How To Use Less Single-Use Plastic When You Travel

During our 9 month trip around South East Asia, the severe impact of single-use plastic became painfully obvious.

Countries in South East Asia just don’t have the resources or the know- how to deal with plastic recycling. The amount of single-use plastic used and subsequently either dumped or burned was mind boggling! 

It made us even more determined than we already were to try and minimise our use of plastic when we travel. As well as at home, obviously.

We’re not necessarily aiming to be completely plastic-free. I think that, especially when travelling, compromises have to be made as an alternative may not always be readily available or viable. 

But, we’re definitely hoping to make a small, but positive, impact. And maybe this post will help inspire you to use less plastic when you travel too, with some great single-use plastic alternatives for you to consider for when you travel next!

How to eliminate single-use plastic when you travel pin

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Ditch The Plastic Bottle!

Reusable water bottles all the way! Who’s with me?!

Honestly, we don’t go anywhere without our reusable water bottles now. They’re perfect not only because it means we don’t have to buy small plastic bottles of water, so it’s economical, but because they keep the water cold for hours!

Trust me, this is a game changer in South East Asia’s hot climates! 

Alternatively, it also keeps drinks hot!  When we went hiking at Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, we brought hot water in one of our bottles for some instant noodles! Easy lunch on the mountain!

Whether you’re headed to South East Asia or the North Pole, a stainless steel bottle is a great single-use plastic travel alternative!

Joannda in Singapore with her pink Insulated Water Bottle by Balhvit
My insulated water bottle keeping me hydrated in Singapore!


Say No To Straws

We were actually quite pleased to find that in some places, plastic straws were either not automatically given out or simply not available at all.

For example, in Ipoh, Malaysia, we visited the lovely Aud’s Cafe where I got a metal straw with my smoothie. 

In the Philippines, they were surprisingly good overall with limiting single-use plastic and straws were hard to come by. Few places we saw sold bottled water. Instead, there are water refill stations all over the place, which charge from as little as 1 peso! Very cool!

And in Indonesia, there were a few occasions where I was given a bamboo straw instead of a plastic one. Yay!

But, other places would automatically provide straws and would almost look at us funny when we said we didn’t want one. Malaysia in particular was terrible for this in our experience. Take-away drinks in Malaysia are often put in a plastic cup with a plastic straw and a plastic carrier bag… Ugh!

If you want to go the extra mile, you can buy your own set of stainless steel straws for a mere £4 or so!

Take away drinks in plastic containers, with plastic straws and a plastic carrier
The epitome of single-use plastic… Not ideal!


What The Spork?

Is this a new one for you? Well, a spork is a combined spoon and fork (and sometimes knife!) made from stainless steel, and is the perfect single-use plastic alternative for your travels!

It’s a super handy and versatile little utensil, and is so small that you can easily fit it into your day pack. 

We found that food at markets in South East Asia very often came in styrofoam containers (yikes!) and plastic cutlery to go.

Saying no to these single-use plastic items whenever you can when you travel will definitely help to make a big difference! 

Cutlery in a pot of boiling water provided at a roadside stall
Sterilised cutlery in a pot of boiling water was a great single-use plastic alternative we often came across in the Philippines


Bring A Reusable Tote/Shopping Bag

The use of plastic bags in South East Asia is rife. Very few shops promote reusable shopping bags. In fact, at times you have to be quite insistent that you don’t want a single-use plastic bag…

We’ve been using reusable shopping bags at home for years. Ireland gave up single-use plastic bags years ago. And these days, we always travel with a couple of canvas shopping bags. 

Omer calls them On-Ya bags, which I love (courtesy of one his sister got him in New Zealand years ago!). But there’s lots of non-branded ones that come in all shapes and sizes (and patterns!). They roll up into themselves into a nice manageable small size that you can easily pop into your day-pack. 

You never know when you might want to buy some fresh fruit at the market or buy some souvenirs to take back home! Either way, a long life bag will definitely come in handy as an alternative to the awful single-use plastic bags most shops will give you.

Sometimes You Can’t Win: In Kuching, Malaysia, we were horrified to find that when we said we didn’t want a plastic bag for our shopping in the supermarket, they would proceed to stick tape with “sold” all over every single item we bought!!! 

single use plastic bottle landfill
Single-use plastic bottles in a landfill on Nusa Penida


Switch To Solid Shampoo

I specifically asked for solid shampoo the Christmas before we set off on our long-term travel adventure. Not only is it plastic-free, it also takes up way less room. Plus (bonus!), you can take it through security without worrying about the 100ml liquid limit!

I honestly really love my solid shampoo bar. It foams up really well and you actually don’t have to use much at all so it lasts an age, meaning it’s cost effective too! Perfect for when you travel on all accounts.

