How to Use Less Plastic When You Travel

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One of the things that really bugs me about travelling, which has been particularly noticeable in South East Asia and Egypt, is the vast amount of plastic trash that we, the population generate. All countries are guilty but in some places it’s visible everywhere, on roadsides, on beaches and in rivers.

We, as travellers, are in danger of making the plastic problem even worse.

That is not OK.

I think by modelling better behaviours maybe we can get other travellers and locals thinking too.

Be the change you want to see, as the saying goes.

If you’re from one of the many countries where plastic bags have been banned for years, you’ll get a shock when you start exploring the wider world to see plastics handed out with no limitation and littering and dumping being common and obvious.

The mess we make of our planet is far more visible and raw as we travel and I think we should all be doing our best to cut our plastic consumption in any way we can.

Update: This post is a few years old now and it’s been wonderful to see the shift away from plastics in recent years. Thailand is doing a really well at this in particular, from what we’ve seen.

plastic cups plastic straws how to use less
Plastic cups, plastic straws, often plastic cups inside plastic bags, hot drinks and cold. but we can stop this, we can help.

Say No to Plastic Bags

Every time you buy anything in South East Asia, they’ll want to put it in a plastic bag.

It’s unbelievable, quite honestly, and so easy to avoid. Most of us travellers will be carrying our day packs every day, whatever we buy can go in there. We almost never need to accept a plastic bag in a shop. Just say no.

If you’re heading out to a market for a big shop, be prepared, carry a fabric, washable bag that packs small and that you can load up. We used to just put all of our shopping in our bike baskets in Vietnam, it’s easy to do.

reusable shopping bag for travel

Maybe something like this would be handy to pack and could double as a useful beach bag too.

Buy here on Amazon!

Say No to Plastic Straws

Every drink, I’m not joking, every drink, be it in a restaurant or bought from a shop, will come with a straw.

Except beer, but I can’t give the kids beer.

So, I’d guess that my kids would contribute at least 5 plastic straws per day to the plastic straw mountain. And that is a very conservative estimate.

In hot countries we buy them a lot of drinks That’s 1,825 plastic straws per year if we’re in Asia all year. If it’s a bottle with a cap or in a glass we generally say no ( unless the drink arrives with the straw already in residence, which happens) but for cans, yes, you need them. The tops of cans are not clean.

I’ve bought cans with mouse poop on the top often. Did you know that mice constantly dribble urine? It’s not pretty.  And then there are rats. You need a straw for cans.

Something else to think about, the plastic straws that all stores stock are very rarely covered. They’re just as likely to have been visited by flies, mice and rats as the cans.

The reusable straw market has gone crazy lately, with washable, sturdy straws for you to use at home or on the move. Bamboo or steel, look for a travel case of some sort and a little brush for keeping them clean. Maybe, in a few years, everyone will have to carry these and straws and carrier bags will be a thing of the past.


Say NO to Toiletries in Plastic Bottles

solid toiletries for travel
My stash of solid toiletries. Most can be carried wrapped in grease-proof paper and all smell amazing.

I now own solid shampoo, solid conditioner, solid deodorant and solid facial moisturiser/serum. All are from LUSH. Unfortunately, they don’t sell on Amazon, so find your local store and buy yourself some goodies!

Carry Your Cutlery, Refuse Plastic

With a bamboo knife, fork and spoon set like this, not only will you be ready for anything, but you’ll be able to refuse the plastic cutlery every time. Be prepared!

travel cutlery
travel cultery set

Bamboo cutlery in their little bag, be ready for anything!

This set has a bamboo straw too, perfect for solo travellers and backpacking. The cleaning tool is essential, this would make a great gift for somebody going travelling. Buy here!


Do You Need a Water Bottle?

We’ve owned metal Sigg water bottles for decades, as well as wide-mouthed Nalgene bottles and on certain types of trip (trekking for instance) yes, you need them.

This is the brand of steel water bottle we use today, we think they’re good, you can buy them here.

