How to Take Your Next Trip Without Single-Use Plastics

It might be easier than you think.

How to Eliminate Single-Use Plastics on Vacation

Avoiding single-use plastics like bottles and bags is hard enough at home, and can be especially difficult while traveling. When you’re on the go and trying to pack light, it’s easy to grab a plastic-wrapped sandwich and bottle of water. But eliminating single-use plastics on a trip might be easier than you think—even in a foreign country without potable water.

I took on this challenge in Belize, a country that is no stranger to ecotourism. Its government recently announced a ban on major single-use plastics like bags and straws to go into effect by Earth Day 2019. And UNESCO has removed the Belize Barrier Reef from its list of World Heritage in Danger, after years of efforts to restore the reef’s long-term health.

The green mindset reaches local scales, too: I loved visiting smaller cities like Punta Gorda, where a glass soda bottle is cheaper than a plastic one, because the glass bottles can be sanitized and reused.

South Africa: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve

Each September, the UNESCO-protected Cape Floral Region bursts into living color with some of the greatest concentrations of floral species in the world. Bushmans Kloof, a century-old homestead turned nature reserve, cares for 18,532 acres of this rare habitat—home to endangered Cape mountain zebras and archaeological sites that include 10,000-year-old San rock paintings. “We are dedicated to Bushmans Kloof’s enduring legacy, to help protect and preserve its precious heritage through ecotourism, conservation programs, and community benefit projects,” says South African-born Toni Tollman, who oversees the reserve on behalf of her family. Sixteen lavish rooms and a private family villa serve as the base camp for daily outings or unwinding fireside (above) with a glass of the Cape’s finest vintages. 16 rooms; from $420, including full board.

Indonesia: Misool Eco Resort

This eco-hideaway, consisting of 13 breezy bungalows handcrafted out of salvaged driftwood, turns the old cliché that the journey matters more than the destination on its head: It’s not easy to reach this remote outpost in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, but being there makes it all worthwhile. Located at the center of Southeast Asia’s famed Coral Triangle, Misool provides front-row access to an underwater world teeming with marine life (above)—there are more kinds of fish and coral here than bird species in the Amazon. Local village visits and paddling across the baby blue waters are also options, but for diving and snorkeling aficionados, this is a trip of a lifetime. 13 rooms; from $5,466 for 7 nights (minimum stay), including full board.

Peru: Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica

This remote rain forest lodge has supported over 20 years of ongoing scientific research. “Peru contains more than two-thirds of Earth’s diverse ecological life zones, and we have a responsibility to help protect this biodiversity,” explains José Koechlin, the Peruvian who founded and is president of Inkaterra. Choose between sleeping in one of 35 airy wood-and-thatch cabanas (above) or a secluded canopy tree house. The Anaconda trail allows visitors to cross the flooded Aguajales swamp on a wooden boardwalk, revealing a host of tropical amphibians (Inkaterra has helped identify five new species to date). Traversing the canopy on a hanging walkway delivers treetop access to colorful birds and some of the more than 1,266 species of flora found here. 35 cabanas; from $1,084 for required two-night minimum stay, including full board and daily excursions.

Australia: Great Ocean Ecolodge

Located on the grounds of the Conservation Ecology Centre in Victoria, the Great Ocean Ecolodge also borders Great Otway National Park, which protects swaths of eucalyptus forests, thundering waterfalls, and windswept heathlands that end at dramatic cliffs above the churning ocean. Its five elegant rooms overlook grassy fields where wild kangaroos come to feed and play. “This is one of the best ecotourism experiences in the country and is the embodiment of tourism igniting a conservation ethic among guests,” says Tony Charters, former president of Ecotourism Australia. Look for koalas feeding and dozing in the treetops, help care for injured and orphaned wildlife (above), or set out on the 64-mile Great Ocean Walk, with fresh supplies provided daily by the lodge staff. 5 rooms; from $360, including continental breakfast.

Greece: Milia Mountain Retreat

In the 1980s, when many Greeks left their villages to ride the wave of tourism development along the coast, two local friends took to the mountains of Crete instead. Their vision: restore an abandoned medieval village and turn it into a retreat (above) based on living in harmony with nature. “The ancient Greeks called this autarkeia, which means self-sustaining,” says manager Tassos Gourgouras. Today, travelers the world over flock to this off-the-grid stone village to hike on wild mountain trails, sleep in rustic cottages, and savor authentic Cretan dishes like roasted rabbit with mizithra goat cheese and spearmint, washed down with Milia’s own organic wine. 15 rooms; from $100, including breakfast.

