Avoiding single-use plastics like bottles and bags is hard enough at home, and can be especially difficult while traveling. When you’re on the go and trying to pack light, it’s easy to grab a plastic-wrapped sandwich and bottle of water. But eliminating single-use plastics on a trip might be easier than you think—even in a foreign country without potable water.
I took on this challenge in Belize, a country that is no stranger to ecotourism. Its government recently announced a ban on major single-use plastics like bags and straws to go into effect by Earth Day 2019. And UNESCO has removed the Belize Barrier Reef from its list of World Heritage in Danger, after years of efforts to restore the reef’s long-term health.
The green mindset reaches local scales, too: I loved visiting smaller cities like Punta Gorda, where a glass soda bottle is cheaper than a plastic one, because the glass bottles can be sanitized and reused.
South Africa: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve
Imagine if every foot of coastline around the world was stacked with five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash. That’s the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans each year. This visual is staggering.
Single-use plastics include plastic bags, to-go containers and cutlery, straws, those tiny shampoo bottles at hotels, plastic water bottles, plastic cups, and the packaging on pretty much anything edible in an airport. How can you explore the rivers, jungles, and islands of a country without using any of these items?
I took a nine-day trip to attempt just that. After planning ahead—and lots of learning on the go—I’ve got some tips to help you get going.
The Tool Kit. Reducing waste takes a bit of preparation, but not much. Though every trip is different, here’s what I packed for Belize: a reusable grocery bag, collapsible food container, bar soap and bar shampoo, bamboo utensils, a glass straw, two reusable water bottles, and a SteriPen to purify water on the go.
Two Bottles Are Better Than One. I’ve never thought to pack two water bottles on a trip. If you have a backpack with a bottle holder on each side, it’s super easy, and it’s helpful for long day trips. And for shorter trips, the smaller, sleeker bottle fit right in my purse.
Collapsible Food Containers Are Underrated. These containers, which fold flat when not in use, came in handy a lot more than I thought they would. Packing three sizes let me keep one filled with trail mix—a handy snack throughout the entire trip—and use the others for leftovers or mini-meals.
• SAVED: 79 pieces of single-use plastic, an average of 8.8 a day
• USED: 2 straws
• UNAVOIDABLE USES: 4 things I couldn’t avoid without considerable effort: Daily contacts for 3 days, wrapper on reef-safe sunblock, 1 decongestant pack, luggage tags
• WHAT I GAVE UP: 5 things I had to give up: A cup of fresh mango juice, bottle of lime soda, bag of nuts, airplane snacks, ice cream samples
You Have to Ask. Carrying a straw—or food container, or a bag—isn’t helpful if you don’t say “No straw please” or “I have my own bag, thanks!” or “Do you mind putting that fresh shrimp in my container?” Sometimes you’ll get a weird look. That’s OK. Sometimes you’ll influence the person sitting next to you or working behind the counter.
At one eatery, when I asked for no straw, the person said, “You know, we’ve been meaning to find a way to cut back on straws. What are some alternatives?” Perhaps if we make this request enough times, eateries will stop providing straws by default.
A Little Planning Goes a Long Way! I spent a lot of time thinking, planning, even obsessing over the tools I’d need for situation I might find myself in. At the end of the trip, nine small items and a little thoughtfulness helped me avoid using 79 single-use plastics!
- Nat Geo Expeditions
You Don’t Always Need Tools. You can avoid some single-use plastics without replacing them. One afternoon at an ice cream shop, I had to pass on getting samples that came on plastic spoons. But by choosing a cone instead of a cup, I could enjoy a delicious ice cream break, plastic free.
You Aren’t Perfect. Before taking on this pledge, I felt paralyzed by how overwhelming the process seemed—it can discourage you from doing anything at all. But doing something is better than doing nothing. Even helping a little bit—passing on airplane pretzels or filling your water bottle before you leave the house—makes a difference. I ended up using two plastic straws on this trip because, while arguably the most avoidable single-use plastics, they often come by default at restaurants. But overall, I felt good about how much I saved.
Taking on this challenge on a weeklong vacation can feel like a more manageable start than overhauling your lifestyle—and you may even find yourself a changed person once you get back home.