So July is over and with it ends the challenge we set ourselves of living plastic-free for a month. This month has been challenging, entertaining and inspiring as we've tried in vain to refuse single-use plastic, found ingenious solutions and spoken with many other travellers about plastic-use, lifestyle and environmental issues.
So here are our triumphs, our downfalls, tips, questions and conclusions of our plastic-free month on the road!
We've been trying to reduce our plastic throughout our trip but this month offered us a special challenge of banning it once and for all and seeing how we could make that part of our travel lives. We agreed to donate $1 for every piece of plastic we used during the month of July (this didn't include plastic items we already owned). It turned out to be easier than we anticipated and we ended the month with a grand total of $15 going to Our Seas Our Future. This wasn't worth the effort it took to transfer so we decided to top this figure up a bit and have donated $200 to this charity who work to protect New Zealand's oceans.
If you're interested in donating too here's their page - Our Seas Our Future Charitable Trust
What plastic did we use?
Straws - We asked for no straws but were given them anyway! Actually, in one instance she remembered our request, removed the straw from the drink and threw it in the bin!
Plastic bags - In Armenia our bread came in a plastic bag... at a restaurant! Not cool but definitely unavoidable when we didn't know in advance.
Ingredients - In order to reduce our plastic waste in the long-term we decided to have a go at making our own deodorant which (ironically) required ingredients we could only find in plastic wrapping. We decided it was worth it as the deodorant should last longer and we left the unfinished packets with our hosts to use. (more info on our deodorant experiences later)
Sheets - We took two overnight trains this month and our sheets were not only disposable (although probably biodegradable) but wrapped in plastic. Hygiene came first and we used them but wished Georgia would learn from India here and wrap their sheets in paper bags and wash them after!
Beer bottle - After a long, hot day hiking in the Georgian mountains we decided to treat ourselves with a beer. Our guesthouse only had plastic bottles. A total luxury but we decided to do it anyway, we ordered a 2L to share with others and reused the bottle over the following days to carry more water while hiking.
Toothpaste - We needed some more and yea...
How did we avoid plastic?
We carried with us a few trusty items that we always have with us, got vigilant about refusing plastic and even learnt about some new alternatives.
1. Reusable Drink Bottle
I've had a drink bottle since I stopped drinking breast milk (probably even before) and carry one even when I'm not travelling. But it still shocks me how many people drink from disposable plastic bottles even in countries that have safe tap water!
We got a brand new aluminium bottle at the start of July (after I lost ours on the first day of our 7 day trek in the Himalayas and our crappy replacement leaked for the 2 months following). It saved us a huge amount of plastic bottle use as tap water is safe here in Georgia and we'll keep using throughout the rest of our journey.
Our bottle was affordable and comes in a range of simple colours. The neck is also wide enough to fit our water steriliser. Grab one here.
2. U.V Sterliser
We travelled to Abkhazia this month and were told that the tap water wasn't safe to drink. So we used our Steripen to sterilise it before drinking. We've used this all over the world (including India, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka) and are still alive and well! Here's some more info.
3. Reusable shopping bags
These are fairly common practice in many countries now (just waiting for Georgia to catch up!) but surprisingly uncommon among travellers. We travel with hand-luggage only and still manage to have a couple of these on hand so there's no excuse. We use them almost daily.
4. Netting fruit bags
These were a huge saviour here in the Caucasus as there is so much fresh produce available on every corner but it's hard to carry a bunch of apricots or all the veges for dinner! We just have one and reuse a couple of small plastic bags we picked up at some point (bread bags from Armenia?) but it's so useful. We also used it to pack out lunches in while we were hiking. Our one is like this one here.
5. Solid TOILETRIES
All of our shower products are solid blocks which means we don't use any plastic (if we can find soap wrapped in paper which is not as easy as you might think!) We have shampoo, soap and face wash in solid form which are a mismatch of things we've found on the road. I can't wait to get back to NZ and buy some Ethique products which are totally plastic packaging free, vegan, made sustainably and 20% of profits go to charity! I feel like I'm growing karma just writing about them!
6. Refusing Straws
We've made a habit of asking for all our drinks without a straw. It's often hard in non-English speaking countries but if we're persistent or stay at the counter while they make the drink and explain it works. We don't bother carrying bamboo or metal straws because they're a pain to clean and we don't actually need a straw to drink the beverage.
