In 2007 I was recovering from surgery when I read an article and saw a photo that changed my life. The article was titled, “Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic… Are We?” and the photo showed the carcass of a dead albatross chick, its belly full of plastic pieces, such as the bottle caps I used and discarded on a regular basis. I looked at my own life and realized that through my unconscious overconsumption, I was personally contributing the suffering of creatures I didn’t even know existed.
That week, I committed to stop buying new plastic, and a passion and blog were born: My Plastic-free Life (known originally as Fake Plastic Fish.)
Since then, I have found that — with focus and attention — it’s not at all impossible to remove plastic from my life. In 2011, my plastic waste was just 2 percent of the US average and fit into a single plastic grocery bag.
One of the hardest parts of living plastic free, I have discovered, is traveling away from home. But with a little planning, I’ve found ways to avoid generating plastic waste even while on the road or in the air. In fact, during the summer of 2010, I drove across the country with my dad and would have ended up with only a few plastic ice bags to add to my tally if Flamin’ Hot Cheetos hadn’t gotten the better of me.
Here’s how that particular incident went down:
Dad: [Returning to the car from a gas station minimart] I got us a treat!
Me: [Eyeing the plastic bag] Oh, I can’t eat those.
Dad: Why? You don’t like them?
Me: I love them and all their preservative-laden, artificially flavored and colored crunchy, spicy goodness!
Dad: [Smacking his head] Oh right! The plastic bag. Well, I guess I’ll just have to eat all of them myself.
Me: Well . . . okay, just one . . .
What started with one Cheeto snuck from one bag turned into an orgy of Flamin’
Hot Cheetos madness. My dad would buy a new bag of them every time we stopped for gas, and I’d munch out, until finally, towards the end of a long exhausting trip, I found myself buying the Cheetos myself. We were on a Cheetos bender that left me with a pile of plastic snack bags to add to my tally and the humbling realization that my devotion to reducing plastic use can sometimes be overcome by the temptation of laboratory-engineered, addictive junk.
I tell this story not to promote Frito Lay snack food but to reiterate that while we all do the best we can, none of us is a saint, and sometimes our humanity and the spirit of camaraderie can trump our best eco-intentions. The important thing is to be mindful of our choices. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos notwithstanding, I brought home very little plastic waste from that trip. Here are a few of my traveling tips:
While it’s true that transportation, and especially air travel, takes a huge toll on the environment, there’s no reason to exacerbate that impact by giving in to disposable water bottles and food packaging. On a road trip, fill up your bottle at the soda stations at roadside minimarts and convenience stores. There’s always a plain water option. When flying, bring your bottle through the security gates empty and fill it from the water fountain on the other side. I’ve never had a problem bringing an empty bottle through security or bringing a full bottle onto the plane. If you run out of water during a long flight, have the flight attendants pour drinks into your reusable bottle or cup. Yes, the water itself will most likely come from a plastic bottle, but you’ve at least saved a plastic cup or two. And during hotel stays, a reusable mug comes in handy when you find yourself in a room with only Styrofoam cups instead of real glasses.
Photo by Flickr user shikigami2011
Avoid plastic-packaged food. Bring your own sandwiches or containers of fruit, cut veggies, trail mix, or other snacks on the plane or on the road. Besides munching out on Cheetos during our trip, my dad and I snacked on nuts, trail mix, and other goodies I packed in the car.
Why should traveling be any different from staying at home? If we get in the habit of bringing our own utensils with us during short trips around town, bringing them during a long trip will be just as easy. Just make sure that if you’re flying, you don’t bring anything sharp. I’ve never had a problem bringing any of my bamboo utensils on a plane.
Mini-bar drinks and snacks are incredibly expensive, and they all come in plastic packages or bottles. Find real food to eat. Do a little grocery shopping when you reach your destination and stock your hotel room with healthy snacks in less packaging. Even if you can’t avoid plastic entirely, you can resist single-serving sizes.
Skip the free travel-size shampoos, soaps, and lotions provided by hotels. Just because they’re free doesn’t mean we should take them. They may not have a monetary cost, but they do have a cost to the environment and our health. Instead, fill up your own reusable travel-size containers at home. If you’re flying, make sure your containers are small enough to comply with U.S. Transportation Security Authority (TSA) regulations or the airline security regulations in your country.
When we are flying in the United States, the TSA requires us to bring all carry-on liquids in a 1-quart plastic zip-top bag. But there’s no reason that bag should be tossed at the end of the trip. I’ve been using the same baggie over and over again for years.
If you want to watch a movie or listen to music during your flight, don’t forget to bring your own headphones. It can save money, since many airlines charge for headphones these days, and it will save plastic packaging and headphone waste.
Airline pillows are not only made from synthetic fibers, but they are generally tossed out at the end of the flight! The Oakland, CA airport has led the way in developing a pillow recycling program, but the pillows are downcycled into insulation or furniture stuffing. Bring your own and avoid the waste.
I already mention this step earlier in my book, but it’s worth repeating here. We might not be able to avoid all plastic packaging while on the road, but when we do generate recyclable plastic waste, we can either seek out recycling resources in the cities we visit, or we can do as backcountry hikers do and “pack it out.”
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