How to backpack (or holiday), plastic free

How to backpack (or holiday), plastic free

Crossing land borders in South East Asia has been unusually stressful this trip thanks to the big bag of  white powder I am carrying in my rucksack. No we are not funding our trip by an ill advised foray into drug smuggling but trying to travel plastic free. Plastic free means no plastic toothpaste tubes so we have brought a sack of home-made tooth powder with us. While carrying tightly wrapped  packs of dentifrice may be innocent, it sure doesn’t look it and I dread the day I have to explain to some grim-faced custom official. The response I fear  involves rubber gloves.

So why do it? Well we are visiting wild and remote places, the kind of places you have to walk to. Places with no garbage collection service and your rubbish goes onto the village dump just out-of-town. A system that has been in place forever and that used to work. In the old days of course most trash was biodegradable, animals would eat it or it would compost down, it was safe to burn and the ashes could be used as fertilizer. The system was not perfect, but people have lived like this for centuries and maintained  sustainable landscapes. The introduction of plastic rubbish has changed everything.

Plastic rubbish remains intact for hundreds of years. It cannot be eaten, does not dissolve and it is difficult to burn. When it does eventually break up or degrade, it only breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. Disposing of plastic is a big and expensive job. It has to be collected up and buried in landfill or incinerated. Some plastics can be recycled but only a small percentage are. Whatever your method of plastic disposal, it requires amongst other things a decent infrastructure, some roads, machinery, power and vehicles. You don’t get all that the places we go.

So  now the ditches alongside the rice paddies are choked with plastic crisp bags, the beaches littered with plastic water bottles and  plastic bags cover huge swathes of land. Evil smelling bonfires of smoldering plastic trash are now as much a part of the backpacker experience as tinkling temple bells. These filthy fires add to air pollution and global warming and worse – certain types of plastic, when burnt,  release dioxin, a known human carcinogen and one the most potent.

We don’t want to leave a pile of everlasting trash in the places we visit so we boycott plastic disposables. Here’s how:

Our plastic free backpack list

We use a Steripen  to purify our own water  and so cut out those pesky plastic bottles. This fantastic bit of kit works by UV light, weighs next to nothing and is tiny and purifies water in 90 seconds. if you bought only one thing….

water bottles

Of course then you need to take water bottles

tin cup

Because so much street food comes in disposables we take

tin cups

reusable tin tiffin tin No 1   and tiffin tin No.2

chop sticks. And folding cutlery.

We say no to plastic straws in drinks, which leads to some  interesting mimes. Next time we will take our own straws

Our wash bag looks like this….

We use hydrogen peroxide  for  treating wounds and mouthwash

And the heroin tooth powder  for cleaning our teeth


I carry a years supply of sun block – home-made and plastic free. Same for  Self Tan

I make my own creams  and lotions WHILE travelling -check out  Making cream in Bangkok

We use a  solid shampoo cuts down on more bottles.  Lush ( ) do some  but we use bar soap – it works fine


We shop at local markets and bakeries for unpacked tasty plastic free snacks and we  take our own bags to put them in including a reusable carrier bag.

We use re-chargeable batteries for all the techie stuff.

Buy from…

Follow the links to see where we got our stuff ( all over the place)

See the list here



  1. Claire Litton

    I have some questions about this! First, how do you handle the rechargeable batteries when you’re changing wall sockets, so you need handfuls of adapters? (I got around this by just not bringing anything that needs batteries, but I’m curious how you did it) I had real problems in Thailand trying to get food in markets, as it came prepackaged in plastic bags a lot of the time — restaurants were willing to pack food into tiffin boxes, but street vendors pretended not to understand what I was talking about. Not speaking the language meant it was hard to explain what I wanted, and I often ended up with extra bags — how do you get around language barriers for this sort of thing? Does the homemade sunblock really work? I’m intrigued at this idea. Also in Thailand, many streets have ionized water purifier machines so you can just refill whatever bottle you have for 1 or 2 baht (about half a cent).

    1. polythenepam

      I try to buy chargers that work via USB then charge them from my note book ( which does have a cable and plug) or my travel adapter plug (used to charge my note book). I do have a really great travel plug adapter that I bought in Thaialand at the 7 – 11. It works geat in Thailand Malaysia Laos and Japan .. and has a usb charging hub. I charge my phone via usb -I bought a usb adapter. For my camera batteries I have a small plug in wall charger. I choose to do this because I am disorganised otherwise I could charge my camera battery via USB still in the camera. My kindle I charge via usb from the computer or plug. I dont have a personal music system but listen to music on note book. The only batteries I have to charge are for the steripen and for that I do have a charger and spare batteries. There are steripens you can get that charge via usb but not in the UK sadly.

      Theres more coming – I will post this before it crashes

    2. polythenepam

      I dont speak the languauge just do that english thing or saying what I want very loudly then I wave my tins at them. I am fairly persistant and I think they do it just to get rid of me. We also tend to be in the smaller towns and maybe people there just have more time. The water machines are great – you can find them in Malaysia too but not on Loas or other places. Here the steripen in fantastic. Have you seen our Water refills list – please feel free to add to it.

      Yes the sun tan lotion does work but it washes off more easily if you are dipping inand out of the sea. I am going to make a really oily one next time. It feels much better on my skin than ready made – though I do get excema so making my own is better for me.

      Hope this helps.

      Are you still in Thailand?

      1. polythenepam

        sorry the plug adapter can be used in most countries it comes with a whole range of holes but is very neat and small – will try and post a photo in the next couple of days.

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  5. jrosekonungrinn

    I just wanted to point out that anyone getting a shampoo bar from Lush should be very careful and check the ingredients. Some of the Lush shampoo bars contain sodium lauryl sulfate! (OMGS, why would anyone put that horrid stuff in a shampoo bar?? D: )

    Lush makes a big deal about being handmade, but a lot of their stuff is not very safe. Too many unnecessary additives. Better to look for something that’s really all natural.

    I can recommend shampoo bars from Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve, or Just Soap. If anyone wants to look for those but doesn’t see them at their local Co-Ops or whatnot, they both have websites that people can look for.

    1. Polythene Pam

      Quite agree with you – lush are not perfect – but better than many.

      I use soap and it works fine and is much cheaper – sometimes I use ecover washing up liquid (SLS free – refillable bottle) which also works really well.

      Thanks for the reccomendation – I will look out for them.

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