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We’ve been hearing more and more about the massive toll single-use plastics is having on the planet. Some cities and countries are taking steps to curb plastic use along with businesses, airlines and hotel chains. These are steps in the right direction, but the majority of the world is still not prioritizing this problem. It’s even difficult to convince Americans we have a plastic problem when we are able to throw it in a bin, put that bin out once a week, and have that plastic disappear from our lives forever. But if you’ve been backpacking long enough, you’ve at least caught a glimpse of what plastic has done to our planet.
If you’ve ridden a railway through Myanmar, you can’t help but notice the trails of plastic bags alongside the tracks. If you’ve cruised through the magnificent limestone islands of Halong Bay, Vietnam, and wondered why SCUBA diving isn’t popular there, a look down into the sea at the trails of plastic gives you your answer. If you’ve taken a rugged hike to an otherwise inaccessible beach hoping it’s secluded and pristine, you actually find tide lines marked by plastic waste. I’ve experienced all of these, and this past summer, the last one finally woke me up to the problem.
After 30 minutes of hiking through heat and cacti down a steep descent near Epidavros, Greece, my friends and I arrived to a remote beach we had spotted on a map. We found ourselves sharing the beach, however, with heaps of mostly plastic garbage. This was when I realized, there is no such thing as a pristine beach. (I recorded this realization and video of the waste in this Instagram story).
Any “pristine” beach you’ve seen appeared that way because someone cleaned it and made it look pristine. If you were to find a beach on a remote island that a human had never set foot on, it wouldn’t be clean and unspoiled. It would be littered with plastic washed ashore, touched by human hands from thousands of miles away.
The facts and statistics about plastic usage and waste can be difficult to grasp, but here are some of them:
- 8 million tonnes of plastic are leaked into the ocean every year. That’s the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute, according to The New Plastics Economy by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
- At our current pace, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050, according to the WEF paper.
- The production of plastic accounts for 6% of global oil consumption – equal to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector, according to the WEF paper.
- Nearly all plastic that has ever been created still exists in some form. It is either still in use (28%), recycled once and discarded (6%), recycled more than once and discarded (<1%), discarded in a landfill or natural environment after a single use (56%) or has been incinerated (9%), according to a paper in the Science Advances journal. Because plastic is non-biodegradable, none of it has decomposed naturally, and won’t for at least several hundred years.
- A quarter of fish sold for human consumption and over half of overall fish studied contained plastic debris and/or textile fibers, according to a University of California, Davis study in Scientific Reports.
- 500 million disposable straws are used daily in the USA. That’s 1.6 straws discarded per person, per day, according to the National Park Service.
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 79,000 tonnes, according to a study in Scientific Reports.
Stop Using These Items
When you start to appreciate the depth of our plastic problem, it can get overwhelming. However, like always, we have to start the solution with ourselves. There are several easy and effective changes we can make to help reduce the problem, and in some cases even save some money.
1) Plastic Bottles
Probably the biggest offender is bottled water. In the USA, carrying a refillable bottle and filling it up at will is an easy solution. However, in the vast majority of the world, tap water is not safe to drink (Check here to see which countries are safe). It’s common to see backpackers buying 1.5 liter plastic water bottles daily. Yet most countries don’t have effective plastic recycling, especially on islands. Just a few blocks in from a perfect white sand beach in northern Zanzibar, Tanzania, I remember seeing an area the size of a football field filled with plastic bottles, with the mound rising as high as 10 feet. Those plastic bottles add up fast.
Luckily, there are plenty of options to clean your own water abroad. UV wands, filters/purifiers, chemical tablets and good old fashioned boiling are all effective, and the methods are compared by REI here. I use the self contained Grayl Water Purifier bottle. The capacity isn’t as high as other options and filters don’t last as long, but the portability and ease of use work for me. The $60 upfront expense pays itself off in a month or two.
2) Plastic Straws
These are an easy target, and you see lots of cities and companies taking aim. Plastic straws are rarely necessary. Eliminating them is often as easy as not grabbing one and drinking straight from the cup or asking the bartender or waiter not to bring one. I have one friend go so far as to beg and plead every time she orders a drink to not be brought a straw. She says it’s the only way to make sure they don’t. It’s effective, and entertaining.
