When Dianna Cohen travels, she packs as if she were headed into battle. And in a way, she is. Her enemy is single-use plastics.
To combat her foe, which appears in such disguises as water bottles, straws and bags, Cohen always carries a stainless-steel cup by Hydro Flask and a S’well bottle that she fills up at hydration stations and taps. For purchases, she thwarts plastic sacks with a reusable Micro ChicoBag. She also throws in To-Go Ware bamboo utensils, a folding spork, titanium plates and two metal straws.
“I found out that it wasn’t very polite of me to pull out a straw without one for a friend,” said the chief executive of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, an alliance working to cleanse the planet of plastics.
Unfortunately, her arsenal can’t always protect her from the omnipresent material. In these situations, she will switch to a defensive position.
“Please don’t put any plastic in my drink,” Cohen will inform the server or bartender when placing her order.
The world is drowning in plastic, and the travel industry is enabling our habit. The disposable items turn up on planes (cups, stirrers, water bottles), hotels (toiletries, breakfast utensils, laundry bags) and cruise ships (straws, straws, straws). For instance, Hurtigruten uses 390,000 plastic cups and 960,000 straws on its cruises each year. A typical limited-service Marriott hotel in North America blows through 23,000 toiletry bottles annually. Last year, Alaska Airlines handed out 22 million plastic stirrers and citrus picks.
“There are huge amounts of plastic in the travel industry,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “It’s basically everywhere.”
To address the perils of plastics — for a reality shock, watch the YouTube video of a Costa Rican sea turtle with a straw up his nasal cavity — several organizations have launched global programs to raise awareness and reduce consumption. U.N. Environment unveiled the CleanSeas campaign last year, and more than 40 countries have signed on, including dozens of nations that have banned plastic bags. The Plastic Pollution Coalition offers free guides on how to live — and travel — without plastics. And OneLessStraw rewards participants who promise to renounce straws with a reusable glass version.
If you missed International Straw Free Day on Feb. 3 — perhaps you were too busy celebrating Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or Elmo’s birthday — you’ll have more chances to nix plastic this summer. International Plastic Bag Free Day falls on July 3, or take the whole month off with Plastic Free July, a movement that originated in Perth, Australia, in 2011.
You might also consider de-plasticizing your vacation. Many destinations, airlines, hotels and cruise lines are phasing out single-use plastics and introducing more environmentally friendly alternatives, including edible styles. Now, you can toast your plastic-free summer with a festive cocktail accessorized with a straw that could end up in your gullet but never the landfill or ocean.
Rwanda was a pioneer, banning nonbiodegradable polyethylene bags a decade ago. The effort has worked. “Kigali has to be one of the cleanest cities in Africa,” Michael Sheldrick, vice president of global policy and government affairs at Global Citizen, said of Rwanda’s capital. “You don’t see bags floating in the streets or hanging from trees.” Since then, more than 40 countries have enacted laws on plastics. The restrictions vary from mild (a nominal bag tax in Denmark) to serious (up to $40,000 in fines or four years in jail in Kenya). Here is a sampling of measures around the world.
United States: California banned select retailers from providing plastic bags to customers two years ago and recently introduced a bill reining in straws at restaurants. In New York, lawmakers have floated several proposals, including a statewide bag ban and, in New York City, an embargo on the sale of water bottles in public parks and beaches and the distribution of straws in drinking and dining establishments. One law under consideration in Hawaii would punish violators caught selling or offering straws with a three-figure fine and hours of community service, such as removing litter.
On the local level, environmental organizations estimate that 150 to 250 cities have banned plastic bags, including Boston (effective in November) and Malibu, Calif. (2008), which will add straws, stirrers and cutlery to its forbidden list on June 1. After its successful Strawless in Seattle campaign last year, the Emerald City will outlaw straws and utensils after July 1. For other actions around the country, consult the State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation list assembled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Canada: Starting on July 1, the country will no longer sell beauty and oral-care products seeded with plastic microbeads. Cities are also baring their anti-plastic fangs. Montreal will ban bags starting on June 5; Victoria will follow suit in July. The Vancouver Aquarium has not permitted straws for a decade, and its host city has finally caught the eco-wave with its Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy. “First in Canada!” the mayor’s office tweeted May 16. “Vancouver adopts new policy to prohibit polystyrene foam cups and takeout containers, and single-use plastic straws, as part of the Zero Waste 2040 strategy.”
Central America: Belize will celebrate Earth Day 2019 by ridding itself of straws, bags and utensils. Costa Rica has equally grand ambitions: The eco-friendly country intends to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2021, the same year it plans to become carbon neutral. Last year, Chile’ s president addressed the marine crisis by prohibiting bags in more than 100 coastal villages and towns. In May, he strengthened the message by proposing a nationwide ban.
Europe: The European Union released its three Rs platform in January: The 28 member states must shift to recyclable plastic packaging by 2030, reduce consumption of single-use plastics and restrict microplastics. However, many European countries have already shown plastics the door.
