Do you think about the environmental impact of your lifestyle?
For the sake of the world, you really should… because if you’re an average American, it’s pretty intense. We generate 1569.5 pounds of trash each year, PER PERSON.
That’s a LOT of trash! Way, way, WAY too much trash. But all the information on becoming more sustainable can seem SO overwhelming!
Here’s a tip: deciding to aim for progress – rather than perfection – makes a big difference. It’s a lot more manageable to start by tackling just one area of your life (and then letting the progress flow from there!)
For me, I found that targeting my travel waste was a super easy place to start, and oh-so-important.
A backup of garbage in the beautiful Sumidero Canyon river of Chiapas
Especially if you’re visiting a destination with a delicate ecosystem or an underdeveloped waste management system, every little piece of garbage matters. As a visitor, you can either add to the problem, or be part of working towards the solution.
These are 11 single-use, disposable items that most travelers come into contact with on their trips, sometimes once in a while, and sometimes multiple instances in a day.
Luckily, it’s easy than ever to minimize your landfill contributions, even when traveling.
As a bonus, after a few weeks of use, all of these investments save money: whether it’s your money (like not having to continue buying tampons or water bottles), or the money of the establishments you’re visiting, because while they’re cheap, styrofoam takeout trays and plastic straws don’t grow on trees, though they do end up in rivers and fields.
A very polluted, trash-filled stream in the otherwise beautiful town of Granada, Nicaragua
For each of the items I suggest eliminating from your disposable diet, I recommend one easy, inexpensive purchase on Amazon, and another, more artisanal version on Etsy… because supporting small business is just one more way to be sustainable. All prices are accurate as of June 21, 2018.[and remember to recycle those cardboard boxes!]
1. Plastic straws
Plastic straws are everywhere: in your morning orange juice, in your smoothie snack, in your afternoon mojito, in your evening margarita, and maybe even served alongside your water, or included with your bottled beverage purchase (I’m looking at you, Thailand).
The damage plastic straws can cause to animals (have you seen the photos of turtles with straws stuck in their nose? heartbreaking) and to the environment is absolutely horrific.
Plastic straws are easy to skip and in most cases aren’t really necessary (plus they cause mouth wrinkles, so there’s that). If you need or prefer a straw, though, you’ve got SO many sustainable options. If you opt for plastic, make sure to go BPA-free, and if you go for metal, choose a bent straw to avoid causing damage to your mouth (especially if kiddos will be using it, as Starbucks learned the hard way).
Better, more sustainable straw alternative:
Stainless steel straws
Benefits: inexpensive, lightweight and nonbreakable (those glass straws make me nervous!), small and easy to clean/sterilize, no need to worry about BPAs or other chemicals, saves turtles from having straws impaled in their nose
Favorite Amazon Option: Pack of 4 reusable metal straws and a cleaning brush
Benefits: the cleaning brush is VERY handy, especially if you tend to prefer drinks with a lot of “stuff” in them (I like smoothies with seeds, mojitos with lots of lemon and mint, and little bits of all that stuff can get stuck up in there). I can personally recommend these ones: I own them and love them!
Favorite Etsy Option: Pack of 2 reusable metal straws and a super cute pouch ($20)
Benefits: comes with a super cute pouch for cleanliness (the text says “save a sea bell from a straw” and “say no to straws”), supports small business
2. Plastic bag
If you’re buying something small from the convenience store, think twice before taking the unnecessary plastic bag.
Buying groceries can be a more complicated time to try to pass on the plastic, especially when it comes to buying bulk fruit and veggies (which you’d normally bag up in those thin, clear plastic bags). Luckily, there’s an easy solution!
Bulk foods can go into a mesh produce bag, and groceries can be carried back to the hotel/hostel/Airbnb with an easy peasy tote. Both of these items roll up super small and are easy to pack.
Better, more sustainable plastic bag alternative:
Mesh produce bags
Benefits: Super lightweight, inexpensive, easy to wash (just throw in with your laundry), multipurpose, saves bags from ending up in bellies
Favorite Amazon Option: Simple Ecology Organic Mesh Cotton Bags Set
Benefits: Keeps fruits and veggies fresh longer than plastic bags (the breathable fabric allows decomposing ethylene gas to escape), eco-friendly: sustainable, natural, biodegradable, reusable, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified organic cotton muslin fabric which is both ecologically friendly and responsible
Favorite Etsy Option: Produce bag set ($10.25)
Benefits: supports small business, comes with 3 different sizes, very durable, easy at checkout: numbers and barcodes are viewable through mesh, machine washable
Benefits: Lightweight and easy to pack, many options to personalize/customize, choose the perfect bag for you, easy to wash, inexpensive, VERY multipurpose (can also double as a day bag), keeps grocery bags from ending up in whale stomachs
Favorite Amazon Option: TEOYALL 6-pack reusable grocery bags
Benefits: Very inexpensive, folds into small pouch for easy carry, machine washable, super lightweight, can hold up to 44 pounds
Favorite Etsy Option: “Be Kind” Organic Tote ($16.35)
Benefits: supports small business, certified organic cotton, lightweight
3. Styrofoam take-out container
Food waste is arguably just as bad as plastic waste, so what’s a traveler to do when he/she can’t finish a meal but doesn’t want to take a styrofoam container (styrofoam can remain intact in landfills for CENTURIES)?
