Part of the joy of travelling is being free of our normal routines and habits that we keep at home. But some of those “at home” practices are good for the world and we want to maintain them on the road. This article provides the opportunity to see how we can reduce, reuse and recycle our way around the world, saving money, travelling green, and being a responsible tourist. Water bottles, plastic bags and extra clothes are the biggest culprits in the backpacking world and we are going to tackle these three items here.

Reduce Plastic Water Bottle Waste

My Nalgene bottle is my best friend both at home and on the road. Coupled with a water purifying “magic wand”, I have no excuse to be dehydrated nor to create excess waste with bottled water. I do acknowledge that in many parts of the world it is not safe to drink the tap water and it really does suck to get sick from dodgy drinking water while you are travelling. But I have had no problems topping up my water bottle with boiled water from the tea and coffee table at a breakfast buffet or cleaning the water by filtering it through a scarf or t-shirt then using purification tablets or my Steri-Pen.

In developing countries, recycling facilities and even organised garbage collection are not available. This results in most people burning their rubbish. It is bad enough that so many plastic bags (see next point) are disposed in this manner without adding our water bottles to the fire and creating more toxic fumes. If you do find yourself in a water bottle emergency however, you can often “donate” them to rural communities who can reuse the bottles to carry water, detergent, parrafin or other liquids.

Reuse Plastic Bags

In Europe and Australia it has become second nature to take canvas or cloth bags to the supermarket; not so in Africa. Rwanda is one exception, where it is no longer possible to get a plastic bag, and Uganda is making significant inroads towards the same. But in other countries you can end up with more bags than products as you leave the supermarket! And where do these bags end up? In those toxic flames mentioned above.

On the other hand, there is no denying that a few plastic bags in your backpack can be extremely handy when packing – dirty shoes, dirty laundry, shampoo and other liquids that are liable to explode in transit, all benefit from a plastic bag. But I do also carry a couple of cloth bags in my backpack so that I don’t acquire any additional plastic bags as I travel. Taking cloth bags to the markets (for food and souvenirs) means that I don’t have to add any more plastic waste to my environment.

Recycle Old Clothes

In 2007 my friend and I travelled overland (and sea) from Tokyo to Helsinki, buying quite a few souvenirs along the way. Attempts to post our goodies from Russia were thwarted by a difficult postal worker and so we carried our package all the way to London before figuring out the next strategy. That strategy was to dispose of all my clothes and fill my pack with souvenirs (I was flying home anyway and had plenty more clothes to greet me on my return). I’ve seen many other travelers who have bought special “safari clothes” for their trip that they don’t want to carry home – for some reason khaki cargo pants seem to be a necessity on safari even though you have never worn such trousers at home and never will again

Charity bins and thrift stores are often the first choice when we are cleansing our wardrobes at home, but what about when we are abroad? Often I see travelers putting clothing in the bin! But instead you can ask your tour operator, hotel reception or other friendly local if they know of an organisation or group that would benefit from second-hand clothing. There will always be someone who can get a second life out of your old clothes, no matter how tatty you might think it is – tailors are akin to magicians in Kenya and combined with a good clean, you wouldn’t recognise your own shirt after their treatment!

It isn’t very difficult to go green on the road with these three basic ideas. There are, of course, plenty of other ways to reduce your impact through using accommodation, transport and tour operators that subscribe to sustainable practices for example. But these three ideas will have a big impact and apply to travel anywhere, anytime, no excuses. Leave only footprints and travel well!

Please share your other ideas for how we can travel sustainably. I would love to hear from you!