7. Choosing drinks in glass or metal
We've become very good at choosing drinks we know will come in glass or cans. Beer is always (unless you in a guesthouse in the Georgian mountains) a good choice. Coffee is also easy and luckily the places we've been in lately sell a lot of soft drinks in glass bottles. If they don't have glass we opt for cans and if they have neither? We go without and drink water. For us, the luxury isn't worth the plastic.
8. Go without
This ended up being a recurring theme during the month. We haven't had chips, chocolate bars or nuts as snacks and haven't been able to buy a lot of things for ourselves e.g dairy products as there are just no options without plastic. This is changing in many countries but while we travel this will always be a reality. I'll talk about this more in our conclusions on the month!
But we did find ice cream wrapped in paper! Win!
If you want to know more about the eco-friendly items we travel with read our post here.
Replacements we can make
A lot of plastic items can be replaced by other items. This is much easier when you live in one place and have a house to put everything in. You can buy in bulk, use zero-waste supermarkets, recycle things and research ethical brands in your area.
All of this is a lot harder on the road! But we've researched a few small swaps this month that we hope to continue using and improving over the rest of our trip and life wherever/whenever we settle down.
We've never found toothpaste that doesn't come in plastic but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Unfortunately getting it while travelling is difficult but a trip back to Germany this month means we'll be able to try some Denttabs. Small pills that you chew and then brush your teeth with. They come in a cardboard box. I'm a little sceptical but excited to try them. Watch this space!
We usually buy the glass roll-on versions but this still has a plastic ball and lid. After meeting some new friends in Armenia we were inspired to try making our own deodorant from baking soda, coconut oil and essential oils (recipe here). We've only used it a couple of times as we're waiting to finish our other ones but will give a review later this month.
Max has an electric trimmer and I already use a razor that has replaceable heads which reduces plastic but not entirely. When we're in Germany I'm going to look at getting a metal safety razor which lasts forever and isn't much bigger than a normal razor and it costs less than the horrifically overpriced razor heads!
Difficulties and Conclusions
One of the pieces I read this month about becoming more sustainable talked about it being a process and that everybody makes their changes at their own pace according to their lifestyle, beliefs, budget and access to alternatives.
I think this is especially true while travelling. The choices we have on the road are so much more limited and less informed than if we were living in our own countries. The country we're in also has an impact on our decisions, for example, there are recycling systems in Germany so using the occasional plastic bottle doesn't feel as bad.
Sustainability is a big discussion for us. We don't believe all plastic is evil and shouldn't be touched. There are many brilliant inventions involving plastic (this computer I'm typing on for one). There are also many things we don't want to live without or haven't found a plastic free solution to yet; we love Snickers bars and there's no way these two whities are heading to a beach without sunscreen! But for us, it's about making choices that we can commit to in the long term that don't impact our enjoyment of life and that help the planet in areas that we're passionate about. Our choices will grow and change as we do.
Our biggest barriers at the moment are budget and accessibility. More often than not, the organic/plastic-free/ethically made option is significantly more expensive than the alternatives (like sometimes 10x the price!) For budget travellers this is a hard pill to swallow. Again, we choose what's worth a bit extra and shoulder the guilt with some choices.
It's also just really difficult to find eco-friendly and ethical choices in countries that have no awareness or demand for it. You just try finding a zero-waste supermarket in Georgia or organic soap in small town India! Sometimes we just have to accept that we're not at home and that's also a choice we've made.
Things we're working out
Reducing plastic is like a gateway drug to a sustainable lifestyle. Once you start there are so many other things to consider, improve, change, eliminate and support. It's hard to think about our plastic use without considering other lifestyle choices. We're constantly plagued by questions like:
Is it better to buy the imported organic produce or local fruit packaged in plastic?
Does it count if we eat in a restaurant? They no doubt use plastic but also buy in bulk....
Is ordering an eco-friendly product online and having it shipped to us defeating the purpose?
Should we buy the crappy made t-shirt from a local who relies on the income or shop for eco-friendly cotton in a chain store?
Should we eat meat and dairy? Travel by plane? Shop in supermarkets? Buy imported products?
We honestly don't know the answer to a lot of these questions but we're definitely looking into what we eat, wear, support financially and consume.
When our milk/cheese is produced like this we feel ok!
We're only humans and we feel that we've made a good start. We'll keep you posted!