But in all honesty, they are big and bulky to travel with and can be a real nuisance. There has to be a trade-off here, on some trips we take them, on others we don’t.

I like to avoid carrying water whenever possible, I get the kids to drink when we’re at home and wait until we stop for lunch, but some days you just have to carry your own water supply.

A collapsible water bottle could be a handy stand-by, if, like us, you don’t want to carry a conventional water bottle every day.


How to Get Clean Drinking Water Without Buying it in a Bottle

Drinking the tap water generally isn’t the best idea. Even in western Europe, if you’re not used to the local flaura, you can get sick.

I well remember a summer holiday of vomiting in a caravan in France as a child. I’m tougher now, I’ll drink water most anywhere in Europe and some parts of Asia, but mostly, no, we don’t drink the tap water.

In many countries we won’t even clean our teeth with it.

So we’re stuck with buying bottled drinking water, mostly. There are a few ways to get around this.  If you have a re-usable water bottle you can often fill it in a hostel or hotel where they have water purification facilities.

In some countries you can find pure water dispensed on the street. I’ve seen these in Thailand and in Nepal.

In Vietnam we had drinking water on tap in our house rental, that was an absolute God-send and our water bottles were well-used.

Another dodge is to get you drinking water from coffee shops. You rarely need to buy drinking water in a coffee shop, ask for a glass of water and they will give you one.

Our favourite trick lately is just to drop a tiny water purification tab into our Nalgene 1L bottles. That must have saved us hundreds of plastic bottles in the last few months and the tabs were cheap and easy to get in Nepal.

The devices below let you drink from local taps, wells or streams. Check them out!

travel water purifier bottle

I haven’t tried these but I wish I could get my hands on a few! At home in Romania we boil and filter our tap water. One of these would be far simpler and easier.

Coffee Cups

Environmentally aware coffee lovers are taking their own cups to Starbucks these days, but what about on the road?

Can we find room for a full sized cup to take our Americano? Collapsible coffee cups ( which can , of course, be used for any hot or cold drink) are now available too. Knock yourself out with caffeine!

travel coffee cup

Yes, somebody has thought of it. Collapsible coffee/cold drinks cups for travel.  BPA free.

Wet Wipes Aren’t Eco-Friendly. Try These Biodegradeable Wipes Instead

Wet Wipes are a bad habit I got into after having kids. They’re terrible for the planet (they’re plastic). There are alternative products on sale now, for emergency times when you just can’t access water or a cloth. Alternatively, always carry a muslin or scarf. My scarf has a million child-related emergency uses.


More eco-friendly wipes for travel.

Say No to Plastic Toothbrushes

A toothbrush is such a small thing, but think how many there are in the world ( and watch the video at the end of the post to get more of a feel for the consequences of any disposable plastic.)

Everyone is turning to bamboo these days and they are super easy to buy online even if your local supermarket or pharmacy is lagging behind the times.

Again, this is a simple swap and one that could make such a difference to our planet’s plastic burden.

Don’t Accept Plastic Toys and “Free” Gifts

I know it’s hard with little ones but once your kids have reached an age of some reason, just ask them if they want that “free” plastic toy or the junk-filled gift bags that airlines hand out.

Most of this stuff is destined for the bin. Say no and let the gift-givers get the message.

Plastic Water Bottles are the Worst

I hate them, I’m sure you do too and I’m sure we’re just as guilty as the next person of using them.

If you have to use them just do one thing, find a recycling point for them. I thought this video was interesting and really drives the point home. That is all.

Pick Up Whenever You Can

Tangaroa Blue
 A thing we used to do in Australia, get involved in local beach clean ups. Most of it was plastics. It brought the kids’ attention to the problem and gave them good habits, hopefully for life. In Romania we’ve also been out collecting trash dropped by village kids. Easy to organise, kinda fun and it makes such a difference.

Don’t drop it and if you see it, pick it up. Any tiny action, it doesn’t matter how small, can help. We love our planet, that’s why we travel, so let’s all try to be as nice as possible to her. See all of our other travel gear posts via the travel gear tab, top of the page, or check out our options below.