Mine is from Lush and has a nifty little stainless steel container to carry it in. The only downside is that the bar can get a bit stuck in the container if it’s too wet. But, there are plenty of other options too, so go with whichever one suits you. 

a beautiful clean beach
Let’s keep the beaches as pristine as this one on Koh Lipe, Thailand!


Ladies – Get A Mooncup

I will be honest and say that I only ditched tampons and switched to a menstrual cup relatively recently.

Tampons are convenient. It’s what I was used to. But, in South East Asia, sanitary products are not nearly as varied or readily available as we’re used to here in Europe.

On top of that, sanitary products are a huge contributing factor to the plastic problems of the world, being made from as much as 90% non-recyclable plastics…

Personally, I have a Mooncup which came highly recommended by many lovely ladies. But, there are plenty of options and these often vary by country.

These small silicone cups are cheap (mine only set me back around €30!), they have an insane lifespan (20-25 years), they are hygienic and much better for you health wise (tampons tend to be bleached cotton after all! Yikes!) They are also super easy to store when you don’t need them because it’s so small

In my opinion, menstrual cups are the only way forward as an amazing alternative to single-use plastic products both when you travel and at home.

Piles of rubbish and plastic bottles in a stream
Malaysia was truly awful for the sheer volume of rubbish and plastic bottles in nature


Cotton Buds (Q-Tips!) Are Out

At least, the cotton buds you buy from the supermarket. These are the definition of single-use plastic!! Actually, some countries are (or already have, as is the case in the UK!) banning cotton buds altogether in order to stem the use of single-use plastic!

And, there are actually a surprising number of alternatives to the traditional cotton bud (yep, that’s q-tips for you Americans out there!)

  • Paper and Cotton – If you’re not quite ready to give up your Johnson & Johnson cotton buds just yet, you can now opt for a paper (stick) and cotton (tip) version instead. But, they are still single-use, so not ideal
  • Bamboo and Cotton – These are more or less what you’re used to, but made from biodegradable products instead of plastic. Again, they are still single-use though, so still not perfect
  • Silicone or TPE – These are washable and reusable. Simply clean with a bit of water and soap and voila! You’re good to go for about 1000 uses!!! Try LastSwab and get 10% off with my discount code; AZESTFORTRAVEL
  • Stainless Steel – I remember my Japanese host mum had these, albeit in bamboo rather than stainless steel. As these are a more professional option, it may be best to have someone help you when using these so you don’t go too far into your ear
floating plastic rubbish in the water
Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo was really shocking when it came to rubbish!


Use Your Own Headphones On The Plane

Most likely, you’ll be bringing your own headphones along on your travels anyway right? So, why not use them on the plane?

The headphones that airlines provide are not only terrible in quality (unless you’re flying Business class, in which case, yay you!) They’re also made from plastic and wrapped in plastic and disposed of (either completely or at least in part) as soon as you leave the plane… So, use your own.

We each bought a plane adapter for our headphones and always use our own now! Honestly, not only a great single-use plastic alternative, but the perfect travel accessory in general!

Stay COVID-free With A Reusable Facemask

Travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic was an interesting experience to say the least.

When we decided to bite the bullet and head home to Ireland from Thailand in mid-April, we knew we had to protect ourselves and others by being super vigilant about hygiene during our trip.

Facemasks were a given.

But, the downside to keeping yourself and others safe(r) by using a surgical facemask is that these are single-use. Single-use gloves and masks washing up on beaches have become a real problem during the pandemic.

So, yes, definitely be smart and use a mask! But, invest in a reusable material facemask that you can wash and wear again. Plus, you can add a bit of fashion to your travel outfit this way by personalising the mask you wear! I love the map print ones I linked here!

And, honestly, plastic gloves are not needed. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly at regular intervals and you’ll probably be protecting yourself better than single-use plastic gloves would.

Joannda on the plane during the pandemic wearing a facemask


Bonus Tip: Pick Up The Plastic!

During our Pandemic-month on Koh Chang in Thailand, we spent at least an hour every day walking on White Sand beach.

It was beautiful.

But it was also quite often littered with plastic bottles and other rubbish.

We started taking a rubbish bag with us and picked up the plastic and litter as we went.

It might not make a massive difference to the overall impact of plastic on the environment but I’d like to think that we helped a sea turtle or two out by removing these dangerous traps for them!

Joannda holding a baby sea turtle
Let’s keep these little beauties safe by reducing our use of single-use plastic!


Final Thoughts

Like I said, there will be times when it will be difficult to fully eliminate the use of single-use plastic when you travel. Alternatives may not be an option even when you’re doing what you can to go as plastic free as possible.

When you do end up with an item of single-use plastic, please make sure you dispose of it properly.

What plastic-free alternatives do you travel with? Let me know in the comments below!


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