Bring your own reusable food containers! When you’re in route to your destination, you can use the container to store your liquids (double protection against spillages), and then use the container to bring home any leftovers. Actually, I find having a container with me – knowing I can bring home leftovers to devour as a late-night snack – inspires me to eat less and not overstuff myself, so it’s a win-win all around.
There are even some containers that pack flat when not being used.
Most likely, you don’t even need to buy a new reusable container. Just use the tupperware you probably already have!
Better, more sustainable take-out container alternative:
“Tupperware” or other reusable food storage container
Benefits: easy to wash, lightweight, inexpensive, can use at home as well (make sure it’s BPA free), saves styrofoam from taking up space in the landfill
Favorite Amazon Option: Smartpan collapsible silicone food storage containers
Benefits: Collapsible for easy packing, multiple size options, microwave/freezer/dishwasher safe, BPA-free
Favorite Etsy Option: I didn’t find any I loved or would recommend. Sorry!
4. Ziploc bag
TSA regulations require that if you’re traveling with liquids in your carry-on, you need to put them in a 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag. While it’s pretty lame that our own governmental organization is literally requiring people to participate in plastic waste, experience shows you don’t want to mess with the TSA.
Luckily, there’s plenty of plastic bag options that are reusable, and fun as well.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to use Ziploc bags for other purposes, like storing dried snacks or protecting paperwork, you should definitely check out “bio bags” or reusable snack bags, which are not necessarily plastic.
Better, more sustainable ziploc bag alternative:
Quart-sized TSA-friendly reusable bag
Benefits: not contributing to landfill waste, more durable than a regular ziploc baggy (mine would always rip)
Favorite Amazon Option: Cableinthebay toiletry bag
Benefits: TSA-approved, durable, waterproof, has a handle for easy carry or hanging
Favorite Etsy Option: I did not find an Etsy product option that I loved and would recommend.
Reusable snack bag
Benefits: a variety of sizes and colors and patterns to choose from, easy to pack, multipurpose (I have a few I use for makeup and non-liquid toiletries), inexpensive (actually saves money in the longterm rather than constantly buying baggies)
Favorite Amazon Option: Diweiya reusable snack bags 4-pack
Benefits: a few different sizes, very cute, dishwasher-safe, no BPAs, 30-day money back guarantee
Favorite Etsy Option: Quart Bag Reusable Food Storage ($12)
Benefits: supports small business, can order a handkerchief from the same store, multiple sizes and colors in the same store for mix and match baggies, cute, BPA and pthalate free
5. Plastic utensils
Eating at streetside stalls is a way of life and a super fun part of travel in most places in the world. In most cases, though, these tasty dishes are served up with a side of plastic, landfill-bound silverware (and sometimes on disposable or single-use-plastic-covered plates as well).
There’s a super simple solution that saves plastic from going into the landfill, and saves the vendor a peso or baht or kyat, too. Ask for your meal in your aforementioned reusable food container, and use your own reusable utensils!
I’m a big fan of utensils that are small and easy to carry, so they can be stashed in a day bag or purse, and that come in a little pouch. You can always get a pouch seperately, of course, but having a carry-bag is handy for making sure that nothing gets lost or left behind, and that the items that will be touching your food are kept as clean as possible, not bouncing around in the debris at the bottom of your bag.
Better, more sustainable plastic utensils alternative:
Benefits: save hundreds of plastic forks, spoons, and knives over your lifetime from ending up in the trash, inexpensive, lots of options, you’ll never end up eating leftover takeout with your hands
*NOTE: If you travel carry-on only, you should opt for a non-metal knife.
Favorite Amazon Option: To-Go Ware utensil set with carrying case
Benefits: inexpensive, comes in a wide variety of colors to personalize your choice, bamboo utensils (no chance of getting the knife confiscated at TSA), very small and light
Favorite Etsy Option: Reusable cutlery and straw in pouch ($17.34)
Benefits: supports small business, hygienic pouch, made of bamboo, even includes a straw and cleaner, compact and light
6. Paper coffee cup
Trying local coffee is one of my favorite parts of any trip, but the disposable plastic cups or paper mugs that locals brews are usually served in are a downer.
