Naysayers will often tell you that one person adopting plastic free living and choosing single use plastic alternatives will change nothing. But the more I travel, the more I realise how much power each individual has to shape the destiny of our beloved planet.
In Kerala, I met a humble auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) driver who has been taking bank loans to plant and nurture native trees, creating green spaces around his village. In Japan, I heard of a visionary local who literally saved the Japanese Macaques (snow monkeys) from extinction, by fighting an order permitting their hunting. In Mumbai, a well-off lawyer decided to personally clean his neighbouring Versova Beach, giving momentum to weekly clean-up drives for two years, resulting in the return of Olive Ridley turtles for their mating season after a 20-year hiatus!
Inspired by the road, I’ve made several changes to my consumption patterns over the past few years. With a mission to gradually adopt plastic free living, I’ve consciously cut down buying and accepting single-use plastic. That means adopting more single use plastic alternatives and eco-friendly products, including bamboo straws, a menstrual cup, cloth bags, cloth pads and other zero waste products.
To help you adopt a plastic free lifestyle, I have tried to create an easy resource of single use plastic alternatives and eco friendly products in India – that can help each of us reduce our single-use plastic consumption.
The basics of plastic free living
What is single use plastic?
Like the name suggests, single-use plastic consists of all plastic products that are only good for one-time use and must be discarded thereafter. Single use plastic items include plastic shopping bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and plastic drinking water / beverage bottles. The plastic used in each of these products is low-grade plastic – not recommended to be reused, often leeches chemicals and hard to recycle. It lands up in dumping grounds around the world, and gradually in our oceans, where it threatens marine life.
What does plastic free living entail?
We only need to walk into a supermarket to figure out that we live in a world dominated by plastic. These days, it’s hard to find anything from drinks to grains to takeaways without plastic. The idea of plastic free living is to reduce this plastic footprint as much as possible, using the mantra: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first two aspects: refuse and reduce one time use plastic. Here are 5 simple steps to cut down our mindless consumption and adopt single use plastic alternatives – on our travels and in everyday life:
STEP 1: Say a firm NO to plastic shopping bags
Consider this: It is estimated that every year, the world uses 500 billion plastic bags! This is no surprise considering we’re offered a plastic bag each time we buy anything – at a fancy mall, at a kirana (neighborhood) store, at the vegetable shop, even when we’re piggy-backing food. Each of us could easily – and unconsciously – be accumulating 5-10 plastic bags in a day.
As you move towards plastic free living, this habit of asking for, or accepting plastic bags, needs to go. And it’s really simple too: always carry a reusable bag with you. Keep it in your handbag or car at all times – and remember, cloth bags can easily be washed, so it doesn’t really matter if you put veggies in or something spills over.
Single use plastic alternatives to plastic bags
Cloth Bags: I bought a Small Steps bag, produced by Upasana Design Studio in Auroville, over four years ago, and I’m still using it. It folds up into a tiny pack for convenience, can be washed easily, lasts for years and has allowed me to say no to thousands of plastic bags! The initiative employs village women, so your purchase helps sustain their livelihood too.
Biodegradable ‘plastic’ bags: If you’re looking for bags that are as handy as plastic bags, consider buying their eco-friendly version – they look and act like plastic, but are made of vegetable starch and natural extracts, and decompose in 3-4 months. These are easy alternatives for garbage bags, wrapping covers and shopping bags.
Upcycled plastic bags: If you really want to make a statement against plastic shopping bags, consider buying a bag made from upcycling discarded plastic bags – cleaning, shredding and manually weaving them on a handloom. The initiative also creates livelihoods for tribal women in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Where to buy upcycled plastic bags in India: Aarohana online shop
Any bag or backpack you own: Chances are, you already own a small bag or backpack to carry your stuff while out of home, or when you travel – made of jute, denim, cloth or fabric. Use those bags to keep your purchases. Every time you say “no” to a plastic shopping bag, you are contributing towards a greener earth.
STEP 2: Stop buying plastic bottled water and accepting complimentary bottles
If you’ve travelled anywhere in India, you’ve probably seen how our hill stations and tourist hubs are littered with discarded Bisleri and Aquafina bottles. Picking them up and throwing them into a trash can is not enough – only 2% of these bottles are recycled globally. The rest will take atleast 500 years to decompose. Doesn’t that suck for our earth?