In Britain, the prime minister recently announced a ban on all single-use plastics, including stirrers and cotton swabs, starting as early as next year. Even Queen Elizabeth II is on-message: Her Majesty ousted straws and plastic bottles from the royal estates, including the gift shops and cafes. On the continent, Hamburg has given the boot to non-recyclable coffee pods and France will end its fraternité with plastics by forbidding cups, plates and cutlery beginning in 2020.
Africa: Several African countries have banned or taxed plastic items, including Botswana, South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Morocco and Tanzania. However, U.N. Environment said enforcement is “somewhat patchy” in many places. In August, Kenya passed one of the world’s strictest laws. “You will stand out for sure,” Solheim said of individuals spotted with plastic bags. “They will tell you to get rid of it.”
Asia: In February, Taiwan announced a multiphase plan to wean itself off plastic products by 2030. The island nation will kick off the uncoupling with no straws in chain restaurants in 2019 and end with a complete ban on bags, food containers and utensils.
If you want a straw for your margarita and ocean views, you’ll have to ask for it.
In April, Carnival announced a by-request-only policy for its 26 ships. One exemption: frozen drinks. In addition, the company’s P&O Cruises and Cunard will eliminate all plastics by 2022.
Passengers aboard Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel, Symphony of the Seas, won’t find straws, stirrers or picks on the world’s largest cruise ship. The company will extend its policy to Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and other RCI ships “as soon as possible,” according to a statement.
Starting July 2, Hurtigruten will scrub its 17 ships of plastics, including straws, stirrers, plastic-wrapped plastic glasses, cutlery, bags, coffee cup lids, toothpicks, aprons and single-use packaged butter.
On July 16, Alaska Airlines will substitute plastic stirrers and citrus picks with a white birch version on all domestic and international flights and in airport lounges. The carrier will accommodate passengers who request a straw with a marine-friendly variety.
Ryanair peered into the crystal ball and saw no plastics by 2023: “For customers on board, this will mean initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, biodegradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products,” the low-fare European airline announced earlier this year.
After attending the Burning Man festival in Nevada four years ago, Ben Pundole returned to his life as vice president of brand experience at Edition Hotels with a new purpose: to purify the boutique hotel chain of plastics. The Miami Beach, London and Manhattan properties reached the 80 to 90 percent purge mark on Earth Day. To achieve his goal, Pundole switched over to bamboo for the food containers, combs and toothbrushes and to cans for the gym and turndown service. Edition plans to open seven hotels in the next 18 months and all will adhere to Pundole’s Burning Man revelation.
Bruno Correa, who founded Bee + Hive, an association of eco-minded hotels, parks and restaurants, started with “the low-hanging fruit.” The seven properties in Brazil, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Australia and Georgia will offer paper — not plastic — straws. “When people ask for a straw,” he said, “we can use this as an opportunity to educate them about the issue.”
Larger chains with thousands of rooms are also casting out straws. Among them: Anantara and Avani Hotels & Resorts in Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Middle East; Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; India-based Taj Hotels; AccorHotels in North and Central America; and Marriott, which has removed straws at 60 British properties and replaced toiletry bottles with shower dispensers at 1,500 North American hotels. The company expects to triple the number of hotels with the refillable containers by the end of the year.
Some Hilton hotels are testing edible straws made of sugar and cornstarch and everything eco-nice. Its China properties are pulling water bottles from meeting rooms, events, gyms and spas, saving more than 13 million bottles a year. In Australia, nearly 20 hotels tout no plastics, down to the pens and laundry bags. During Earth Week, Hilton Los Cabos became the first hotel in Mexico to eighty-six straws.
Iberostar Group is on a mission to clear all plastic from its 36 Spain hotels by this summer and its 110 properties around the world by 2019. The decision translates to 2.5 million fewer plastic items besmirching the environment.
When packing, follow the BYO principle. At the very minimum, carry a refillable bottle that can handle hot and cold liquids and a metal spork, because ice cream is mandatory at every destination. If you subsist on food truck and takeout fare, toss in camping-style plates, cups and utensils, including chopsticks, which can double as a coffee stirrer. Fancy a reusable straw? Pick your flavor: stainless-steel, paper, glass, bamboo and even pasta. For shopping excursions, bring collapsible bags that can accommodate purchases of various sizes and heft. Don’t forget a mesh or cloth sack for laundry and muddy shoes.
On planes, Cohen suggests you forgo the plastic cup on the beverage cart and instead hold out your reusable chalice and smile. Contamination is a concern; the flight attendant will pour high so that the lip of the serving bottle doesn’t kiss your container.
Countries with unsafe tap water is one of the biggest challenges for the plastic-averse. (Even travelers who embrace plastic should be careful in developing countries, which may use a cheap material that can leach into the liquid.) If you are staying at a hotel with treated water, fill up your flask each day. If your room has a kettle, boil water then let it cool and pour it into your vessel. Also, hydrate creatively. In India, Cohen drank hot chai and carbonated water sold in glass bottles. When Nunez visits Belize and Mexico, she prepares her own potable water with a SteriPEN, a UV-powered water purifier. She also recommends Sawyer Mini for rural areas with turbid water and LifeStraw for everywhere else. The filtration system doesn’t just remove bacteria and chemicals; it also keeps up 8,000 water bottles off the streets and out of our oceans.
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