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About the author
Alyson Long
Alyson Long is a British medical scientist who jumped ship to chase dreams. A former Chief Biomedical Scientist at London's West Middlesex Hospital she started in website creation and travel writing in 2011. Alyson is a full-time blogger and travel writer, a published author, and owns several websites. World Travel Family is the biggest. A lifetime of wanderlust and over 6 years of full-time travel, plus a separate 12 month gap year, has given Alyson and the family some travel expert smarts to share with you on this world travel site. Today Alyson still travels extensively to update this site and continue her mission to visit every country, but she's often at home on her farm in Australia.

21 thoughts on “How to Use Less Plastic When You Travel”

  1. These are all great tips! We’re currently in Cape Town and it seems like all the restaurants here are boasting of their non-plastic straw commitment. We either don’t receive a straw, or they have biodegradable or paper straws on offer. There are also bamboo toothbrushes at the registers in the pharmacies/chemists/drug stores. It’s great to see companies doing their part too.

  2. Yes! This has been on mind a lot lately after we have seen the devastating amounts of pollution in South America, especially in Peru. We had made many pledges towards reducing our own footprint before we the left the United States. But, it so difficult traveling. Everything is handed to you in plastic bag. Everything. We watched a documentary the other day about plastic grocery bags and that it takes 20 years before they start to disintegrate. I started crying. We need to spread awareness and I felt that as educated travelers we are dishonoring the planet by not speaking out. We don’t need to be aggressive and flamboyant about it but we can gently spread awareness by opting out of plastic. Ironically, I made this proclamation in the car just YESTERDAY morning. In the afternoon, we went to the local market and were stunned to find Tupperware. It was expensive. It was a sign. $10 for one medium bowl with a lid. We spend on that much on six meals for the family in South America. Yet, I am sure we will have it for 10 years or more. This is how we begin our journey against “disposable” plastic. From now on we will tote this bowl everywhere and when we buy street food or local lunches that are served in plastic and styrofoam we will give them our own bowl. I can’t wait to search for wooden toothbrushes!

    • Since I decided to not accept plastic bags, I haven’t needed one, not even once. A simple, fast, effective saving. It’s so easy and thousands of people like us are doing their best. We can fix this!

  3. I don’t think wealthy, first world people should criticize how the poor live their lives. It’s easy to pick on them for plastic bags. However, if you really wanted to reduce your carbon footprint, why don’t you stop traveling? That has enormous carbon footprint.

    Finally, you aren’t teaching your kids anything if you travel to another country and then criticize them for not having the same values as a first-worlder. Well, yes, you are teaching them something. You are teaching them to be an intolerant, condescending person lacking in empathy.

    When I traveled in Asia, I was struck by how compassionate and forgiving the culture is. Far more than the US. It’s a shame you didn’t point that out to your kids, instead,

    • Criticizing? Who was criticizing? Jeez, we lived in Vietnam for 6 months, without a car, we now live in a 100 year old wooded house in Romania, without a car, without heating and buy all our food from the villagers( and refuse a plastic bag for our home produced bread or tomatoes every time, which makes them laugh, but that’s OK, they’re our friends and neighbours). When we live in London we also do it without a car. We don’t buy stuff we don’t need either. Maybe find out about other people’s carbon footprint before YOU critisise. We’re addressing our fellow travellers here, the people who can and should make an effort to not use plastics. And we’re not American.

  4. Have you come across the Sawyer mini water filter? It looks like a good option and very small, I really like the fact you can squeeze water out for other things which it seems you can’t do with the lifestraw? I would be interested to know if anyone has used one. We’ve spent ages researching different options!!

  5. We hated the amount of plastic water bottles we got through on trips to Asia, but also the trek to buy more in rural areas if we planned badly. We’ve now got a UV water purifier (camelbak) which fits our standard water bottles and I’m definitely a convert. I got back today from a week in Sri Lanka with my mum – we’ve not bought a single plastic bottle all week! ????

