How to Travel Without Using Disposable Plastics

Avoiding disposable plastics back home in  California had become a part of my life. I knew where to buy my favorite food like oatmeal, pasta, and fruit without plastic, as well as personal care items like soap and coconut oil. Asking for “no straw” at a restaurant was easy enough because the server and I spoke the same language, and everyday I knew where I was going and could plan in advance with my reusables. But traveling is different. You don’t speak the language, you eat out all the time, you’re not familiar with the places, you can only carry a limited amount of stuff, and every day can be a surprise. But after 4 months of traveling in Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia, even with all the obstacles, I’m living proof that it’s possible!

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Plastic-free toiletries (all except the bristles on the brush).

Before we get into the how to do it, let’s talk about the why.  This is a big commitment, so why exactly do I make an effort to avoid disposable plastics? Unfortunately, the reasons are numerous. Here are the main reasons why I choose to avoid disposable plastics.

    Plastic is not biodegradable. It won’t be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Even if recycled, any plastic I use during my lifetime will outlive me by centuries. Getting rid of all plastics might be more of a challenge, but the least I can do is not use disposable plastics.
    Unlike the apples, the plastic packaging won’t decompose. Photo taken in Malaysia.
    There are currently an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean! The plastic to plankton ratio is 36:1.  Plastic travels from land to our oceans via rivers, once in the ocean it photo degrades into small pieces of plastic called micro plastics which are difficult to clean up and easy for animals to ingest. Even if we were to clean up all the plastic in the ocean tomorrow, it would not solve the problem.
    Plastic debris that washed up on a Thailand beach
    Animals don’t know what it is and many times mistake it for food. Many animals will choke on the plastic or eat so much of it that it fills them up. Giving them a full-stomach sensation, stopping them from eating, and resulting in starvation. Many animals also become entangled in disposable plastics resulting in injury and/or death.
    Bottle caps and lighters are just a few of the items this albatross ingested.
    Fossil fuels were made millions of years ago. Now we extract them for fuel, but it’s also what plastics are made from. To me, it’s illogical to extract oil, coal, and natural natural gas from the earth to make something that will be used for minutes, then have it pollute the earth for centuries to come and contribute to climate change.
    In 2010, 2.7% of total U.S. petroleum consumption was used for the production of plastic.
    This plastic bag was made from fossil fuels. It was used then littered. We can save fossil fuels and reduce waste by saying no to bags and other disposable plastics.
    Most disposable plastics are not recyclable. Straws, plastic bags, plastic lids, polystyrene “Styrofoam” containers, and plastic utensils are just a few of the items that aren’t recycled. When an item is not recyclable it will either be sent to the landfill, burned, or end up in the ocean.
    Straws are not recyclable! I picked up all these straws from a beach in Thailand in less than two minutes. When the tide comes in, they wash into the ocean.
    The reasons I don’t use recyclable plastics like water bottles are
    1. Plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times. Eventually (most likely after being recycled only once) it will end up in the landfill or incinerated.
    2.There’s no guarantee my plastic will be recycled. It is estimated that only 38% of plastic bottles are recycled in the US. Worldwide the percentage is much lower.
    3. I want to reduce my use of fossil fuels.

These reasons are specific to South East Asia where I’ve been traveling for 4 months

    Without a proper waste management system, many people living in rural areas in Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia will burn plastic along with the rest of their trash. When plastic is burned it releases  hazardous gases and ash.
    This is a dump inside a national park in Laos. Trash, including plastic is dumped and burned here. Most travelers don’t realize this is where their trash ends up.
    Sixty percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from Thailand, China, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Their waste management systems can’t keep up with the increase in trash caused by a growing economy. Since I am currently traveling in South East Asia, it’s not unlikely that if I make trash it will end up in the ocean and I definitely don’t want to contribute. Please read more about this here.
    It’s no surprise, disposable plastics are everywhere!
    Plastic, plastic, everywhere! Photo taken in Vientiane, Laos.

Now that I’ve  listed why I choose not to use plastics, here’s how we do it.

  1. REFUSE! People want to give us plastic all the time. Plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cups, it’s as if it’s free! So it’s up to us to refuse it. Items we refuse on a daily basis are straws and bags. If you want to start refusing, you might forget at the beginning, or find you’re not fast enough and they’ll sneak a bag or straw before you notice. But keep it up, it soon becomes habit!
    Lemonades with no straws in Kuala Lumpur. When we ask our servers we make sure to make eye contact and explain why we don’t want a straw. Most people are confused as to why we don’t want one, so that clears it up and makes it less likely for them to forget.
  2. REUSE! Our reusables have been essential in reducing our plastic waste. This is something I planned for ahead of time, thought about what I’d need, and made sure I packed it. My backpack is about 14 kg and my reusables probably make up 2 kg of that. When we leave our house or hotel I think about what I might need during the day and make sure I bring it along. If I’m craving coconut water I’ll bring my glass straw, if we’re headed to the market I’ll bring my bag, and if we’re getting dinner I’ll bring my container in case there are leftovers. If I want something but don’t have the reusable for it, I just won’t get it and wait till next time. Conservation outweighs convenience.
    I packed my reusable container, reusable bag, and jar to bring to the market where I could buy produce and food without making trash. The jar doubles as a drinking glass. This time we used it for fresh-squeezed cane juice.
    We borrowed a reusable plate from a restaurant for this watermelon. Other times we just eat it from the rind.
  3. LOOK FOR ALTERNATIVES! Once you start avoiding plastic, you suddenly realize it’s everywhere. But that’s when you start noticing treasures in the form of plastic-free alternatives.
    Banana leaf plates are so much better than styrofoam containers!


