What to pack for a sustainable, eco friendly vacation
I travel a lot, and often for work, where I’m researching the ecological impacts of tourism as well as sustainable food trends. There’s nothing as sobering as walking along a tropical beach that should be paradise, but instead is littered with mounds of plastic shampoo and sunscreen bottles, plastic bags and water bottles.
This is a complex topic, and no “top ten” list is going to do it justice. We impact the environment wherever we are, at home or abroad, but when we’re on vacation we don’t have the same kinds of systems and supports that we do at home to be more sustainable.
I’m writing this from Da Nang, Vietnam, where I’m 6 months into a year-long adventure through Asia. At home in California, I’ve got it all figured out. I know which brands and stores to buy from, where the farmers markets are, what’s in season. I have a kitchen full of glass and silicon food storage. I’ve got my backyard compost and my worm bin. I have my takeout containers stashed in my car. I’m ready!
But I don’t have any of that here, and I’m moving around, so when you travel everything kind of goes out the window and you’ve got to figure out how to do the best you can in the place you are. You want to have fun, be carefree, have a great adventure…and go home knowing that you didn’t leave behind a mountain of plastic trash.
It used to be a lot harder to do, but now there are so many easy ways we can have our adventures with less of a plastic footprint. Here are some basic items every eco conscious traveler should consider.
Before we get into what to pack, let’s give some attention to what we’re packing in.
A lot goes into making a durable and attractive piece of luggage, but many of the materials commonly used in luggage contains toxic chemicals such as PVC, BOP, AZO, PAH and phthalates. Besides toxicity, another consideration is whether the materials are biodegradable — and the simple answer is, no. Nylon linings and PET, the same plastic in single use water bottles are not biodegradable and will persist in landfills — basically you can think of your luggage as one giant plastic water bottle you’re going to have to trash!
If you’re looking to buy new luggage for your next trip, here are some more earth friendly options.
Timbuk2’s Copilot Luggage Roller line is super durable and well crafted, with a lifetime warranty. The luggage is made with bluesign® approved materials
Patagonia’s Black Hole™ line is made using materials that are bluesign® approved — ensuring the manufacture of these materials doesn’t include toxic chemicals or produce large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Hadaki Plane Hopping Roller luggage comes in eye catching colors, making them easy to spot on the luggage carousel, and they’re made without toxic chemicals.
Lily Bloom is another brightly colored brand that features feminine patterns made from recycled plastic bottles.
By now it’s well known what a miserable and unnecessary scourge plastic water bottles are to the environment. When you’re traveling, you’re always on the go and need to stay hydrated, but you definitely don’t want to leave behind a pileup of used plastic bottles. Even in the best conditions, recycling doesn’t always work the way we think it does, and in many of our destinations it may not even be available.
The obvious answer is to pack a water bottle. Most airports have filtered, potable water dispensers — though sadly, not all do. However, once you’re in the air, you can ask the flight staff to refill your bottle. Once you land, just find clean sources of water to keep your bottle filled.
If you’re the sort who starts the day with coffee or tea to go, consider bringing along a reusable hot drink cup. Obviously, this is going to add weight to your luggage — if you can’t afford the weight, you might be able to purchase one at your destination, though you may not have as much choice.
One of the things you’ll definitely want to avoid for travel coffee mugs is leakage. After you’ve finished your drink you’re going to need to throw it in your bag while you’re out and about — you don’t want any residual liquid to leak all over the things in your bag.
Here are links to some travel coffee mugs I’ve used that have never leaked:
Reusable Cutlery Set
If you’re likely to be getting takeout food or eating from food stalls or street food, consider bringing a set of your own cutlery to avoid disposable plastic ones. For some, bamboo will be the perfect choice because it’s very lightweight. Personally, I don’t like the experience of eating with a bamboo fork and the spoons often don’t have a deep bowl and so I feel like I’m kind of shoveling food. Not having proper cutlery detracts from my enjoyment of food, which is why I prefer stainless steel, even though it’s going to be weightier. Not everyone will feel this way, and if you don’t then bamboo is definitely the way to go.
If you’re travelling to an Asian country or think you will be getting Asian takeout at your destination, be sure to include chopsticks in your set.
Another reason you’ll love having your own cutlery is cleanliness. If you’re travelling to a country where poor hygiene standards are the norm, you’ll feel better washing and using your own cutlery.
Silicon Collapsible Takeout
On some trips I do end up getting a lot of takeout or eating from street vendors. If your travel is likely to include this kind of dining, consider taking your own food containers. First of all, you’ll avoid all the Styrofoam and plastic bags typically used (in some countries, even piping hot soup is given to you in clear plastic bags secured with a rubber band), and, as mentioned above, you can be certain the bowls are clean.
I really can’t imagine using anything other than collapsible silicon for this because they are, as the name suggest, easy to pack, and they’re lightweight.
They also can go in the freezer, microwave and dishwasher, making them very versatile.
Reusable Shopping Bag
Bags for shopping — like flea markets, bustling Asian night markets, super markets, farmer’s markets, buying clothes or even getting takeout. You’ll do a lot of shopping of one sort or another, and you’ll end up with a waist high pile of plastic bags by the end of your trip. Plastic bags are right up there with plastic bottles in terms of being a cringe worthy eco disaster.
But you’ll also find these lightweight reusable bags super useful for so many other things on your trip, like dropping off your laundry or carrying your wet towel and bathing suit back from the beach. I really can’t imagine traveling without a good bag or two.
One of my favorite travel bags is the Paravel. This folds up to almost nothing, is super lightweight and so versatile. It’s also made using recycled plastic bottles, so a win all the way around.
Whichever bag you chose, make sure it can sling over your shoulder and doesn’t need to be held by handles. You need to keep your hands free! Also, the very lightweight ones are easy to wash, which is important if you’re using them for groceries or prepared food. It’s good to give them a good wash. I just turn them inside out and throw them into the washing machine on the delicate cycle using cold water, and then hang them to dry overnight — ready in the morning for the next day’s adventures.
There are so many reasons to travel with a shampoo bar, from avoiding the plastic container to reducing the amount of liquids you pack (they can leak or even explode). A shampoo bar also lasts a long time and typically won’t contain a lot of chemicals. I usually cut one bar into three pieces so I don’t need to get the whole thing wet every time I wash my hair. It’s neater and lasts even longer that way.
Yeah, it’s a small thing, but also so easy to avoid plastic here. Go with bamboo.
I’m always amazed at how many people have never heard of tooth powder, which is basically just like toothpaste without the goopy part. It lasts a very long time, cleans your teeth brilliantly (I think better than paste), doesn’t have as much packaging and usually fewer questionable chemicals.
Often they come in eco friendly packaging like tins or glass. I would not advise bringing glass containers, so if yours comes in glass, just put the powder into something like a gotube.
Ladies, there are options. If you’ve never tried a menstrual cup, you should give it a go well before your trip so you’ll know which one fits best and confirm it will definitely work for you. Different brands and sizes really do perform and fit differently, so try a few until you get the right one.
Once you do, you’ll be so relieved not to have to give over a whole part of your luggage to tampons and pads. In many countries, women’s sanitary products are very limited so you’ll feel secure knowing you don’t have to rely on finding what you need abroad — all while avoiding single use sanitary products.
What are your favorite sustainable travel items?
Do you travel a lot? If you’ve come across some great products or tips to help people travel more sustainably, let us know!