How Can We Reduce Our Plastic Footprint Whilst Travelling?

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and the world slowly opening up again, more and more of us will be travelling farther afield this holiday period and taking a much needed vacation. I know a vacation is a time to relax but unfortunately it seems that tourism is a driving factor in the increase of plastic pollution. The UN Environment Programme reported that larger amounts of plastic waste are collected during peak tourism times; in 2019 plastic waste in the Mediterranean increased by up to 30% in the summer months, correlating with tourism seasonality. So whether you are staying on home soil or travelling to far away lands, let’s look at the ways we can reduce our plastic footprint when we hit the road.

  1. No More Miniatures

There is something about miniature things that really resonates with us humans, unfortunately this includes miniature travel products. I get it, they are a great space saver for short trips and really convenient if you’re taking carry-on baggage on a plane. But did you know that travel miniatures contribute to 980.8 tonnes of plastic waste every year, that’s equivalent to two-and-a-half Boeing 747s! Even though these smaller bottles are made from a smaller amount of plastic, the ratio of plastic to liquid in them is much much higher than compared to their standard size counterparts. In other words they actually have a higher proportion of plastic than the regular sized bottles. So let’s ditch the miniatures! There are so many travel sized alternatives on the market. Ideally you should be looking for reusable travel sized bottles in glass or aluminium, both are 100% percent recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely. If these aren’t available to you look for products that are made of recyclable or plant based materials, or branch out and take a look at solid products. Now I know a bar of soap springs to mind here, but the world has come so far from just offering soap as a solid product. You can find hair products, cleansers, moisturisers and so much more, all in solid form. In addition to being a great space saver you can cut your plastic consumption by 100% with solid products as most of them come in zero waste packaging. Win win.

2. Plastic Alternatives for Airport Security Bags

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This one is for the jet setters among us. Reducing our plastic consumption can prove tricky in some situations, for example flying. We are allowed a single one litre (1 quart) clear, closed, resealable bag for liquids in our carry-on baggage. Because these little plastic bags are so readily available at the airport, it seems convenience is the driving factor behind millions of them being used every year. If you’ve kept your very first security bag and have continued to use it to this day then good on you, but let’s be realistic that’s probably not the case. Most of us will need to source a more sustainable option. Some airports are actually trying to make a difference; Stansted Airport in the UK became the first major UK airport to trial the use of fully-compostable bags. Let’s hope that this catches on, but in the meantime let’s look at what action we can take. We can follow in Stansted Airports’ steps and look for compostable bags ourselves, there are a number of plant based ziplock bags on the market which comply with the aforementioned rules. The only issue here is that we are unlikely to break our single use habit using these types of products. Some compostables can still take years, decades or even centuries to decompose if they wrongly end up at the landfill (which most things often do!). Even worse, is that many of these new plastics marketed as “compostable”, “bioplastic” or “biodegradable” will not actually degrade without conditions that simply aren’t available in regular municipal waste streams. They require extreme heat, access to microbes as well as specific conditions. If not placed within those conditions, they basically act as regular plastic does in the environment – it breaks down into smaller pieces of plastics over time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome that airports could be introducing compostables but they should still be used as a last resort when we are ill prepared. There are a plethora of reusable options out there made from sustainable materials; from the humble clear carrying case to toiletry bags with detachable see through compartments. There are so many companies that are dedicated to producing environmentally friendly options, we just have to put in a little bit of effort to find them. 

  1. Stop Single Use Beverages

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Whether we’re grabbing a pumpkin spiced latte on the way to the airport or stocking up on bottles of water for a road trip, at some point the majority of us will be grabbing a beverage to go. A humble coffee cup or a water bottle might seem like innocent products to pop in the recycling bin but it can actually be a little more complicated than that.

Let’s start with coffee cups as there is a lot of confusion as to whether they can be recycled. Unfortunately, there is no one answer that fits all for Canada, for example in Vancouver (and many municipalities in BC) take out cups can be recycled but only in the curbside recycling collection program, once they have been emptied and rinsed. Whereas in Winnipeg the same disposable coffee cups are not recyclable. You really have to know the rules of the place you are visiting, home or away, before you can just throw something in the recycling. More often than not, when a non recyclable item is mixed with recyclable this is classed as contamination and the whole bin could be sent to landfill, meaning more coffee cups end up in our oceans.

Water bottles, on the other hand, can be 100% recyclable when made from polyethylene terephthalate or PET, (often seen as the triangle symbol with the number 1) which the majority of plastic bottles are. However with Canadians only recycling 9% of their plastic waste it’s safe to assume that a lot of these bottles are ending up in landfill and in our oceans. They can take up to 450 years to decompose, breaking down into microplastics and having a detrimental effect on marine life and, consequently, us. However, there is a glimpse of hope on the horizon. We are actually starting to see a decline in the amount of this type of waste around our shorelines, now this doesn’t account for what we can’t see in the ocean but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. In 2019 the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found over 17,000 coffee cups and over 26,000 plastic bottles littering our shorelines, that’s a disgusting 43,000+ items just for drinking vessels! However, let’s compare this to 2020‘s stats where only 5,426 coffee cups and 8,216 water bottles were found. Now this is still an unacceptable 13,000+ items but it’s a significant decline and hopefully this continues each year. 

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So how can we reduce these figures even further? It’s pretty simple, stop using single use cups and bottles, use your own reusable ones instead. I’m sure most of us have at least one thermos or flask gathering dust in a cupboard so it’s time to reacquaint yourselves. Even if it’s a bit old school and not made from sustainable materials, rather than buying yourself another to keep on trend, it’s much more environmentally friendly to use what you already have. However, if you are in the market for a reusable cup or bottle there are so many eco-friendly options out there, some will even keep your drink hot or cold for hours, bonus! Every time you reuse your own cup or bottle you are contributing to the declining numbers of waste found in and around our oceans. 

This list is by no means extensive, there are so many ways we can reduce our footprint whilst we travel. These are simply a few of the top culprits that we are all familiar with. 

The tourism industry is an integral part of our economy but our plastic problem can actually have dramatic changes to this industry. If a place becomes too polluted with our trash, not only does it have a negative impact on the environment but it also can have serious detrimental effects on the local economy. It’s so tragically ironic that these communities which actively rely on tourism will suffer because we choose to no longer visit places that are littered with our garbage. So next time you’re getting ready for your trip, whether it’s a long weekend to see the family or an overseas adventure, just take a moment to consider the items that are on your packing list. Think about the impact on the environment that these might have; are there more environmentally friendly items that you could source? ​​If you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to purchase a plastic product, I can’t stress enough the importance of making sure it can be recycled. Even if it can’t be recycled at your destination but it can at home, bring it back with you. This might seem like an inconvenience but at least this way it’s not ending up in our landfills and becoming another problem for our oceans. 

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