    • Well done! It’s VERY tough to totally avoid plastic water bottles. We’re off to Pakistan soon for a big trek and will most certainly be kitted out with every type of water purification tablet and filter bottle. The UV sounds a good idea and portable. Does it add much weight? We previously owned a UV purifier but it was too heavy and bulky for trekking. My husband carries a camelback anyway, so should work.

      • It’s not featherweight, but not a kilo either! I think something like 300g? It’s also fairly compact. I normally leave it in the room so I’m not carrying it all day, and take either 500 or 750ml for the day (I don’t know how you manage all day without water, you must be a camel! But then, I’m a wilting Brit, so the hot weather gets to me). We’re living in Australia for a couple of years, but will then be taking the slow road back to the UK, and the UV gadget will DEFINITELY be on our pack list. It’s worth reading up though – they only work on already clear water, so if you’ll be somewhere with murky water it would need filtering first. But we love ours.

  6. Great Article. We really need to find an alternative for plastics and start using biodegradable products. Even Mt.Everest is covered with waste plastics left by the travelers which makes me feel that there is no place left yet on earth that is covered with trash.Every travelers should take ideas from this blog to minimal the use of plastics.I will surely implement this as well recommend this to other every time they are on a trip.

  7. It’s true about shifting your focus towards refusing and reusing instead of taking everything you can get and hoarding it.
    It really turned our children’s focus too. Now we are able to say no to little trinkets that don’t add any value to our lives, or are meaningless, and instead look for real value in each experience.
    It was really powerful helping others in beach clean ups too. Seeing firsthand how much actually is out there is mind-blowing.
    Thank you

  8. Agree! very nice blog. We should stop using plastic bags as they are causing harmful effects. great article with the great message. Keep sharing

  9. People are stunned every time I refuse free stuff!
    I’d add to your tips: buy less. Every time you don’t buy a new item (clothing, gadget, home decor, new phone ect.), you don’t have additional waste: the old item, the packaging, plastic shopping bag, receipt, manuals… Minimalism is eco.
    I also recommend getting interested in more natural hygiene and cleaning. For our planet, for our health and usually for our wallet too.

  10. We take Garbage bags with us each time we go to the beach to help with the trash problem. Single use plastics have become a big topic of conversation around our house since moving to an island, where we see everything washing up onto shore. There have been some beach days where I just feel sick because of all the manufactured debris everywhere! Just last night my hubby and we’re talking getting some reusable straws, because yeah, there are just some times you don’t want to be without one. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll check these out!

  11. Great article. We’re huge recyclers at home…and try when traveling…but the ideas in your post make so much sense. Biodegradable toothbrushes! I would’ve never thought of that. Also loved the collapsible cups idea. We’re reusing bags & bottles…and straws…but some of these ideas are not something I’ve considered before now.

    I just told my mom yesterday about an article I saw where a disposable bag was found in the Marianas Trench…and that makes me incredibly sad.

  12. What I meant by even if not reusable we still use it is say water bottles, if we buy, we refill and use them for some time.

  13. You’re so right! I was amazed at all the plastic waste in SE Asia. The cold drinks in a bag were outrageous to me. We tried to reuse plastic bags we received from stores and generally were able to put them to good use the second time around. Plastic bottles were harder. We often had to buy several a day to stay hydrated and brush our teeth and things. We reused bottle as often as we could, but that didn’t always work if we were on the go. You provide some valuable tips that I will implement next time we’re on the road!

  14. A good article which not only preaches plastic free travel it also gives methods to travel without it.

    We do travel regularly and with bare minium plastic foot print that too we keep reusable stuff or even if it is not reusable we still reuse it

  15. Okay so I am LOVING these ideas!!! We have noticed the same thing on our travels – everywhere we go we are grossed out by all the trash.. Costa Rica BIG time and today at Angkor Wat in Cambodia! We def use tons of straws with our 2 year old and I’m totally going to buy these straws for our travels! The trash everywhere is disposable and I’m so excited to implant some of these ideas into our travel life! Thank you for sharing!!


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