3) Plastic Bags
Even before the crusade against plastic straws, plastic bags have been widely banned in the US and internationally. However, they are still the norm at grocery stores and markets. Bring your own bags when you’re out shopping. The same collapsible day pack you’d use for the beach, you can use for your shopping. Try something like this that takes up almost no space and weight on travel days.
4) Plastic Cutlery
I’ve previously plugged the fork-spoon-knife-in-one combo utensil, but I’m going one step further and recommending the titanium version of the spork. I’ve had several of the plastic version snap on me.
5) Plastic Hotel Shampoo Bottles
Free stuff is great, but you’re really not gaining much by taking those little bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash from every hotel you pass through. And that’s a whole lot of plastic for just a little bit of liquid. Fill your own reusable container at home with your preferred brand, and make it obvious that those hotel bottles have not been used.
Better yet, use shampoo and conditioner bars, or cover all of your liquid toiletries with Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Soap.
6) Disposable Coffee Cups
Disposable beverage cups that appear to be made of paper are actually coated on the inside with plastic polyethylene, which makes them even less recyclable than plastic alone. So if a cup of joe is part of your morning routine, bring your own cup like this KeepCup, with lid and all. I’ve also verified it works just as well in the evenings with wine.
7) Plastic Toothbrushes
This isn’t the first thing that would come to mind when you think of plastic offenders, but every time I see an accumulation of trash on a coastline, I always find some toothbrushes. And with most adults disposing of four toothbrushes per year, that adds up to a whole lot of unrecyclable plastic waste.
Take a look at bamboo toothbrushes. Bamboo is a fast-growing, sustainable plant and is biodegradable, although non-biodegradable bristles are posing a challenge. Still, it’s a step up from plastic-handled toothbrushes.
Refilling mini toothpaste tubes from bigger toothpaste tubes will save on waste and on money. You get roughly three times as much toothpaste for your buck in the bigger tubes. Also, Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 says it works as toothpaste.
8) Sanitary Pads and Tampons
This is out of my jurisdiction, so I’ll defer to my friend Lisa, a fellow backpacker and Plastic-Free July advocate, who recommends the Moon Cup. She had this to say about the replacement for tampons and sanitary pads:
“Finding reliable, half decent sanitary items in remote locations can be hard, and if you’re planning a longer trip, packing months worth of tampons into your backpack is a waste of precious space. The is a great space, waste and money saver! With proper care, some menstrual cups can last up to 10 years – imagine all that plastic packaging and overall waste saved! Test it out though before heading off on your adventure. They can take some getting used to.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — In That Order
It is often forgotten that this old adage is a hierarchy. The three R’s of the environment are not equals. 1) Reduce — e.g. you don’t need that plastic straw. 2) Reuse — e.g. fill up your own water bottle. 3) Recycle — only if the first two aren’t an option, then use recycled products and recycle those products again. However, you’ll rarely find plastic that is both made from recycled material and can also be recycled again.
Why Is Plastic the Target?
The reason everyone seems to go after plastic is because, overall, it has the most negative impact on the environment. So little of it is recyclable, the majority of which is in plastic packaging. According to the WEF report, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling with only 5% of material value retained. Recycle rates for plastics in general are even lower, and abysmal compared to 58% for paper and 70-90% for iron and steel. Also, recycled plastics are mostly “downcycled,” meaning what they are recycled into is not able to be recycled again.
Because traditional plastic is made completely of non-natural material, it cannot be composted and takes centuries to decompose naturally. In the study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in Scientific Reports, 99.9% of the debris collected was plastic.
The Dilemma of Travel and Environmental Responsibility
Plastic is by no means the only problem we face when trying to save our planet. We frequent travelers are constantly faced with the paradox of protecting this amazing planet while simultaneously leaving a carbon footprint to explore it (although Katie Genter wrote a great series on carbon offsets). But, for this sake of the limited scope of this one article, let’s try to tackle this one problem.
Ultimately, this comes down to a change in habit towards plastic. Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Then get used to carrying your reusable bags, cups, water bottles and utensils. Ask for no plastic when eating or shopping. It may spark a conversation and inspire others to get on board. That’s how I got here.
A once grim outlook is finally showing signs of improving. Bans on plastic bags in Northern Europe have led to a reduction in plastic on seabeds, according to a study in Science of the Total Environment. The movement is only getting stronger. Feel free to jump on the bandwagon.
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to email@example.com !
Feature image of Seminyak Beach in Bali courtesy of the author. All other images by the author execpet where otherwise indicated.
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