How to travel plastic free

Travelling Well | Words: Catherine Lawson | Photos: David Bristow | Posted on 04 July 2019

Reduce your environmental footprint with these plastic-free travel essentials.

Plastic: it’s the packaging of convenience with a terrible reputation and every single piece of it on the planet today is here to stay. Australians throw away great mounds of it every year – bottles, bags, cups and straws – which can take 1000 years or more to break down, and even then leave behind a residue of toxic chemicals.

But change is easier than you might think, even when we travel. Switch the products you pack on your next getaway and refuse plastic at every turn, and you can make every trip a game-changer for the planet.

When planning your next trip, here’s what to pack if you want to travel without plastic. 

Empty, single use plastic bag floating in the ocean

Eight eco-friendly alternatives when travelling

1. A micro silk shopping bag 

Reusable shopping bags are de rigueur at home, but taking this earth-friendly habit travelling is important too. Lightweight silk shopping bags and backpacks are tiny, tough and affordable, available for less than $50 from good outdoor stores.

2. A reusable drink bottle   

A quarter of Australians drink from a single-use plastic water bottle every week, most of which are never recycled. Worldwide an estimated one million plastic water bottles are purchased every minute of every day. 

Drinking plastic-free is easy, just pack your own stainless steel bottle and choose accommodation that makes bottle-free filtered water available to guests. For adventurous destinations, carry a compact UV water steriliser for healthy water in 90 seconds, with no plastic bottle waste. The lightweight USB-rechargeable SteriPEN Ultra is a popular choice ($199 from

3. Package-free toiletries 

Pocketing cute hotel miniatures is a difficult habit to break, but the tiny squeeze of product within all those rarely recycled plastic bottles is nothing to get excited about. 

Your home-bought toiletries are bound to be far better for you hair, skin and the environment, especially when they come package-free. How? Choose solid hair and body wash bars (in compact lightweight tins), a bamboo toothbrush with organically grown bristles, and tooth powder instead of a plastic (non-recyclable) tube of toothpaste. If you only replace your toothbrush every six months, over a lifetime you’ll keep around 170 plastic brushes out of landfill. 

Turtle swimming in the deep sea

By 2050 our oceans are predicted to contain more plastic than fish. Image: Alamy

Mum and daughter drinking from stainless steel water bottle at hike lookout over beach

Drinking plastic-free is easy, just pack your own stainless steel bottle.

4. Bamboo face wipes

Wet wipes are handy little things but this guilty convenience demands a rethink. Despite a lot of claims, the vast majority of facial and anti-bacterial hand wipes are not biodegradable. Replace them with a set of washable muslin cloths and natural hand sanitiser or seek out genuinely biodegradable bamboo-fibre wipes.

5. A bamboo straw

Love your smoothies? Australians use upwards of 10 million straws every day and straw waste is accumulating fast, especially in our oceans. It’s a big problem with a very simple solution, and it’s up to us to leave them on the counter. Instead, pack a lightweight and travel-friendly bamboo straw: renewable, sustainable and 100 per cent compostable, priced from $2 at earth-friendly smoothie dens.

6. A reusable coffee cup

If all the coffee cups manufactured this year (that’s 500,000,000,000 cups) were lined up end-to-end they would stretch around the globe 1360 times. That’s a whole lot of landfill. 

Difficult to recycle, most single-use cups contain a waterproof polyurethane plastic lining that will outlast us all. Aussies throwback (and throw away) upwards of three billion coffees sold in single-use cups every year. 

Some recycling facilities can process plastic-lined cups, but this practice is not common Australia-wide and when you travel, empty cups are highly likely to be binned. The simple solution is to pack your own lightweight reusable mug for drinks on the go (you’ll often score a small discount on your coffee too), or slow down, sit and sip your favourite cuppa out of a ceramic cup.

Bunch of plastic toothbrushes tied to a tree

Don't send plastic toothbrushes to landfill, switch to bamboo instead.

Close up of turtle under water

Landfill is no longer the end of the plastic problem, ocean wildlife are in plastic peril, too.

7. Eco-friendly clothing and luggage

Travel can be tough on clothes, especially when you pack light and wash often. We all know that quality gear lasts so invest in the best clothing, footwear and luggage you can afford, purchased from ethical, ecologically motivated equipment companies that favour recycled and recyclable materials, manufactured in carbon-neutral factories, and who sell their gear without plastic packaging. 

8. A reusable takeaway container

If you love your street food and eats on the go, pack a lightweight bamboo or stainless-steel food box (which can be used to store lots of gear in transit) and a titanium spork or a set of bamboo cutlery. 

Why? Because according to the World Economic Forum, by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish, and plastic food packaging is largely to blame. When plastic degrades in marine ecosystems, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, tiny amounts of it are ingested by birds, fish and turtles, causing starvation and eventual death.  

In 2018, France became the first country in the world to ban disposable food and drink packaging, making reusable coffee cups compulsory by 2020. Until the rest of the world’s governments get bold, travellers need to lead the change. 

Heading overseas? RACV Travel Insurance has you covered.