“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Let me tell you one thing about travel: it disrupts your routine. Here you are trying to make the world a better place: carrying reusable bags to grocery stores, refusing straws in cafes, and filling up your own bottle at water stations. Next, you go on vacation and all of a sudden the mundane things you are so used to doing are not easy anymore.
There are no fountains with drinking water in developing countries, and even if there were you’d be scared to use them. Cashiers at supermarkets make it a point to put every single item you bought in a separate plastic bag. And a glass of water with a straw in it arrives before you can utter a word of protest. I know how frustrating it can be. The key to sustainable travel is to plan ahead and be prepared. Also, to have a few eco-friendly travel products in your luggage.
Disclosure: this post contains some affiliate links which means if you buy something by clicking the link I will earn a small commission at absolutely no extra cost to you.
13 Eco-Friendly Travel Products I love
Reusable Water Bottle
According to this article in the Guardian, “a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021”. A million every minute! Can you even wrap your mind around it? Because I cannot. Back when I first started thinking about leading a more environmentally-friendly life, ditching water bottles was one of the first moves I made.
There’s no lack of reusable water bottles on the market, but if you ask me Klean Kanteen makes the prettiest, most durable, nice-to-touch bottles (and cups, and tumblers). I try to use less plastic not only because it’s bad for environment, but also because I like to surround myself with high-quality beautiful items (be it my clothes, kitchen items, or travel accessories) and plastic happens to look cheap. Klean Kanteen bottle is sleek and stylish. Besides, it has a lifetime warranty. That says a lot about the bottle and the company that produced it.
Water Bottle with Filter
Now, a reusable water bottle is great, but sometimes it juts doesn’t do the trick. For example, when you are in a country where tap water is dangerous to drink or when you are hiking for several days on end. This is one of those situations when I find myself buying bottles of water time and again. I recently looked into sustainable solutions for this problem and came across LifeStraw.
If you’ve never heard of LifeStraw, it’s going to blow your mind! Basically, it’s like a personal reusable portable water filter that can fit into a pocket. All you do is stick the straw into any water source (be it a bottle or a lake) and suck water through the filter and into your mouth. Whaaaaat! The filter removes 99.9% of waterborne bacteria, and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites without chemicals, iodine or batteries.
You have two options: buy a straw by itself or buy a water bottle with a straw inside. The bottle with filter is definitely pricier than a regular water bottle, but it’s a lifesaver in countries where tap water is dangerous to drink. I haven’t gotten the LifeStraw yet, but it’s the next item on my to-buy list.
P.S. One more tip for those who travel in remote areas without access to clean drinking water — get a SteriPen. SteriPen is a small device that looks like a pen and operates on batteries. When you submerge it into water, the pan emits ultraviolet light that purifies the water within one minute.
Reusable Coffee Cup
The fact that single-use coffee cups are bad for environment was my biggest revelation. After all, coffee cups are made of paper, they can’t be harmful, right? Wrong. Here’s a quote from the Independent, explaining why disposable coffee cups do not belong on eco-friendly product list:
“Though they are made largely of paper, disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic polyethylene, which is tightly bonded to the paper making the cups waterproof and therefore able to contain liquid. In addition, the difficulty of recycling coffee cups is increased by the fact they are contaminated with drink. The reality is that less than 1 per cent of coffee cups ever end being recycled.”
Which means a coffee cup you used for 10 minutes will stay in a waste pile (best case scenario, worst case — in the ocean) for years and years to come.
Instead, get a reusable cup or tumbler. When I switched to reusable coffee cups, my first choice was KeepCup. They are colorful, cute, and light. The problem — their life expectancy is not long. After about two years, the cup started to give out a smell that just killed the joy of drinking coffee (they now make cups of toughened glass which probably solved this problem).
This year I switched to Klean Kanteen’s stainless steel tumbler and couldn’t be happier. I love it’s minimalistic design, how it feels in my hand, and especially that it keeps drinks hot for up to 4 hours (cold drinks — for 20 hours).
Tip: you can also buy a tumbler that comes with an additional lid, reusable straw, and a brush for cleaning — perfect for juices and smoothies.