Nicaragua: Jicaro Island Ecolodge

Jicaro sits serenely on a tiny islet in the freshwater “ocean” of Lake Nicaragua, a short boat ride from Granada, the oldest colonial city in Central America. Constructed from salvaged hardwoods felled by a hurricane in 2007, the nine casitas cater to romantic escapes (sorry, no kids under 12). Couples relish the privacy of large breezy bedrooms, intimate dinners (above), and easy access to Granada’s cafés and cobblestoned streets. “Sustainability has been built into Jicaro from the ground up,” says Hans Pfister, one of the founders of the Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality collection of small eco-hotels that includes Jicaro. More active guests set out on hikes along the flanks of Mombacho Volcano and kayak among the other 300 islets. 9 casitas; from $390, including full board and round-trip boat transportation from Granada.

China: Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

Simple, authentic, and sustainable are the leading qualities behind this locally owned ecolodge surrounded by limestone karst peaks, located about an hour’s drive, and a world away, from the bustling tourist city of Guilin. You won’t find TV or telephones here, but you will spot water buffalo bathing amid emerald paddies as farmers till their fields by hand. Though the fairy-tale landscape (above) has inspired Chinese poets and artists for centuries, it is also popular with today’s back­packers, who are eager to tap into outdoor pursuits such as rock climbing, mountain biking, and river-rafting on bamboo rafts, along with visiting traditional villages. The lodge supports local initiatives such as a school for children with physical disabilities. 30 rooms; from $60.

Sri Lanka: Jetwing Vil Uyana

Built on man-made wetlands (above), this luxury hotel weaves culture and nature together into one seamless experience for travelers pining for both. Twenty-five earth-toned dwellings await in forest and marsh habitats, where more than a hundred wildlife species are found, including such rarities as the gray slender loris. “Ten years ago, this same area was a barren patch of slash-and-burn agriculture,” explains chairman of Jetwing Hotels Hiran Cooray. “We worked hard to nurture it back to nature.” Guests set out on foot to explore the ancient city of Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site just minutes away that rises 1,214 feet high. 27 rooms; from $150, including breakfast.

Poland: Eco-Frontiers Ranch

This is the place for anyone who has pondered going back to the land and living a sustainable lifestyle or has wanted to get a taste of that experience as a traveler. Located in the Carpathian Mountains on a wedge of Poland between the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, the cabin-like rooms sleep up to seven guests and are surrounded by some of Europe’s most spectacular wilderness, where wolves, bears, and lynx still roam. During summer, head into Bieszczady National Park on guided nature walks, and in winter, swap hiking boots for snowshoes and cross-country skis. Vegetarian Polish meals are the daily fare. At night, settle in at the Renewable Resources Bar to sample award-winning microbrews. 2 rooms; from $63, including breakfast.

Namibia: Damaraland Camp

In a country of successful conservation programs that have helped increase elephant numbers and expand the range of endangered black rhinos, Damaraland Camp (above) has been a pioneer. “We formed the first joint venture in Namibia between a safari company and local villagers,” says former goat herder turned camp concession manager, Pescolena Florry. The Torra Conservancy established by her community has become a model for reducing poverty and protecting wildlife in Africa. From sunrise breakfasts on a mountaintop to stargazing dinners in the desert, the camp staff delights in creating special experiences, and top guides share their intimate knowledge of Namibia’s unique desert habitats. 10 rooms; from $475, including full board and daily game-viewing activities.

South Africa: Bulungula Lodge

A bumpy ride down a long dirt track ends at Bulungula on South Africa's "Wild Coast," where ten whitewashed rondavels (traditional rounded thatched huts), co-owned and managed by Xhosa villagers, use the sun, wind, and rain to provide daily energy needs. Shoestring travelers are welcomed like family to this rustic lodge that also provides economic opportunities for the rural community. Breakfast? Down a fresh fruit smoothie, then join villagers in activities like brickmaking, beer brewing, and maize stamping. Or set out for a walk across miles of empty beach, listening to the sound track of rolling waves. 10 huts; from $39.