  4. EAT HEALTHY! When you stop using disposable plastics you also get rid of a lot of unhealthy, processed foods (that also contain palm oil) like cookies, chips, and soda. As a result, we eat a mostly unprocessed, plant based diet that’s better for us and the planet. I’ve been eating this way for the last few years and it really makes me happy and healthy. Changing your diet will take sacrifice and some getting used to, but it’s so much better.
    Healthy and inexpensive bananas are our snack of choice here in South East Asia! 
  5. MINDFULNESS! A plastic free or zero waste lifestyle requires a present mind. Not only do we have to be mindful to refuse a straw, but also to remember why we do it. Traveling plastic-free in a plastic obsessed world is not easy, but keeping a positive mindset is essential to keeping it up.

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    Plastic-Free snacks for an early morning train ride. I knew I wouldn’t have time to get snacks before our 7am train, so the night before I bought bananas and bread. 
  6. LET GO… Sometimes there are no plastic free alternatives, and I’m okay with that. Right now I haven’t found any plastic-free peanut butter, so I’ll just wait. When I do find it, it’ll be so much better.
    Before this day, all of the strawberries I’d seen came in plastic. So when we had the chance to pick our own and have them plastic-free, they tasted so much better! Worth the wait. 

It’s out there! Natural peanut butter in a glass jar in Pai, Thailand.
By following these 7 steps I have managed to reduce my plastic waste to a few items that fit into a small bag. Most of the plastic I’ve accumulated has been because of the language barrier, and a couple pieces because we’re not perfect. I want to show travelers that it’s possible to see the world without leaving a trace of polluting plastic behind. This world is an amazingly beautiful place, if we want to keep it that way, we should all do our part to conserve it.

Going completely plastic-free overnight can be overwhelming, but it is possible to reduce!
Here are 3 ways you can reduce your use of disposable plastics.

  1. No more plastic bags! 1 trillion bags are discarded every year worldwide!  Bring your own bag, and if you don’t, get creative and refuse. Instead of using a plastic bag I’ve used my hands, backpack, and purse to carry fruit, snacks, donuts, jars, clothes, etc! (The donuts with my hand of course.)
  2. Use a reusable water bottle! More than 100,000 million plastic bottles are used every day worldwide. No need to contribute, choose to reuse!
    You can read here how we’ve traveled plastic water bottle free! (Photo taken in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)
  3. Say NO to straws!  Straws are unnecessary, non-recyclable, and non biodegradable. Next time you go to a restaurant or coffee shop, ask for no straw. If you really like straws, don’t fret, you can find reusable alternatives.

For a Clean World,


14 thoughts on “How to Travel Without Using Disposable Plastics

  1. Hey there! I really enjoy your blog and this most recent post. I’m curious as to where you fill up your water while traveling. I always strive to not use plastic bottles but often find it difficult to locate water that I’m 100% confident to drink while traveling. Would love to hear your tips, suggestions, and experience with this! Thanks!


  2. Monica, this is a fantastic post! Thank you so much for educating on the dangers of plastics and providing alternatives to single use products. Keep up the good work!


  3. This post is so incredibly detailed and awesome! Bravo. I think the hardest part for me is finding places to shop for bulk foods & compost. Also, totally lusting after that LUSH soap container. Happy travels! Xo.


  4. Reblogged this on saltwithyourcoffee and commented:
    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how a blanket ban on flying doesn’t necessarily make our trip greener, it still requires thought. One thing we’ve been ‘failing’ at recently is using disposable plastics, particularly plastic bottles. We’re pretty good at minimising waste at home, but it’s a bit trickier on the road. Here’s some inspiration for us: travelling without using disposable plastic is absolutely possible.


  5. Hi! Thank you for this amazing and inspiring article!
    I tend to buy plastic free as much as possible at home, and after 3 weeks of traveling in China, I have been shocked and ashamed at how much single-use plastic I have consumed… It barely seemed to help to refuse plastic bags, but at least my LifeStraw water bottle saved dozens of plastic bottles!
    I would like to try going plastic free on my next trip. How to do you do with fresh juice and teas you can have on the street? I love to have a drink on the go, but it would be a bad idea to have them in my LifeStraw bottle!


  6. Hey Monica,

    I recently started with Zero Waste when I was back home but was totally shocked by the amount of plastic thrown after me in South East Asia! That has to change now. While searching for ‘zero waste travel’ ideas I found your blog and I am going to lock at it in detail now. My first goal is currently to buy a metal food box and metal water bottle. Hope to be able to reduce my footprint 🙂

    All the best


  7. Thanks for all the insight! I’m currently doing my best to be a zero-waste vegan in Indonesia while I’m here as a teacher, and I’m planning to write a guide to traveling sustainably in Indonesia after I spend another month or so here, because it can be so difficult to avoid plastic in this area of the world!

    This week, my students have been doing a project about an environmental issue, and many of them researched plastic pollution, so it seems that awareness is finally starting to seep in, although many of the students acknowledged that even though people are starting to become aware, they don’t care enough about plastic pollution to change their habits yet. I’m hoping I can encourage all my students to start caring!


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