Reusable Drinking Straw
For me personally, straws were the easiest to leave behind. I don’t use them. Period. And it honestly makes me giggle inside when people ask “But how am I going to drink my smoothie/cocktail/water?” What are you, three years old? Sip it!
Ok, I am done being judgmental. I know sometimes a straw is a good idea, like when you are wearing red lipstick or when you are not too sure about how clean the bottle or cup is. Good news is that you can buy a reusable straw and carry it with you. Some of the eco-friendly options include stainless steel and bamboo.
Reusable cutlery is an awesome alternative to plastic spoons and forks you so often get at roadside cafes and markets in developing countries. You can choose between buying a whole set (spoon, fork, knife) or a two-in-one spork — I know how “spork” sounds, but it’s convenient and saves space in your luggage. You can also choose between different materials like stainless steel (more durable) or bamboo (natural and light).
Oh and one more trick I learned from Jodi of Legal Nomads: you can carry reusable chopsticks with you. They are really handy and take up practically no space.
Reusable Snack Bags
I remember when I moved to the USA and discovered ziplock bags — the happiness! I’ve never seen them before: how simple and how comfortable! I used to wash and reuse them not because I was eco-friendly, but because I didn’t realize people actually throw them out after a single use.
Thankfully, there are alternatives that last longer. For example, Bumkins snack bags. They are made of waterproof and stain-resistant fabric and have a zipper. Apart from smaller snack bags, Bumkins also make larger sandwich bags.
If you need to wrap something up, like cut up fruits or cheese, Bee’s Wrap is an awesome way to go. It is made of organic cotton covered in bee’s wax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. Using it is as simple as using plastic cling wrap (only without the damage to the planet). The heat from your hands helps melt the wax slightly and seal the edges.
I never forget to take a reusable bag to a supermarket when I am home. But as soon as I go on vacation, somehow plastic bags sneak back into my life. Sounds familiar? Recently, I started packing a tote bag in my luggage and then carry it in my purse wherever I travel. Whether I want to by souvenirs, take a box of leftovers from a restaurant, or do spontaneous grocery shopping for the next day breakfast, tote bag is right there in my purse.
I have a bunch of tote bags at home which origins I cant even remember. But if you still don’t own one, check out these cotton bags. They are smaller than regular shopping bags which is perfect for traveling — you are not going to buy a week’s worth of produce anyways. Besides, they are beautiful so you can walk around a city with this bag on your shoulder. Or check out this old-school natural cotton string bag which remind me of Soviet times and the so-called “avos’ka”.
Bamboo Tooth Brush
Moving on to toiletries! I switched from traditional tooth brush to bamboo one about a year ago. I have to say that bamboo toothbrush is less durable. After the first time I used it, I thought I’d have to throw it away in a week. Surprisingly, it lasted for three months. I buy a pack of four for a year. There are a lot of brands on the market, I am using this one.
Another switch I did last year is from shower gels to regular soap. To me, shower gel is unnecessary luxury, a waste of money and a burden on the planet. It’s a tiny change really, but it is still one less plastic bottle I use on a monthly basis. When you travel, a soap holder takes up less space than a bottle of shower gel. Besides, you can put it in your carry-on.
Solid Shampoo and Conditioner Bars
To reduce the use of plastic bottles you can buy shampoo and conditioner solid bars instead. I didn’t make the switch at home yet, but these bars are perfect when you travel. They take up little space, they are solid which means you can put them in your backpack or carry-on and take on the plane. They also tend to have less chemicals than your normal brands in supermarkets.
Silicone Bottles for Toiletries
I know that tiny branded toiletries you find at hotels are cute, but think how much plastic you are using for two squeezes of shampoo! I always try to stay away from them when I book hotels and take my own toiletries instead. GoToob travel bottles are, probably, the best option to do so.
These are perfect for short trips, when I don’t have space to take full bottles of shampoo/conditioner. One bottle is 3.4 oz (100 ml) which is compatible with most airlines’ regulations for liquids allowed in carry-on bags. The bottles are made from BPA-free food-safe silicone, have a large opening for easy refill, and a safe lock. They are not completely leak-proof, so it’s better to put them in a ziplock bag (preferably a reusable one) before packing it into a suitcase. In my experience, nothing ever spilled out.