Like every other traveller, I’m guilty of having purchased mineral water bottles in my earliest travel days. How can I embrace plastic free living on the road? What single use plastic alternatives do I have for safe drinking water? I always wondered. Turns out, the alternatives are aplenty, only if we decided to commit to not buying plastic bottles.
Single use plastic alternatives to plastic bottled water in India:
Durable water bottle + filtered water: I swear by this easy solution, not just in India but around the world, on public transport, even in hotels. It is easy to buy a good-looking, durable, BPA-free water bottle and keep it in your backpack at all times. Over years of travelling, I’ve almost never had trouble refilling my bottle with clean, filtered water – at homestays, guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, cafes or a local’s home – and it’s mostly free! That’s a lot of plastic bottles (and money) saved.
Where to buy a water bottle in India: Any supermarket, sports store or on Amazon
Water bottled fitted with a filter: A safer alternative to a regular water bottle is one fitted with an in-built filter. You can fill water anywhere, in a regular tap or even a waterfall, let the filter work its magic and suck out clean water. Many of my friends swear by the LifeStraw Go bottles – which pack in a powerful 2-stage filtration system to remove 99.99% of waterborne bacteria, parasites and microplastics.
A portable water filter: For a long time, I used the SteriPEN – a handheld water filter that I could stir around in any water to purify it using ultraviolet technology. It was easy to recharge and convenient to carry, until I lost it somewhere along the way. LifeStraw also offers a travel-friendly water filter, that you can stick into any water and suck pure water from – super convenient for long hikes and camping.
Water purifying tablets: I’ve met many travellers who swear by water purification tablets – drop a pill in and drink up! These are worth getting for a short trip and sensitive tummy.
Water purifying tablets in India: Amazon
Should you accept complimentary plastic bottled water on trains and flights, and in hotels?
My suggestion: No. I know everyone feels like they’ve paid for it and therefore should take it. But take a second to think of the greater cost to the environment. I always make sure I carry my own water on trains and flights, and say no to the complimentary ones I’m offered. I shudder to imagine just how much plastic bottle waste is generated from a single train or flight journey.
For a long time, I hated hotels because it seemed like there was no single use plastic alternative to those complimentary bottles of mineral water (since I hadn’t replaced my SteriPEN). But in recent times when I’ve stayed in a hotel – in India or elsewhere – I call in-room dining and ask them to send me a jug of filtered water everyday. It works beautifully – and considering that 10,00,000 plastic bottles are consumed in the world every minute, every little step towards plastic free living counts.
STEP 3: Consider if you really need a straw – and if yes, opt for a plastic alternative
Isn’t it crazy how the whole world has taken to straws to suck liquids out of a bottle or glass? This isn’t about cleanliness – considering we already trust that the bottle or glass is clean enough to hold whatever we’re drinking. This isn’t about convenience either – I mean, how much easier is sipping a liquid through a straw than picking up the bottle or glass to drink directly?
It certainly feels pointless when you read how single-use plastic straws are landing up in the ocean and choking turtles and other marine creatures.
On my part, when I order a drink, I try to remember to say I don’t need a straw. And curse myself every time I forget. Luckily many restaurants and cafes around the world have begun offering alternative straws – including steel and bamboo straws. I recently picked up a pair of straws made with recycled paper, you know, for drinking coconut water 😉
Eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws in India:
Natural bamboo straws: I’ve tried these at some eco-conscious cafes, and I love them for their natural texture when you suck on them. They are washable (with a special brush), reusable and bio-degradable.
Stainless steel straws: Another popular alternative to plastic straws are stainless steel straws – washable, durable and reusable.
Paper straws: I feel conflicted about using paper straws – since they tend to disintegrate while you’re still sipping your drink and can only be used once. I haven’t come across recycled paper straws in India yet.
Other natural straws: I just heard that someone in Mexico has come with straws made of avocado seeds! And it was recently reported that “doodly straws“, made of coconut leaves, will hit the Indian market soon.
STEP 4: Think before you buy: Plastic toothbrushes, sanitary pads and disposable cutlery
It’s pretty horrifying to look around and realize how much of what we use in our daily lives is made of non-biodegradable plastic – right from toothbrushes and sanitary pads to pens and disposable take-away containers and cutlery. While it’s not easy to eliminate these and lead a more sustainable, zero-waste, plastic free lifestyle, we need to start taking little steps towards re-evaluating what we buy.