Kenya: Eagle View Camp

On the observation deck of this oasis, you can sip sundowners while getting an eagle’s-eye view of watchful predators and wary prey eager to quench their thirst at the Koiyake River water hole (above). The nine sustainably sourced wood and canvas tents are carefully positioned along an escarpment above a secluded valley teeming with wildlife. Nature walks are led by Maasai guides on the remote 50,000-acre Mara Naboisho Conservancy, made up of communal tribal land. At night, embark on forays to spot nocturnal creatures like the aardvark and bush baby; during the day, set out to find the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo) in the adjacent Masai Mara National Reserve. 9 tented suites; from $380, including full board, tours, and game drives.

Jordan: Feynan Ecolodge

The Dana Biosphere Reserve—a gold and crimson desert carved by ancient wadis—is the backdrop for Feynan Ecolodge (above), owned by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Glowing candles handmade by local women illuminate rooms and interior courtyards decorated with traditional handicrafts. The midday heat of summer encourages early morning and late afternoon activities such as mountain biking and trekking; during the winter months, fireplaces fed with charcoal made of crushed olive pits, a renewable and readily available resource, keep things warm and cozy. Bedouin hosts lead activities like making flatbread over an open fire and exploring 4,000-year-old copper mines that existed in the time of the Roman Empire. 26 rooms; from $110, including breakfast and Dana Reserve entrance fee.

Brazil: Cristalino Jungle Lodge

A 28,167-acre rain forest reserve in southern Mato Grosso envelops Cristalino’s wood-and-tile bungalows, designed to take advantage of cooling breezes and natural light. The languid Cristalino River provides plenty of opportunities for canoeing, swimming, nature walks (above), and wildlife viewing—from the rare giant otters playfully at home in the water to the endemic red-nosed bearded saki monkeys traversing the treetops. Climb one of the two 164-foot observation towers to get a look at some of the more than 550 birds that have been identified in this species-rich corner of the Amazon and be rewarded with a stunning above-the-canopy view of the world’s largest jungle. 16 rooms; from $630, including full board and exploration trips.

Guatemala: Laguna Lodge

Tucked along the shore of Lake Atitlán (above), with its misty volcanoes and Maya villages, Laguna’s six suites artfully blend adobe bricks, river stone, and brightly embroidered huipils and hand-loomed blankets. The dining tilts organic, fresh, and meat free, and the aromatic coffee comes from the lodge’s own gardens and is roasted on-site. A hundred-acre nature reserve established by the lodge reaches from the shore up 1,305 feet. Old Maya trails wind through some of the last remaining primary tropical dry forest around the lake, home to belted flycatchers and other endemic birds. Adrenaline buffs can jump from high rock faces into the deep water. 6 rooms; from $240, including breakfast and boat transportation to and from Panajachel.

New Zealand: Resurgence

A winding country road follows the brilliant blue edge of Tasman Bay to this luxe hideout on 50 acres near the clear bubbling source (“the resurgence”) of the Riwaka River. Native birds, including the melodious tui, flutter across meandering pathways to large and sunny chalets (above). Among other sustainability highlights, the husband and wife who own the Resurgence plant an indigenous tree for every couple who visits. The location could hardly be better: Hip artist enclaves and the Nelson region’s renowned wine estates can be found nearby, and total wilderness immersion awaits on guided treks in Kahurangi National Park, an easy day-trip away. 10 rooms; from $437, including breakfast.

Vietnam: Six Senses Con Dao

No shirt, no shoes, no problem could be the daily mantra at this Six Senses haven constructed from reclaimed teak, including over a thousand recycled antique wooden panels (above). The resort dangles on a slice of world-class beach in Con Dao National Park—a 45-minute flight from frenetic Ho Chi Minh City. Sustainability takes center stage, with initiatives including local and organic meals, no plastic water bottles, and nontoxic biodegradable cleaning products and amenities. Windsurfing, body boarding, and sailing start right outside the door. But for many guests, the activity of choice is simply immersion in the unspoiled nature that surrounds the private villas. 50 rooms; from $580, including breakfast.

Zanzibar: Chumbe Island Coral Park

It’s hard to get more environmentally friendly than Chumbe’s seven eco-bungalows (above) on a sun-splashed coral island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Rainwater is collected for daily needs, the sun provides energy, and composting toilets keep the surrounding marine park pollution free. The entire enterprise doubles as a nature reserve that also offers educational programs for local children. Forested trails deliver up close encounters with the endangered Aders’ duiker and rare coconut crabs (the world’s largest land crabs) that seek refuge here. Guests can also explore Zanzibar’s historic towns, don masks and fins to snorkel the healthy private reef, then retire at night to dine by lantern on traditional Swahili cuisine. 7 rooms; from $260, including full board and round-trip boat transfers.