Bringing along a reusable “keep cup” is an easy fix. Before you start complaining about the bulk of all these items taking up space and weight in your bag, though, you should know that there are plenty of cup options that are silicone: lightweight and foldable.
Better, more sustainable coffee cup alternative:
A reusable travel coffee mug or “keep cup”
Benefits: your drink will stay hot (or cold, depending on your preference) much longer, hundreds (thousands?) of paper or styrofoam coffee cups don’t end up in the landfill, if you make coffee on-the-go you’ll have something to drink it out of
Favorite Amazon Option: Contigo SnapSeal Vacuum-Insulated Stainless Steel Travel Mug
Benefits: inexpensive, BPA-free, leak-proof lid (very important!), dishwasher safe, variety of colors and sizes available. I bought this for my husband for Christmas and he LOVES it (and I use it whenever he’s not).
Favorite Etsy Option: Silicone keep cup ($11.46)
Benefits: supports small business, microwave and dishwasher safe, very lightweight, won’t break if dropped
7. Water bottle
I don’t know about you, but most of the places I travel do not have drinkable tap water. I see most of my fellow travelers buying small, single-use water bottles from the convenience store, and it makes me cringe. Not only is this pricey (even in a relatively inexpensive destination, multiple water bottles a day add up), it’s so incredibly and avoidably wasteful.
At the bare minimum, please buy a huge jug of water to keep at your accommodation (some countries, like Mexico, let you return the biggest, 20L jugs and get a small deposit refunded), and refill a reusable water bottle with it. You’ll save money, you won’t be consuming plastic-leeching chemicals, and you’ll be minimizing your plastic waste.
If you want to take it a step further, I really recommend investing in a portable water sterilizer. I’m obsessed with my Steripen, it’s small, charges via USB, and has saved me hundreds of dollars (and saved countless hours looking for water in Cuba).
Better, more sustainable water bottle alternative:
Reusable water bottle
Benefits: saves you so much money, ensures you’ll always have water on you, stops putting unnecessary plastic bottles in the landfill, stops buying water from not-always-ethical water companies who take advantage of vulnerable communities and lands
Favorite Amazon Option: MoKo collapsible water bottle
Benefits: BPA-free, FDA-approved, collapsible for easy storage, comes in a variety of colors, withstands extreme temperatures, is safe for freezing or for hot liquids, leak-proof, dishwasher-safe, lifetime warranty! My cousin and her friend initially introduced me to this marvel on our trip to Merida, and now I’m obsessed! Best water bottle on the market.
Favorite Etsy Option: Personalized water bottle ($28.33)
Benefits: supports small business, personalized, several color options, stainless steel
8. Tampons and pads
Yep, we’re going there. The average woman will use 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, and each one takes centuries longer than our lifespan to break down, which is so sad.
Switching from tampons and pads to a menstrual cup was a total life-changer for me. Not only is it more sustainable, it is much more convenient, cleanly, cheaper, and easier to pack (one menstrual cup, versus a week’s worth of tampons, takes up less than 1/4 the space).
If a menstrual cup won’t work for you, you could consider reusable pads or reusable menses-specific underwear, or at the very least, unbleached organic cotton disposables without plastic applicators.
Better, more sustainable tampon or pad alternative:
Benefits: many different brand options, several size choices, saves tons of plastic and cotton from being tossed in landfills, saves you a ton of money over the course of your fertile years (on average around $100 PER YEAR), lessens risk of toxic shock syndrome, needs to be changed (dumped out) less frequently than a tampon or pad
Favorite Amazon Option: Athena menstrual cup
Benefits: comes in two size options, includes a hygiene bag, comes in a variety of colors (I’d recommend the darker the better), comfortable, satisfaction guaranteed by company
Favorite Etsy Option: Menstrual cup pouch ($7.38)
Benefits: supports small business, super cute in a choice of sayings and fabrics, *NOTE: this is not a menstrual cup but a pouch to store it in
I’ve never been one of those people that carried around a little packet of tissues. Actually, I’ve never bought tissues in my life (let’s be real, I’m too cheap and practical for that, toilet paper works just as well), but I did use to swear by wet wipes, especially in hot destinations, for wiping off sweat.
I’m going to recommend a much better and more sustainable (and old-school cool) option: the handkerchief.
I had a friend in Bangkok who never left home without a little handkerchief square in his pocket, who’d use the thing to mop the sweat off his face. You can do the same thing, or for a bonus, wet the handkerchief a bit and freeze it, then pop it in one of the reusable baggies and into your bag, for a refreshing pick-me-up when you’re out wandering the city and sweating your ass off.
