The first time I ever felt called to a cause was when I learned about the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. I was in college and had just completed my first day of a course called “Sustainable Design,” where we were shown images of plastic bags floating in the ocean, plastic debris inside of the stomach of a dead Albatross bird, and a turtle that had been disfigured by the plastic rings that came off of a 6-pack.
That was the day I decided to give up plastic. I immediately purchased a reusable grocery bag and a classic Klean Kanteen bottle to take care of the most common single-use plastic items in my life. Over the years, my awareness of the various plastic items that end up polluting our oceans expanded, and so did my kit of reusable alternatives. In my day-to-day life as someone who works from home in Brooklyn, New York, I’m lucky to say that cutting plastic out of my life is fairly easy. Access to an excellent farmers market where most foods come free of packaging, a grocery store that offers bulk foods, and the ability to cook most of my own meals at home are all things that help me live plastic-free.
But that all changes the moment I leave Brooklyn. In the past 8 years I’ve remembered to bring my reusable bag and bottle along with me on trips to Thailand, Cuba, Mexico, and various cities throughout the United States. They’ve served me well, but every trip I find myself wanting to do more. As I planned this summer’s big adventure - a 2 week vacation in Scotland and France - I realized that it would be the perfect time to challenge myself to do just that by taking the Plastic Free July challenge.
When we travel it’s easier for us to consume single-use plastic because we are often eating out and on the go, meaning that to-go cups and containers, bags, and travel-sized packets are often more convenient than the alternative. Traveling through airports is often when I see more plastic pollution than anywhere else, with single-use utensils and individually-wrapped meals being the norm.
I decided that the easiest way to avoid excessive airport plastic would be to arrive with my own meal and the utensils I needed to consume it. For me, that meant sticking a bunch of raw veggies and fruits into my Klean Kanteen Insulated Canister, throwing a boiled egg and a whole avocado in my bag (they come with their own compostable packaging, after all), and tying up a few slices of bread in a cloth napkin. I even included a hot mint tea in my insulated Klean Kanteen mug to help settle my stomach and lull me to sleep on the long flight. Knowing that I had everything I needed already in my backpack, I was able to walk past all of the tempting kiosks at the airport, avoiding prepared foods and their plastic packages.
On the ground in Europe, it was slightly more difficult to be prepared all of the time as I had less control over my meals and where I got them. Thankfully, both Scotland and France have laws (or impending laws) that ban various single-use plastics. I found that I didn’t even need to use my beeswax food wraps or cloth bags when purchasing things like produce, bread, or cheese as they came wrapped in paper rather than plastic. Still, I always made sure to have my steel pint and straw in hand before ordering an iced beverage.
When it came to ordering food on the go, I had to exercise caution before deciding on which cafe or street stall I would patronize. I treated it like a stake-out, walking past a vendor I was interested in to see how they would serve food to their customers before I became one myself. If what I wanted to order didn’t already come in paper or on a reusable plate, I chose a different place to eat or handed over my own food container and politely asked for my food to be served in there. While I did get plenty of funny looks, I got even more smiles and remarks of “wow, that’s cool, thanks for bringing your own!” This tactic even got me an extra serving of salad at one train station.
Overall, traveling in Europe without the use of single-use plastic is not terribly difficult. The water that comes out of the tap is potable, making it easy to refill a reusable water bottle, and the laws there make it easier for both tourists and residents to avoid everyday plastics. Having been to other countries with less infrastructure and environmentally-focused laws, however, I know that it would be more difficult in places like Southeast Asia or Central America. Knowing this, I will now always travel with my plastic-free go-kit so as to minimize my footprint no matter where I am in the world. Even when I slip up (because inevitably we all do, that’s just how life goes), I know that my contribution to the plastic pollution in our world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes is significantly reduced by these simple efforts.
Bringing your own, being prepared when you know you’re heading into a plastic-heavy location, and politely speaking with business owners will take you a long way on the road to plastic-free travel. I’m happy to say that incorporating these simple habits into my travel routine has made me a more resilient and more outgoing tourist. Coming prepared helps me avoid getting “hangry” because I always have a snack on hand, and speaking up to ask for no plastic has been my entry point into more interesting conversations than I would otherwise have had. Plus, needing to fill up my cannisters and snack bags has driven me to seek out the types of farmers markets and stores that only locals usually visit, giving me a more robust and interesting feel for the place I’m visiting.
Traveling plastic free won’t always be easy, and yes, you will probably slip up sometimes. However, the moments where you meet someone new or discover something off the beaten path well outweigh those small mistakes. Just remember, bring your own, always ask with a smile, and don’t be too hard on yourself if some plastic manages to sneak its way into your vacation - your effort is what matters most.
About the Author
Faye Lessler is a New York City based, California born advocate for sustainable living, a writer, consultant, and community organizer. Through her blog, Sustaining Life and as Events Coordinator for the Ethical Writers & Creatives, Faye documents her own journey towards sustainable living and encourages the eco-curious to follow in her footsteps. She has extensive experience working with small brands in the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle space and has collaborated with sustainability leaders Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, Thinx, and Pratt Institute.