I have their original set of three bottles GoToob, but there’s a newer version GoToob+ that looks even cooler. The bottles have a flat area on the bottom that enables them to stand up. They also have a hook for hanging in the bathroom and an even tighter lock.
I recently read in an article on Vice that “like vegans and people who do CrossFit, menstrual cup converts have earned a reputation for evangelizing”. Guilty as charged. But menstrual cups have so many advantages in comparison with tampons and pads, that not giving them at least a try would be silly.
Forget about the environment for a moment. When it comes to your hoo-ha, environment can wait, I know. The best thing about menstrual cup is that it’s actually comfortable. The fact that you only have to change it after 10-12 hours is freaking amazing, especially when you travel.
No more looking for a bathroom every four hours. No more having to use the bathroom that is nowhere near clean because you absolutely have to change a tampon, or else… No more hunting for tampons, and yes that’s a real thing. I dare you to find tampons in a country like Sri Lanka. Pads are the best you can score and they are the size of an airplane!
Not only is a menstrual cup comfortable, but it’s cheaper too. Think of all the money you are spending every month on tampons and pads. Menstrual cup is an initial investment, but it will serve you for years.
Lastly, yes, environment! Reusable is always better than single use. Menstrual cups are a way better alternative when it comes to caring about the planet.
A word of warning. If you decide to give a menstrual cup a try — don’t give up after the first time. Like anything new, it takes some getting used to. When I started I gave myself half a year. For the first few months I used tampons and the cup interchangeably because the thought of inserting the cup and taking it out terrified me. By the end of six months, I stopped buying tampons all together and never looked back.
BUY IT HERE (make sure to choose the right size!)
Now what can be possibly wrong with sunscreen, you ask? I’ll tell you. Sunscreens are generally divided into two groups: mineral and chemical. The Independent explains the difference between the two in this article:
“Chemical sunscreens absorb ultraviolet radiation like a sponge, while mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide reflect it back from the surface of the skin like a mirror.”
The difference lies not only in how these sunscreens react to UVA rays, but also in their impact on human body and environment. Chemical sunscreens contain elements like oxybenzone and octinoxate that proved to be dangerous for eco-systems, especially for coral reefs. So much so that Hawaii passed a bill in 2018 banning the sale of sunscreens that contain dangerous ingredients on the islands.
According to the New York Times article:
“An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited in oceans annually with the greatest damage found in popular reef areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean.”
The least you can do to help is use mineral sunscreen. I have to say, most mineral sunscreens make skin a little whitish but it’s a small price I am willing to pay. I am using Block Island sunscreen, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about SunBum and planning to try it out next.
There are plenty more eco-friendly travel products on the market, and I hope to update this list gradually, once I try new things. We have a saying in Russian, “I am not a magician, I am only learning”. This is what sustainable life journey has been for me. From the moment I first heard about sustainability seven years ago in Brazil (read this story, it’s pretty cool) to this day. I am trying to do my best, one day at a time. Are you with me?
What other eco-friendly travel products do you use? Let me know in comments!
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Hello Yulia, I found your blog recently courtesy of The Club (BA magazine) and I really like your articles. I am especially thankful for this particular post since sustainability is important for me too and I learned something new today. For example I never heard of mineral sunscreen before. Considering how much I use of the stuff (me getting sunburnt easily is an understatement), it is good to know that there is alternative to the oily, chemical-rich products I currently have in my bathroom cabinet.
Hi Frank! First of all, I am sorry for such a late reply, I’ve been on an unplanned break from blogging for 3 months. I personally didn’t know about the different types of sunscreens until about 2 years ago. We live, we learn. I am sure next year I’ll be able to update this post with a whole bunch of new things I have no idea about now. I guess that’s the beauty of it. There’s hardly any limit to how many good habits we can pick up to help our planet!
This is an amazing article. I really loved looking at these products. Very useful for oneself during travel. Use of Tote Bags is a great way of reducing pollution.
Happy the post was helpful, Julianne!