Eco-friendly lifestyle products in India:
Toothbrushes: Even though we end up using a toothbrush for a few months before discarding it, it certainly adds up over a lifetime – and in the trash ground or ocean where it remains over the long decomposing period. After resisting for a long time, I finally switched to a bamboo toothbrush a couple of month ago – and I couldn’t be happier. Every morning, while brushing my teeth, I inadvertently think of other ways to reduce my plastic footprint.
Sanitary pads / tampons: The dreaded monthly menstruation days can be just a little less dreadful if we switch away from non-biodegradable sanitary pads and tampons (imagine the monthly waste we create!), to more eco-friendly alternatives. I put off using the menstrual cup for really long, choosing biodegradable HeyDay and Drion pads instead. Then I found out that biodegradable pads only go back to the earth if you compost them separately. That compelled me to finally try the menstrual cup, and I’m so glad to share I had a breakthrough. I’m in love with my menstrual cup now!
I also intend to try the period-proof Thinx underwear when I visit the US next time.
Where to buy eco-friendly sanitary products in India:
Food containers and cutlery: The thing that bothers me most about ordering in food or getting a takeaway is the plastic waste that comes with it – plastic spoons and fork, foil and plastic containers. I always indicate in my order that I don’t need plastic cutlery or a plastic bag, and now carry my own reusable food containers and biodegradable cutlery.
Where to buy eco-friendly food containers, cutlery and tableware in India:
- Biodegradable food containers and tableware: Chuk || Pappco Green Ware || Eco Ware || Green Handle || Astu
- Edible cutlery (made of jowar): Nammaboomi || Bakeys
Plastic free living travel kit: Not sure where to begin? Buy a pre-made Sustainable travel kit on EcoTrunk, featuring a bamboo toothbrush, bamboo straws, natural soap and more.
STEP 5: Reconsider your choices – where to eat and stay, and who to travel with
It is upon us, individuals, to convince accommodations, travel companies and restaurants that we care about their choices. That it bothers us when they offer complimentary bottled water or plastic straws. That their commitment to be a no-plastic zone makes us pick them over their competitors. That we are watching them.
How can we do that? Social media, of course. Many of us use Twitter to highlight cafes in India who say no to plastic straws, for instance.
Travel companies and accommodations that take a stand against single-use plastic:
- Most accommodations and travel companies I’ve featured in the following blog posts have a strict policy against single-use plastic:
- Offbeat, incredible and sustainable: These travel companies are changing the way we experience India
- Indulge yourself and spare the planet: 10 incredible eco-lodges around the world
- Awe-inspiring hideouts in Uttarakhand to tune out of life and tune into the mountains
- Other “Responsible travel” finds around the world
- Marriott hotels around the way are now using glass bottles to offer complimentary water and removing single use plastic products from their washrooms.
- MakeMyTrip recently promised to make its office a single-use plastic free zone and install plastic crushing machines in Andaman and Ladakh. Will Goibibo and Yatra follow?
- ResponsibleTravel.com has introduced “No Single Use Plastic Holidays“, featuring trips around the world where no single-use plastic is used in the accommodations, restaurants, transport or activities.
What else can we do? Spread the word about plastic free living:
- Use the above single-use plastic alternatives in everyday life and while travelling and inspire others to take action too.
- Chat with the owners of our favorite cafes / restaurants / accommodations to replace plastic straws and packaging with eco-friendly alternatives.
- Encourage our offices to go single-use plastic free.
- Gift single use plastic alternatives to friends and family; we can all use a little push sometimes.
Let’s stop thinking of protecting the earth as someone else’s business, and make it our own.
How have you pledged to move towards plastic free living? What single use plastic alternatives have you tried – in India or elsewhere? What are your challenges?
Big thank you to everyone who shared ideas for eco-friendly alternatives with me on Instagram and Twitter! Would you like to see more such posts on this blog?
Got interesting ideas around travel and environmental protection? Collaborate with me to initiate a new Passion Project.
*Note: The Amazon products mentioned in this post are affiliate links; if you choose to click through these and buy, I’ll earn a little bit at no extra cost to you. This allows me to spend more time and effort creating meaningful posts.