On a recent long-haul flight to Europe via Asia I became uncharacteristically anxious about the food and beverage service on board. It was not that I had unrealistic expectations of the dining experience available on a fold-down tray table. I was worried about seeming rude or disrupting the service flow, when just getting everyone fed and hydrated on a packed A380 obviously takes military-like precision.
My plan was to politely ask the crew to fill up the water bottle I had with me, to avoid plastic cups and bottles, to request hot drinks in my own KeepCup, and to refuse disposable plastic toothbrushes, socks and eye masks, should the airline's largesse extend that far. We also packed some (paper-wrapped) sandwiches and snacks.
This might sound a little petty (and annoying!), especially when my personal efforts would fall well short of saving the planet. But my husband and I had a bigger project in mind. We wanted to find out if we could travel comfortably without leaving a trail of plastic waste behind.
At home, we've been reducing our plastic footprint for more thana decade, a quest first instigated by our then 16-year-old daughter, who brought all her teenage energy and self-righteousness to the task. We've enjoyed living with less clutter, visiting local markets and bulk food stores to shop fresh and plastic-free, and the undeniable health benefits of avoiding many processed, plastic-wrapped foods. But what about travelling, when our routines tend to go out the window?
Over the years, we've discovered one of the biggest hurdles to quitting plastic is psychological. We humans are mostly herd animals and creatures of habit. We often feel uncomfortable challenging the status quo, in this case plastic-packaged, disposable convenience. I've experienced enough eye-rolling and "you weirdo" looks to justify my unease.
This trip we were pleasantly, even jubilantly, surprised. On a total of seven flights on three airlines, every crew member, no matter how busy, was willing to help – even when a national sports team, their fans and a buck's party were competing to drink the trolleys dry. Some crew members were keen to talk at length about the mountains of waste airlines generate and potential solutions.
So, what's changed? Films such as A Plastic Ocean, ABC TV's War on Waste and numerous global influencers such as naturalist David Attenborough and even The Queen (yes, of England and Australia) have helped acquaint us with the facts. Likewise, all those tragic online videos of sea life and other animals trapped, maimed or worse by plastic waste, and images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that putrid ocean raft of plastic now as big as Queensland. Then, there was that unforgettable online video of a diver in a plastic waste soup off Bali's coast.
Since plastics production took off in the 1950s about a third of all the plastic ever produced on earth – 8300 million metric tonnes (or about the weight of a billion elephants) – has leaked into the natural environment. Globally, just 9 per cent of plastic has been recycled. In Australia in 2018, it was 12 per cent.
Plastics are incredibly durable, so they hang around dangerously for years or decades. When they do break down into minuscule microplastics, they then find their way into our food chains, soils and ecosystems. Even in the Mariana Trench, 11 kilometres down, plastic is accumulating on the ocean floor. It's mostly single-use items – such as drink bottles, plastic bags, cups, straws and convenience food packaging. Which suggests a good place to start.
With your favourite water bottle (insulated stainless-steel works well) and reusable coffee cup you can avoid a lot of waste at airports, bus and train stations, and en route. Australians alone toss out about 2.7 million disposable coffee cups every day, so you get the idea.
Many airports have installed filtered water taps; empty your bottle before security, then refill it on the other side, for free. When you arrive, keep your water bottle handy, too. (The World Health Organisation is reviewing commercial bottled water after a global study found many big brands contain twice as many plastic microfibres as tap water). In countries where tap water isn't safe to drink, try re-filling your own bottle from big water coolers or water filter stations in places such as hotel lobbies, cafes and restaurants.
Convenience food can be tricky while travelling. It's easy to fill a plastic tray with plastic-wrapped "ready meals", plastic cutlery, plastic-lined cups with lids and plastic straws. Ditto take-away. But, it's also easy to travel with a small reusable cutlery set and a reusable straw. Or look around for the many plastic-free ready-made options, such as fresh filled baguettes from local bakeries in paper bags.
Even better, avoid the issue entirely by eating and drinking in at local cafes or restaurants that serve on crockery. Chances are you'll find better food away from the generic globalised menus of chain outlets. You might also discover some cultural differences. In Australia, we rush around with take-away coffee cups as though our lives depend on it. In France, and much of Europe, that's considered quite uncouth. At least stop for an espresso and enjoy it from a real ceramic cup. And, if you are buying plastic-wrapped sushi in Italy, maybe ask yourself why.
What about shopping? Again, not hard. There are lots of lovely lightweight foldable bags that take up virtually no space in your luggage. You can bring a few drawstring mesh bags, too, for buying fruit and vegies, and reusable containers for snacks and take-aways. Try visiting local markets or bulk food stores that sell by weight straight into paper bags; a great source of plastic-free food. Zero Waste Home has a free app (app.zerowastehome.com) that directs you to zero-waste stores anywhere in the world, just type in your location.
How about downsizing your toiletries? The main ingredient in most products that keep us clean is water. So, take out the water. There are many fantastic solid products on the market nowadays that come in paper or small metal tins and do a good job, such as shampoo and conditioner bars, deodorant paste and that old favourite, soap. They're compact, lightweight and as they're not liquids, they make life easier at airport security. If you can resist, don't use the little plastic bottles in hotel bathrooms, they only give you a squeeze or two before you throw out the container.
Explaining your single use plastic-free trip might seem daunting if you don't speak the language. But you can still make good choices by pointing, or by recruiting Google translate. And, don't underestimate the plastic-free momentum all over the world. Hundreds of cities, states and nations worldwide have banned plastic bags, even if NSW hasn't.
You might even come across a local clean-up. It doesn't take fluent language skills to don some gloves and pitch in. In India, hundreds of volunteers recently spent two years clearing and sifting Mumbai's Versova Beach by hand. It had been buried in waist-deep, plastic trash. About 80 baby sea turtles have since hatched from its newly revealed sands, the first time turtles have been seen for more than 20 years.
The travel industry, too, is taking plastic waste seriously. Qantas will remove 100 million single-use plastic items from its planes and lounges by next year. Air New Zealand began jettisoning everything from plastic straws and stirrers to plastic toothbrushes this year. And, last December, the world's first single-use plastic free flight took off from Lisbon, flying to Brazil. The Portuguese carrier Hi Fly replaced items such as plastic trays, cups, spoons, sick bags, packaging for bedding, dishes and toothbrushes with paper and bamboo alternatives. The airline estimated that about half a kilo of plastic waste was avoided per passenger. On long-haul flights, every passenger is offered about 12 plastic cups of water and other drinks.
Trips like ours are becoming easier, especially as more compostable bio-plastics made from things such as corn, sugar cane and agricultural waste are coming onto the market.
That doesn't mean we don't get stuck. One afternoon, we pulled into a truck stop on the M4 south of London to find ourselves with a choice between a plasticised, vacuum-sealed ready meal or going hungry. We picked the optimistically labelled quinoa salad that had probably seen better days. It felt a bit like falling off the wagon. But, quitting plastic is not an "all or nothing" extreme sport. Any disposable plastic avoided is useful. Just get up the next day and start again.
Louise Williams is a Sydney-based writer and the co-author of Quitting Plastic: Easy and practical ways to cut down the plastic in your life. See allenandunwin.com