Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
Back in March, a British diver posted a video of himself swimming with manta rays through a sea of plastic waste at Manta Point, a popular dive site around 20km from southeast Bali. The video sparked comments from thousands of others sharing their overseas and underwater experiences with plastic. The overwhelming response: something must be done. But when you’re exploring countries where you can’t drink the tap water and you’re on the go allday, sustainability often takes back seat to convenience.
While the video focused on Indonesia, the plastic problem is worldwide. Leading up to the 2016 Olympics, Rio De Janeiro’s government was criticized for the state of the Guanabara Bay where the Olympic sailors would compete—according to Public Radio International athletes complained about the water quality and bay flotsam ranging from soda bottles to whole couches. The bay is a popular tourist destination with views of the region’s mountains, including Sugar Loaf and Corcovado.
Mediterranean countries see around 200 million tourists each year and, according to the WWF these vacationers cause a 40 percent surge in marine litter, of which 95 percent is plastic. The report claims that though the Mediterranean Sea represents only one percent of the world’s water, it contains seven percent of all the world’s microplastic waste, which can affect the 25,000 plant and animal species living in the region.
In Indonesia, it’s mainly up to hotels to keep the beaches outside their properties looking pretty, which they do by sending a cleaning crew each morning to clear away the plastic and garbage that’s washed up overnight. In Rio’s Guanabara Bay, as locals and tourists alike swim through debris, onshore vendors walk the beaches selling plastic water bottles, plastic-wrapped popsicles, and fresh fruit served in plastic cups and covered in cellophane. Even some Mediterranean countries struggle to provide access to safe drinking water, with health organizations recommending bottled water in those areas.
While the WWF urges governments, businesses, and individuals to do their part in reducing plastic waste by forgoing single-use plastic like plastic straws, cutlery, and stirrers, in countries where it’s unsafe to drink the tap water, travelers and locals alike feel reliant on plastic water bottles. Globally, humans buy 1 million plastic water bottles per minute. In a city or country where the water isn’t safe to drink, consuming water in this way is the norm, and you’ll find plastic water bottles at restaurants, in corner shops, and sold by walking vendors. Avoiding the plastic packaging takes a bit of planning, but some businesses are trying to make it easier to find alternatives.
Exodus Travels, an adventure travel company with destinations across 90 different countries, just launched their Ban the Bottle Initiative with the goal to be entirely plastic free by the end of the year. Tom Harari, Exodus’s Responsible Tourism Manager, wrote via email, “The issues surrounding plastic are now well known. It doesn’t degrade, [it] only breaks down and ends up polluting the environment and finding its way into the food chain. There’s also visual pollution. When you travel to some parts of the world now there are plastic bottles strewn everywhere; the most remote beach will generally have washed-up plastic bottles.”
Exodus Travels helps their patrons stay plastic-free by providing large reusable containers of drinking water on tour busses or in hotels so people can top up their own bottles throughout the day. When the container is empty, it’s exchanged for a full one and the old bottle is returned to the water company to be reused. For their guests, “Filtering water or buying larger containers ends up being a lot cheaper than buying single-use bottles,” says Harari.
Nowadays, there’s also a lot oftechnology available that allow travelers to filter their own water. For ethical travelers looking to reduce their plastic consumption and keep packing to a minimum, a LifeStraw product may be a worthy investment. The original LifeStraw is a lightweight tube that features a two-stage filtration process to remove harmful contaminates from the water before you suck it up through the straw. The first stage is a hollow fiber membrane with microscopic pores that trap contaminates like those that can make you sick if you drink the tap water in Mexico or Indonesia. The second layer is a carbon capsule that absorbs chemicals like chlorine and pesticides. The LifeStraw Flex provides a soft-sided water bottle and also includes a carbon filter that reduces heavy metals like lead.
Similarly, the Sawyer Personal Water Bottle Filter removes 99.99999% of all bacteria and protozoa, including salmonella, cholera, leptospirosis, E.coli, giardia, and cryptosporidium. Reviews on Amazon confirm its use in water-insecure places like India and Central America.
The Grayl Water Bottle—which, according to their website, is appropriate for “filling up at a sketchy hotel sink in Peru, on a gnarly trail needing to drink from a dirty stream, or at home preparing a disaster kit”—uses a purifier cartridge that captures pathogens and contaminates “like a magnet,” filters impurities and toxins, and releases antimicrobial agents that keep the purifier fresh between uses. Created by two travelers who were concerned about global plastic pollution, the Grayl is guaranteed to filter any type of fresh water.
Environmentalists and ethical travelers often pledge to “leave no trace” when traveling or enjoying nature. That means you’re leaving the place at least in the same condition in which you found it—even if that means bringing that trash back home with you to properly dispose of it. Instead of checking a suitcase full of empty water bottles, international travelers can take the easier extra step of packing their own filter and/or choosing lodging and tour providers who have pledged to curb disposable plastics.
Don’t you want your kids and grandkids to see the same clean beaches, swim in the same clear water, and experience the natural beauty of the world you did, without having to trek through the trash you left behind?