Mongolia: Three Camel Lodge

At the edge of a volcanic outcrop providing bright morning vistas across Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Three Camel’s 50 gers (yurts) appear more like a herders’ village than a lodge (above). “Our approach has always been to embrace the culture,” says owner Jalsa Urubshurow. “Local artisans crafted the roof of the main building without using a single nail, according to the tenets of Mongolian Buddhist architecture.” The lodge funds a range of conservation efforts, including replanting more than 6,000 native trees and shrubs to help prevent desertification. Hiking, exploring paleontology sites, and bird-watching fill the days; later the chef’s open kitchen offers cozy meals such as steamed meat dumplings while the sun gives way to night skies brimming with stars. 50 rooms; from $350, including full board.

Botswana: DumaTau

Osprey Lagoon, near the source of Botswana’s mysteriously intermittent Savuti Channel (after a nearly 30-year hiatus, it began flowing again in 2008), forms part of the wildlife-rich Linyanti ecosystem. It is also the veranda view for DumaTau’s completely refurbished eco-camp (above). “In keeping with our conservation-through-tourism ethos, DumaTau operates on solar energy, while biogas from our organic kitchen waste helps supply the cooking fuel,” explains Brett Wallington, sustainability coordinator at Wilderness Safaris. This is elephant country, and herds thrive in the marshy habitat, providing plenty of intimate photo ops, in open-sided Land Rovers, on foot, and by boat when the water’s flowing. 10 tents; from $868, including full board and daily game-viewing activities.

Canada: Cree Village Eco Lodge

Overlooking the subarctic waterways of the tidal Moose River in northern Ontario, the 20-room lodge is designed in the style of a Cree village shabatwon—a traditional long tepee with doors at each end. The soaring structure of pine, cedar, and hickory (above) lets in the nearly 20 hours of summer light; stone fireplaces and warm guest rooms padded with thick carpets and blankets of natural wool keep winter’s chill at bay. Guests can hike in Tidewater Provincial Park, take a boat to James Bay for seal- and whale-spotting led by local guides, or view the northern lights at night. The lodge restaurant serves fair-trade coffee as well as health-minded aboriginal cuisine, including free-range bison from Ontario and caribou from Nunavut. 20 rooms; from $168.

Belize: Turtle Inn

“When I was making Apocalypse Now, I became infatuated with the jungle,” says Francis Ford Coppola about what first led him to Belize. On the beach here he built an eco-complex of 25 thatched cottages (above) where the famous filmmaker comes to chill out. Steady ocean breezes replace artificial air conditioning, stainless steel water bottles take priority over plastic, and an expansive organic garden and fresh seafood delivered by local fishermen supply the menu, along with a stash of choice wines from Coppola’s own vineyards. The inn partners with SEA Belize and Rainforest Alliance for marine conservation. Popular outings include jaunts to nearby Placencia village or the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef just offshore. 25 cottages; from $299, including continental breakfast.

Mexico: Hacienda Santa Rosa

This meticulously restored family-owned plantation house (above) is located 44 miles south of the colonial city of Mérida on the Yucatán Peninsula. Santa Rosa combines environmental stewardship with community projects such as directly supporting small-business development for local Maya women. Guests can spend time with village artisans; savor Maya recipes like chicken pibil, handed down through generations; swim in hidden cenotes; and sniff around an on-site botanic garden. In a nod to the hacienda’s former life as a center for the production of sisal, hand-woven hammocks encourage a long afternoon siesta. 11 rooms; from $240.

Costa Rica: Pacuare Lodge

Visitors come for the adventure and stay for the romance at Pacuare, located on 25,000 protected acres of high-biodiversity rain forest in the Talamanca Mountains—home to jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, and sloths. Arrival is by white-water raft on the lodge’s namesake river (for those who don’t want to get wet, the overland alternative includes a combo of 4x4 vehicle, hand-pulled-cable river crossing, and a short hike). Once you are there, a different kind of experience unfolds—think Swiss Family Robinson meets jungle luxury (above). Candlelight dinners accompanied by fine wines are the hallmark of the owners, who are Costa Rican foodies. Afterward, sink into one of the big canopy beds, serenaded by nature’s lullaby. 19 rooms; from $377, including full board and rafting and/or ground transportation to and from the lodge.

