There are few people who haven’t heard of them yet: The three R’s. Many people grew up with the mindset that it’s important to reduce, reuse and recycle in order to do better for the environment. There is even a song about reduce, reuse, recycle by Jack Johnson. And like he mentions in his song: Three is a magic number. But you know what’s even more magical? Three times three.
We have come so far in polluting our planet that just focusing on reducing, reusing and recycling might not be enough anymore. What about repurposing instead of just recycling? Or refusing instead of simply reducing the amount of single-use plastic we consume? And how do we make sure we follow these ideas on our travels as well?
Sustainable travel does not have to be as hard as you think. Many are looking at reducing, reusing and recycling at home. Let’s take action on our holidays as well! It may be as easy as simply evaluating what you put in your suitcase.
Follow these nine ideas to go beyond reduce, reuse recycle. Let’s refuse, reduce, repair, reuse, remember, repurpose, recycle, restore and repeat instead!
The first step to do better for our environment is simple: refuse unnecessary items. Every item that is not produced means less carbon dioxide was emitted and less resources used up during its production, transportation and disposal. Refuse to accept or buy products that are potentially harmful for you, those around you or the environment. Your choices will not only tell companies what you want or don’t want. It may also influence the people around you to rethink their decisions.
Saying ‘no’ to freebies that companies give away is a great place to start. It may be hard in the beginning. Who doesn’t like getting things for free? But just think about it the next time you dump all those flyers, pens and plastic bags straight in the trash when you get home. Or maybe you can refuse those complimentary earphones on long haul flights. Most of the time our own headphones work just as well and might be of way better quality than their cheap version anyways.
If you really want to reduce plastic in the oceans, it may also be necessary to take a look at your diet. A study found that almost half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was old fishing nets. Those so-called ‘ghost nets’ take years to break down and can kill sea animals for years to come. Refusing or reducing the amount of fish you consume doesn’t only help those poor fishies in the ocean. It also reduces the plastic you consume yourself. Microplastics and other toxins have been found in most fish on our plates nowadays.
If you can’t fully refuse certain products, reducing the amount of items we own and consume can also help that less stuff ends up in the garbage. Bonus: Reducing things you carry with you on your trip doesn’t only help the environment, it also makes your luggage lighter. And potentially reduces the amount of money you have to pay for overweight luggage fees. So where do you start?
Well if you are traveling with a group of people, it may make sense to share a packing list. Set up a group chat and decide who brings sunscreen, shampoo and other toiletries. More things you can share are books, games, snacks and electronics. Traveling with friends but they don’t seem up for sharing shampoo? Get one of those small travel containers and fill it up with your regular shampoo from home. By reusing the small container and not getting new ones every time you save on plastic packaging.
Another way to reduce plastic while on your holiday may be to shop food locally on markets instead of in big supermarket chains. Also opt for local wines, beers and spirits instead of international brands. This does not only save carbon emissions. It may also support the local economy instead of shoving more money into large international brands.
Going on a hiking trip and don’t own a pair of hiking pants? If you don’t think you’ll need them again anytime soon, why not borrow some from family or friends instead of buying a new pair? Or instead of buying a lonely planet for every city trip you do, sign up for your local library and borrow it for a month there. You may even find other interesting books to read on your holiday while you’re there.
Want to do even more? Reduce (or offset) your journey footprint by choosing sustainable transport options like trains, ride shares or bikes. Need to take a plane? There are plenty of options to offset your CO2 footprint available. While on vacation reduce your energy use even further by switching off all unnecessary lights, aircons, fans or televisions.
If we really think about it, we own an incredibly large number of things. Instead of buying a new item every time something breaks, why don’t we just take better care of our things and repair it when it stops working? Changing our mindset from ‘where can I get a new one?’ to ‘how can I fix this?’ goes a long way in protecting our resources. Maintaining the quality of our stuff also means the chance is higher we will be able to donate or resale it when we don’t need it anymore. Giving things a second life means less resources are needed to produce a new one.
To extend the life of your clothes, Patagonia has useful ‘Repair & Care Guides’ on their website. You’ll find anything from downsizing your pants without sewing to guides on washing your waterproof jacket on there. Give it a go before you decide to buy a new pair!
Similarly, reusing what we can gives our products another life and keeps them from ending up in the garbage. When staying in hotels, reusing your towels saves water and energy. Or let other travelers reuse your books and magazines by leaving them behind in hostels. You can also donate them to local schools or libraries. Just like you can donate your clothes. If you are too emotionally attached to your favorite items, reuse other people’s clothes by shopping in thrift shops.
