Take only photographs, leave only footprints – it’s an oft-repeated phrase but how many of us really keep the health of the environment at the forefront of our travel plans?

Ticking items off a bucket list, enjoying local experiences, learning something new… these priorities can sometimes crowd out thoughts of responsible travel. But thanks to a growing raft of initiatives gaining traction around the world, it’s becoming easier to take the trip of a lifetime without leaving a trail of trash behind you.

Plastic rubbish on a tropical beach © Apomares / Getty Images
Can't bear the sight of this? It's becoming easier to do your part to prevent it © Apomares / Getty Images

In the United Nation’s Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, it’s vital that travellers become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. That’s a message echoed by Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, which campaigns to save a natural wonder of the world facing an acute threat from this and other forms of pollution. ‘Action is paramount. We can’t wait for someone else to fix these problems. It’s up to the global community’, he says.

Parley, a global collective campaigning to end plastic pollution of the oceans, has devised an easy-to-remember, three-pronged strategy for those striving to address this aspect of their impact on the environment: AIR (Avoid plastic wherever possible; Intercept plastic waste by retrieving and recycling it; Redesign the plastic economy). Here are a few practical ways to ensure that AIR is part and parcel of your next great travel experience.

Refilling a bottle in a water fountain © Clsgraphics / Getty Images
Simply taking a refillable bottle on your travels instead of buying single-use plastic bottles can make a difference © Clsgraphics / Getty Images

Bring your own bottle

If you already use a refillable water bottle at home (and if not, why not?), you’ll know that finding somewhere to top up isn’t always easy. However, UK-based grassroots campaign Refill is lobbying for more public water fountains in cities across Europe, so travellers can rehydrate without buying single-use plastic water bottles. Check out the campaign’s app, which identifies spots where you can top up on the go. The ‘zero plastic’ message appears to be reaching a wider audience, too; historic sites such as London’s Borough Market have installed water fountains for customers, for example. And if you just can’t find any public facilities, ask for a refill at a cafe or restaurant – most people are happy to oblige.

A Water-to-go bottle being refilled in a stream © Water-to-go
Brands like Water-to-go make refillable bottles with sophisticated built-in filtration systems © Water-to-go

Purify your own water

Reducing your reliance on single-use plastic bottles requires a little more effort in countries where the tap water isn’t safe to drink. Most guesthouses and restaurants have filtered water available, sometimes for a small price. In Thailand, you can also find coin-operated refilling machines in cities like Chiang Mai. Not only will you reduce the amount of plastic that ultimately ends up in the ocean, but you’ll also save money – refills costs far less than shop-bought plastic bottles. If these options just aren’t available, you can also purify fresh water through the use of one of the many water-filtering bottles or purification systems designed for travellers, such as Water-to-go, Grayl or SteriPEN.

A plastic bag in the sea © Paul Kennedy / Getty Images
If you want to reduce the amount of plastic bags littering our land and sea, travel with a cloth one and use that instead © Paul Kennedy / Getty Images

Don't use plastic bags

Single-use plastic bags pollute land and sea, which has prompted several countries to legislate in a bid to wean us off them. Africa leads the way: Rwanda won’t let you enter the country with them – a bag search is part of the border control experience – and, just last month, Kenya introduced a law that would see anyone caught producing, selling or even using plastic bags risk hefty fines and even jail time.

In 2015, the UK introduced a mandatory 5p charge per plastic bag, which lead to an instant drop in the numbers in circulation. Western Australia has pledged to go further, banning plastic bags completely from 2019, and other countries look set to follow suit. In other destinations though, shopkeepers still put almost every item in a separate bag – and then double-bag the lot to be sure. Discourage this practice by travelling with a cloth bag and insisting that they use it, even if it’s awkward.

Stack of styrofoam containers © Wingedwolf / Getty Images
With a bit of effort and organisation, it is easy to cut down your consumption of disposable cutlery and containers © Wingedwolf / Getty Images

Avoid plastic consumables

Plastic straws are easily dispensed with (if you must use one, BYO paper ones) but what about cutlery on the go? From 2018, restaurants in Seattle will no longer provide plastic utensils at all – a plan that took shape in 2010 but has been on hold until a compostable alternative became available.

If you want to cut down on plastic spoons, cups and plates, you have a couple of good options. The most obvious one? Sit at a table, drink from a proper cup and eat from a real plate. Yes, it may cost a little extra to get table service, but not only will this mean one less set of disposable cutlery in landfill, you will probably also enjoy your meal more.

Alternatively, travel with your own takeaway food containers and light reusable cutlery, such as that made by Tangaroa Blue, and wash them up afterward. Also, look for food trucks or takeout joints that use cardboard containers instead of plastic; at least these are easily recycled and you’ll be reducing the amount of micro-plastics entering the world’s water systems.

Travellers removing plastic rubbish from a canal in the Netherlands © Plastic Whale
Plastic Whale runs a unique scheme that involves travellers removing plastic from the canals of Amsterdam and Rotterdam as part of their exploration © Plastic Whale

Take action online and in person

As well as changing their own behaviour, travellers can spread the message online: look out for campaigns on social media using hashtags like #plasticfree, #endoceanplastics, #fortheoceans, #cleancoastlife and the UN’s own overarching campaign #TravelEnjoyRespect.

There are also opportunities for direct action. In a world first, the Netherlands has a ‘plastic fishing’ social enterprise called Plastic Whale, which allows tourists to explore the canals of Amsterdam and Rotterdam at the same time as cleaning them. The plastic they fish out is reused to make more boats for the project. In the five years since it began, Plastic Whale has cleared 35,000 bottles and 560 bags of waste from the canals, building seven boats along the way.

The volunteers of the Clean Coast Collective cleaning up a beach in Australia © Clean Coast Collective
The volunteers of the Clean Coast Collective are at the forefront of the fight against plastic pollution in Australia © Clean Coast Collective

In Australia, meanwhile, a group called Clean Coast Collective takes volunteers to clean up remote Australian beaches. To fund their work, the group sells durable products to replace disposable plastics. In Europe and Asia, Upcycling the Oceans by the Ecolaf Foundation is working with local fishermen to tackle plastics, first in Spain and now replicating the project in Thailand. They ‘upcycle’ rubbish from the oceans and turn it into ‘sea yarn’ to make stylish clothes and accessories.

So before heading off for your next adventure, keep the A of AIR in mind and consider signing up to the Travelers Against Plastic campaign’s pledge to avoid buying bottled water when you travel. Spread the word on the road, too – together we can clean up this mess, one piece of plastic at a time.

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