My latest trip in Egypt and Sudan was my first foray into travelling completely single use plastic free. I’ve dabbled in the past, not taken plastic bags when I don’t need to and refilled my bottle, but this has been my first concerted effort to see if I can travel in a single use plastic zone.
Honestly, I could have chosen two easier countries however, based on my style of travel they were the perfect acid test.
Having travelled and worked in tourism for over 20 years, I consider myself well travelled and have seen plastic build up all over the world. It doesn’t degrade and typically enjoys its final resting places in some of the most beautiful places around the globe.
On this trip, a friend of mine Laura and I were driving a 1958 Morris Minor from Cairo to Khartoum and having previously lived in Egypt, knew we would be drinking about five litres each per day in August.
– 21 days x 4 bottles x 2 people = 169 plastic bottles left behind for landfill — so much for responsible travel!
The trip has been an eye opener, mainly it revealed how many times I came into contact with plastic bags, straws and bottles. It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to cut out something as common as plastic, that I had the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by it.
It took some work but on the whole it was easier than expected, I just needed to be prepared and aware 100% of the time. We treated a 30 litre jerry-can of tap water with a Steripen, a bag for life to avoid all bags, soap to avoid body wash bottles, a wooden toothbrush and a strong desire not to leave a trail of waste behind.
Did we succeed or fail? The honest answer is both.
We succeeded in cutting out 159 plastic bottles, but there were two days in Sudan when the water was just not safe to drink and we bought five bottles each to last until we could restock from the tap. The water prior to these days was also poor and as a result the jerry-can ran low. Once these bottles were empty, it was a horrible feeling putting them in the bin, mainly because Sudan doesn’t have a waste programme, so where do they go?
Not to beat myself up too much, 159 bottles is a massive saving and by continuing this effort, I will save a considerable number of bottles throughout my travel lifetime now that I understand how easy it is.
We avoided all plastic bags until an Egyptian hotel owner gave us a breakfast takeaway bag. It wasn’t until we were five minutes down the road that I realised it was in a plastic bag (which we reused afterwards). Another time, we ordered takeaway falafel sandwiches which came served in individual plastic bags, again we repurposed the bags.
Over 21 days, we got three plastic straws but managed to avoid many more, plus we would only buy drinks in cans and not plastic bottles. We needed to be prepared always. For example, when we bought a selection of mixed nuts to snack on during drive days, I look a Tupperware container, otherwise this would have resulted in yet more plastic.
As my goal was to travel 100% single-use plastic free, you could say I failed, but it did highlight that it is possible. Something as simple as a Steripen treatment which blasts UV light into tap water, cut out so many bottles. It took a small change in my routine and I was able to significantly reduce my use of plastic.
In the West, we use so much plastic but it is hidden better, whereas in most African countries, it gets dropped. That is not to say that that we are any better. My home country New Zealand ships all rubbish to China so we work very much on the out-of-mind-out-of-sight policy.
The media is full of stories about plastic and the damage it is doing to our planet, but if you look with your own eyes, you’ll easily find all the proof you need. With an ever growing global population, the term ‘over-tourism’ is very real and it is up to every traveller to reduce the footprint which we leave in the countries we visit.
Here are a few helpful ideas you might wish to follow:
Steripen – kills bacteria in tap water rendering it safe to drink (in most cases). Don’t forget your reusable water bottle
Bag for life — buy a collapsable bag which folds into a small pouch, you’ll be surprised how much you end up using it
Metal knife, fork and spoon — save any plastic cutlery
Soap – bring soap from home to avoid leaving plastic body wash bottles behind
Headphones – bring your own and avoid using the plane single-use sets
Tupperware container — you’ll use it more than you think
Straws – make sure you always request not to have one or if your precious, bring cardboard ones from home
My Steripen was actually on loan from Exodus Travels which I was very appreciative of. Do you know in the year leading up to the 30th June 2018, they saved over 1.3 million water 0.5L bottles by offering alternatives to single use bottles. This is what you call a success story!
If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear you own success stories.
Happy travelling folks.