India: Orange County, Kabini

Watching the sky radiate its sunset palette from the riverside tables of Kabini’s open-air restaurant brings a tranquil end to active days. Visitors explore Nagarhole National Park in search of the elusive Bengal tiger and India’s largest herds of Asian elephants, along with other flagship species (leopard and wild dog). Simple-looking mud-and-thatch huts (above) built in the traditional style of the indigenous Kuruba tribes belie more opulent interiors while also minimizing the environmental footprint (a reverse osmosis system in each building eliminates the need for imported drinking water). The lodge supports the Kuruba heritage with interactive story­telling sessions, dance performances, and river outings in a handmade coracle. 37 cottages; from $478, including full board.

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Imagine if every foot of coastline around the world was stacked with five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash. That’s the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans each year. This visual is staggering.

Single-use plastics include plastic bags, to-go containers and cutlery, straws, those tiny shampoo bottles at hotels, plastic water bottles, plastic cups, and the packaging on pretty much anything edible in an airport. How can you explore the rivers, jungles, and islands of a country without using any of these items?

I took a nine-day trip to attempt just that. After planning ahead—and lots of learning on the go—I’ve got some tips to help you get going.

The Tool Kit. Reducing waste takes a bit of preparation, but not much. Though every trip is different, here’s what I packed for Belize: a reusable grocery bag, collapsible food container, bar soap and bar shampoo, bamboo utensils, a glass straw, two reusable water bottles, and a SteriPen to purify water on the go.

The Toolkit

Two Bottles Are Better Than One. I’ve never thought to pack two water bottles on a trip. If you have a backpack with a bottle holder on each side, it’s super easy, and it’s helpful for long day trips. And for shorter trips, the smaller, sleeker bottle fit right in my purse.

Collapsible Food Containers Are Underrated. These containers, which fold flat when not in use, came in handy a lot more than I thought they would. Packing three sizes let me keep one filled with trail mix—a handy snack throughout the entire trip—and use the others for leftovers or mini-meals.

The Numbers

SAVED: 79 pieces of single-use plastic, an average of 8.8 a day

USED: 2 straws

UNAVOIDABLE USES: 4 things I couldn’t avoid without considerable effort: Daily contacts for 3 days, wrapper on reef-safe sunblock, 1 decongestant pack, luggage tags

WHAT I GAVE UP: 5 things I had to give up: A cup of fresh mango juice, bottle of lime soda, bag of nuts, airplane snacks, ice cream samples

You Have to Ask. Carrying a straw—or food container, or a bag—isn’t helpful if you don’t say “No straw please” or “I have my own bag, thanks!” or “Do you mind putting that fresh shrimp in my container?” Sometimes you’ll get a weird look. That’s OK. Sometimes you’ll influence the person sitting next to you or working behind the counter.

Single-Use Plastics

At one eatery, when I asked for no straw, the person said, “You know, we’ve been meaning to find a way to cut back on straws. What are some alternatives?” Perhaps if we make this request enough times, eateries will stop providing straws by default.

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way! I spent a lot of time thinking, planning, even obsessing over the tools I’d need for situation I might find myself in. At the end of the trip, nine small items and a little thoughtfulness helped me avoid using 79 single-use plastics!

You Don’t Always Need Tools. You can avoid some single-use plastics without replacing them. One afternoon at an ice cream shop, I had to pass on getting samples that came on plastic spoons. But by choosing a cone instead of a cup, I could enjoy a delicious ice cream break, plastic free.

You Aren’t Perfect. Before taking on this pledge, I felt paralyzed by how overwhelming the process seemed—it can discourage you from doing anything at all. But doing something is better than doing nothing. Even helping a little bit—passing on airplane pretzels or filling your water bottle before you leave the house—makes a difference. I ended up using two plastic straws on this trip because, while arguably the most avoidable single-use plastics, they often come by default at restaurants. But overall, I felt good about how much I saved.

Taking on this challenge on a weeklong vacation can feel like a more manageable start than overhauling your lifestyle—and you may even find yourself a changed person once you get back home.

Planet or Plastic: Take your pledge to choose the planet.

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