But it doesn’t stop there. Instead of only reusing the products themselves, you can also reuse the packaging material. Pallets, paper boxes, bubble wrap or glass containers don’t break after they’ve been used just once. Even plastic containers from food items can be used again. My mum often keeps those containers to bring home fragile souvenirs or shells from our trips.
Going one step further, you can invest in items that are meant to be reused. Reusable water bottles (check out this article about the best one for traveling), coffee cups, straws or cutlery are all designed to replace single-use items.
Of course, all those reusable items don’t help much if you don’t remember to take them with you. When refusing or reducing the number of disposable items you use, you don’t wanna be eating your food with your bare fingers. All beginning is hard, but I found that over time it does get easier to remember to bring my reusable cutlery or bottle everywhere I go. Some of the items are even constantly in my bag just in case I run into situations when I might need them.
Other parts of remembering are making sure you remember to plan your travels beforehand. By looking up how you can take the bus from the airport you don’t need to panic when you arrive and take that taxi conveniently waiting for you. Read this article if you want to hear more tips on stress-free, sustainable travel.
Lastly, don’t forget to remind the waiter to leave that plastic straw out. Forgetting to say no to straws when you order drinks often means they end up in the trash anyways. It’s not like they will reuse that straw for someone else once it was placed in your drink..
What is repurposing? It’s taking something and using it for a different purpose. While this requires a bit more creativeness and craftiness than simply reusing an item, it can also be more fun. And remember, it does not have to win any beauty contests as long as it serves its purpose. One easy way to do this yourself is by for instance repurposing scrap paper for taking notes.
Recently, many young companies have stepped up to help the environment by repurposing items that were previously polluting the planet. GOT BAG and Airpaq, for instance, are both producing backpacks by giving ocean plastic and car waste another life. Then there is Bracenet, which makes bracelets from old fisher nets in the ocean. Two other great initiatives, Flipflop and Ecobricks, are focused more on developing countries to raise awareness and empower local people to make a change.
There is even a train in South Africa that has been repurposed as a travelers’ lodge. The Santos Express in Mossel Bay is forever stationed right at the beach and receives guests in first class wagons or simple hostel style beds. You can even hear the waves through the windows at night or enjoy the beach view in the morning.
When you can’t refuse, reduce or repurpose anymore, fortunately you can still recycle many items, especially the ones made from plastic, glass or metal. Recycling can sometimes be like starting over, except with less resources and less energy used. The recycling industry creates jobs, manufactures new products and therefore helps the economy.
How can you support that? By choosing to buy products that are either easy to recycle or have a high share of recycled materials as raw materials. This article further explains how easy four of the plastic alternatives are to recycle. Sometimes products made from mostly recycled ingredients don’t look as pretty. Paper, for instance, may look a bit grey or brown when recycled as it is almost impossible to clean contaminated paper. But the planet will look all the more beautiful, so it’s definitely worth taking a look at those alternatives!
Of course, products don’t recycle themselves. Where we dispose them has a huge impact on the recycling rate. Most Western economies how a recycling system in place, so make sure you use it whenever you can. If you are on holiday in a country without a functioning recycling system, some items may be worth holding on to until you get home. Batteries, for instance, or electronic devices hold valuable raw materials that you can easily take back home and recycle there.
Even if you have followed every point on this list so far, odds are most people or companies do not behave as mindful as you do. Campaigning for companies or fellow travelers to alter their behavior is one way to infuse change. If they don’t listen to you, try being the bigger person, stop holding your grudge, and get to work!
Restoring the nature that we have polluted, intoxicated or destroyed sometimes does not need big actions. Start small. Pick up trash around you on your next hike. Join a beach cleanup on your next beach holiday (like the ones in Thailand: Clean The Beach Bootcamp or Trash Hero Phuket). Or research other movements. There are always possibilities to do your part.
If you don’t have time to spare, you can also donate money to NGOs that are helping restoration projects. Save the Reef, for instance, is a charity organization dedicated to helping the oceans and marine life through a number of different initiatives.
The most important step on this list. Change is not a one-time thing. If you want to be more mindful to our planet, follow the steps above not once, but every time you travel. Even more important, follow them at home as well. Every bit you do counts, but the more you include these guidelines into your daily life, the higher your impact will be. Review and repeat these steps regularly, and the planet will be a better place because of it!