For more “tissue” style reusable tissues, try Bambooee reusable paper towels. When they come fresh off the cylinder they’re a bit stiff, but after their first wash, they soften up and are just like a thick tissue that doesn’t tear and is easily washable and SUPER fast drying.
Better, more sustainable tissue alternative:
Reusable paper towels or handkerchiefs
Benefits: inexpensive, saves more trees from being cut up, more trash from going into the landfill or littering the side of the road
Favorite Amazon Option: Bambooee washable paper towels
Benefits: MUCH more durable and absorbant than regular disposable paper towel, easy to wash (just pop them in the washing machine or dish washer), very lightweight
Favorite Etsy Option: Organic handkerchiefs ($10.99)
Benefits: supports small business, becomes fluffier and more absorbent the more they are used and washed, saves not only tissue but tissue packaging as well from the landfill, very cute!
10. Disposable makeup remover pads
The first time I used disposable makeup remover pads was during college, at a cheap hotel on Panama City Beach during spring break. The hotel manager gave them to us to use instead of towels, which she warned we’d be charged for if we covered them in our hard-to-remove waterproof eye makeup.
The reasoning behind makeup remover pads makes sense, and I used to buy them sometimes for travel (not at home, those things are a bit pricey and, again, I’m cheap). But they’re really not worth the waste or the cost.
Instead, you can buy little reusable washable cotton rounds, and bring a little bottle of makeup remover. Another more DIY option is to take Bambooie reusable paper towels, wash and line-dry them once, cut them into the appropriate size, soak them in makeup remover, and then put them into an airtight container (I like to reuse my Lush product pots for this purpose).
Better, more sustainable disposable makeup remover pad alternative:
Reusable makeup remover pads
Benefits: YES THEY EXIST!, save tons of cotton pads from going into the landfill, easy to wash, more durable and absorbant than disposable makeup remover pads, get to choose the makeup remover that goes on it
Favorite Amazon Option: Wegreeco makeup remover pads and the makeup remover of your choice
Benefits: comes in a set of 12, comes with a little laundry bag (so none get lost in the washing machine), chemical free, good for sensitive skin, soft, easy to make the switch
Benefits: supports small business! cleansing pads: organic, hemp and cotton, great for sensitive skin, supports sustainable pesticide-free farming, machine washable and driable / makeup remover: TSA travel-size, all natural, reduces wrinkles and redness
11. Plastic single-use toiletries
I will admit hotel toiletries used to be a guilty pleasure of mine. I love cute little things, and would always stash and save any complimentary toiletries for future houseguests.
But, the little plastic containers are not good for the environment. I’m always happy when I see hotels working on more sustainable solutions (like refillable shampoo and conditioner containers in the shower, and refillable soap and lotion on the counter).
Skip the hotel toiletries, and bring your own small, travel-size containers filled with your favorite sustainable products. That way, you’ll not only be saving plastic from the landfills, you’ll know all the products you have with you are your favorite, and won’t irritate your skin or cause a weird reaction.
Better, more sustainable toiletry bottles alternative:
Reusable toiletry bottles
Benefits: you’ll have your own favorite toiletries with you on vacation so you know they won’t irritate your skin or cause you to break out, you’ll save so many little plastic bottles from going in the trash
Favorite Amazon Option: Grundsoo travel bottles
Benefits: leakproof, TSA-approved, BPA-free, easy to squeeze out the last little bit, multiple colors and sizes (all at or below TSA limits), cap labels so you don’t forget what is what
Favorite Etsy Option: Travel toiletry bottles set ($22.49)
Benefits: supports small business, pretty, labeled for easy use, refillable, TSA-approved size
BONUS: Plastic toothbrush
While this item isn’t single use, it’s definitely not endlessly reusable. You should be switching up toothbrushes at least every season, and more frequently if the brushes fray or you get sick.
Most toothbrushes are plastic, which is a bummer for our landfills. Fortunately, there are more sustainable options than ever, most of them bamboo, which is a more renewable material source and biodegradable.
Better, more sustainable toothbrush alternative:
Benefits: uses a more renewable material, decomposes naturally
Favorite Amazon Option: WeEnjoyBamboo natural bamboo toothbrushes
Benefits: BPA free, 100% biodegradable handles and packaging, soft, nice-looking, ergonomic handles
Favorite Etsy Option: Natural soft bamboo toothbrush ($5.86)
Benefits: supports small business, biodegradable and compostable, naturally antibacterial
This guide is not intended to be an all-knowing resource on sustainable travel, but rather an easy introduction to thinking more critically about our consumerism.
Other ways to travel more sustainably include investing in carbon offsets, choosing nonprofit or locally-owned hotels, working with locally-owned and ethical tour operators, buying souvenirs from local artisans and co-ops, and sooo much more. If you have a favorite sustainable travel practice, please do share!