1 2013

      I hate that we still have to dump liquids out when going through airport security! I always end up standing there basically waterboarding myself because I can never seem to remember that rule. Ugh.

  • I’ve never heard of collapsible Tupperware, what a cool idea. Now to find it and room in my bag.
    Pete @ HeckticTravels.com recently posted..Do It Yourself, Turkish Food – Part Three

    • Alex
      May 1 2013

      That’s the best part… it collapses! Won’t take up too much space 🙂

  • OCDemon
    April 29 2013

    Speaking of water purification, check out the Lifesaver Bottle. It’s an all-in-one water purifier inside a water bottle that turns any water into clean drinking water, even filtering viruses. It’s $150-180 but extremely cost effective (I did the math and it’s comparable to the Steripen). You can get replacement parts, too.

    For a cheaper version check out the Katadyn MyBottle. It’s only $50-60 or so, but it needs replacement iodine cartridges and is not nearly as cost effective as the Lifesaver, but not bad for shorter trips.
    OCDemon recently posted..Every water bottle on the planet is stupid

    • Alex
      May 1 2013

      I’m so glad for these recommendations! Based on my experiences with the Steripen I’ve been wanting to look into the water bottle filtration but didn’t have any brand names. Will definitely look into these, thanks!

  • Abby
    April 29 2013

    After living in Costa Rica, where you can drink the water and there is no mail, I still find it devastating sometimes back in the US. The junk mail alone KILLS me. We have free bottles of water at my office, and I admit that my canvas grocery bag sits in my car virtually unused. But I do re-use everything. I never take a new water bottle until I’ve reused mine many times. I juice in the morning or make my greens, and keep it my plastic bottle of the week where I can keep shaking it up. I never buy plastic bags for my dogs, instead reusing my grocery bags, which I also use to bring my lunch to work. Now I am back in CR and reading your post — and wondering if there is more I can do. Just being able to throw food waste outside for the animals makes me sad I can’t do that in Vegas. I HATE filling up my trash with it! But if you try to eat mostly “real” whole food, it invariably goes bad. Ahhh!!! It never ends!!
    Abby recently posted..Living in Las Vegas

    • Alex
      May 1 2013

      I don’t think much about the junk mail thing anymore as I’m traveling and don’t have a mailbox, but wow you are right I remember what a problem that is! I think as long as we are always trying to be better…. then that is the goal (rather than perfection :))

  • Brooke of Passport Couture
    October 24 2015

    I’m definitely all over that collapsible tupperware! Thanks for the great suggestion. As a supporter of sustainability in travel and fashion, I’m finding out ways I can travel with ecotourism in mind. One thing that’s helped is remembering to bring my own utensils, if possible, rather than always using plastic. And, as you mentioned, bringing reusable bags goes a long way!
    Brooke of Passport Couture recently posted..Friday Afternoon At Chicago Botanic Garden

    • Alex
      October 25 2015

      Definitely. I have a tiny little fork and spoon that snap together and come everywhere with me. Makes it easy to turn down utensils!

  • Norm Brown
    October 28 2015

    Ditch the all plastics on your trip. That includes disposable water bottles, utensils, etc…
    Norm Brown recently posted..Basics of Essential Oil.

    • Alex
      October 30 2015

      Agreed! Lots of the items listed in this post can help you do that.

  • Lives Green
    April 3 2016

    I can relate to this. Whenever I travel, I make sure everything in my luggage is eco-friendly, even the things I use when I have my period. Menstrual cups are never absent in my luggage!

    • Alex
      April 6 2016

      I haven’t switched over yet though I do intend to give them a try eventually — I use applicator-less OB tampons at the moment and have such a light period (TMI, anyone?) that a box lasts me for months.

  • Shivya
    April 27 2016

    Wow, super packing list. The items listed here are so simple yet so useful. I think ever ecotraveler must follow this post 🙂

    • Alex
      April 28 2016

      Thanks Shivya! Much appreciated!

  • Claire
    May 5 2016

    This is a lovely little post! I’m intrigued about the water purifier – how do you know if water is absolutely not safe to drink? I really want to get one but I know I’d be paranoid! Sharing the post on twitter 🙂

    • Alex
      May 7 2016

      Hey Claire! I wrote a more in depth post you can read here: https://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/12/10/steripen-vs-clearly-filtered-review/ I’ve converted dozens of friends to these methods and we’ve never gotten sick! I trust that the scientists that create these products are major smarty pants and I just put my faith in them 🙂 It’s served me well for a couple years now traveling through Asia, Central America, Europe and beyond!

  • Christina
    May 14 2016

    Great post! A lot of great ideas I am looking forward to trying, especially #5 🙂

    I use Sunbum regularly, but when I travel to areas with coral reefs, I pack a sunscreen without oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate, or 4MBC. These ingredients have been in a few studies lately showing that they bleach and damage coral reefs so I switch to a water-resistant zinc-based sunscreen to be safe.

    (one source here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291018/)

    • Alex
      May 18 2016

      Thanks for the info Christina — I wrote in another post recently that I’m going to work on testing some reef safe sunscreens and reviewing them this summer. Any recommendations for brands?

      • Christina
        May 18 2016

        That would be cool! Currently using SaltLife. I haven’t found one yet that avoids the pinkish skin tint issue, but I’ve heard good things about Badger’s sunscreens?

        • Alex
          May 20 2016

          Thanks for the tips! I’ll add them to the list! Using a rashguard can also be super effective and chemical free — though obviously not totally foolproof.

  • Susan Morrow
    June 7 2016

    Thank you for this! I have been struggling with overpacking for years. I’m going to use this list as a guideline for my next trip!

    • Alex
      June 10 2016

      I’m a tragic overpacker. One of these days I hope to learn!

  • Sandy
    January 29 2018

    I really want to minimize my plastic use and plastic bags and bottles are my first goal to tackle. I have gotten a lot better with bottles as I usually just tote a reusable water bottle around with me but I always seem to forget to grab my totes at the front door when I go grocery shopping. You’ve inspired me to do better Alex!

    • Alex
      February 2 2018

      My mom keeps a bunch in the trunk at all times — such a good idea! As soon as she unloads the groceries, she chucks them right back in the car.

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