By CHANA WIDAWSKI

Millions of kilos of plastic are polluting our land and seas.

Apart from what we can see on the ground, much plastic also floats about in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest site of ocean rubbish in the world. Birds and sea creatures around there have been found dead with plastic horribly choking up their stomachs.

Plastic waste is marring the beauty even of famous tourist spots. While most travel blogs boast of the magical mountains and pristine beaches of Bali, Indonesia, international surfers and tourists alike are becoming increasingly vocal about the trash-filled waters.

Local Balinese people traditionally used only organic materials leaving no waste behind. With the introduction of plastics, non-degradable waste is now covering Bali from head to toe. In Southern Bali alone, some 240 tonnes of solid waste is produced everyday. Lawmakers are now debating a proposal to curb waste through a US$0.014 (6 sen) levy on every plastic container.

Travellers need clean drinking water when they visit beautiful places. But by using throwaway water bottles, we often end up spoiling the beauty we came to see.

Travelling for over 12 months in India, Myanmar and the Middle East, I’ve often seen how those plastic bottles end up as ugly piles of garbage. And besides, before they were purchased, I’ve wondered, how many hours have those bottles spent travelling on trucks under the beating sun, or sitting in warehouses? Until you end up with plastic-flavoured water?

plastic water bottles

Chana Widawski refilling her bottle for just one Thai baht (12 sen) from a water dispensing machine in Thailand.

Hotels and buses across Asia provide millions of free plastic water bottles, overwhelming local waste management systems. But luckily there are more water filling stations too. For instance, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I could get 1.5 litres of clean water for just 1 baht (12 sen).

In India, the plastic water bottle market is expected to grow to US$2.4bil (RM10.6bil) by 2018. Noting the huge quantity of garbage from disposable products, Sikkim, a scenic mountain province in India, has banned plastic water bottles at all government functions.

Take note that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks up into ever smaller pieces. Even plankton, the tiniest creatures in our oceans, are eating microplastics and absorbing their toxins.

Imagine when humans eat big fish which have eaten small fish which have eaten such plankton. Plastic affects human health. Chemicals leached by plastics are in our blood and tissue and exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity and hormone disruption.

Here are seven tips for ditching those plastic bottles, especially when travelling:

1) Use refillable water bottles

There are thousands to choose from these days so think about the features most important to you.

I love mine because it was locally made and holds a full litre; the top screws on tightly and doesn’t leak; the mouthpiece is small for easy drinking and the top is attached (so it won’t get dropped or lost).

Its bright blue colour makes it easy to find, fun to hold (it feels like an old-school flask or army canteen) and it easily slips into bags of various sizes.

The plastic used to make it is free from BPA, which stands for bisphenol A, an industrial chemical found in some plastics. Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers and there are possible health effects on the brain, behaviour and blood pressure.

Of course, there are also lots of great stainless steel bottles to choose from. Or, work your way through a glass bottle of pickles or sauce and you’ll have a free water bottle right there.

Many accommodations and restaurants will have potable water to fill your bottle.

plastic water bottles

A boat made from empty plastic bottles is not only fun, but also reminds people to minimise waste.

2) Invest in a water filter/purifier

When I don’t feel 100% confident about the “filtered” water I’m served, I follow up with a quick treatment using what fellow travelers call my “magic wand”. There are a slew of innovative products to choose from, so I did a bit of research, taking price, size, fragility, timing and effectiveness into account.

I knew that for India, I needed an actual purifying system (not just a filter) so it would remove viruses in addition to bacteria. While it might sound pricey, I’ve been thrilled with my US$49.95 (RM222) investment into my Steripen, a UV treatment pen which can purify 3,000 litres of water.

The UV pen is impressively small and exciting to use, always attracting the curiosity of fellow travelers and locals – so I also had fun as an informal global anti-plastic “ambassador”!

It is as simple as pressing a button, placing it in a full or half litre of tap water, watching it light up, and boom, 48 seconds and a quick stir later, the water is ready to drink. If for some reason, something goes wrong, the light flashes red instead of green.

Another reason I chose it is because it runs on standard AA batteries, which are easy to find almost anywhere in the world. As an off-the-beaten-path traveller, I was wary that it may be difficult to recharge the lithium battery model.

Monkeys throw away garbage everywhere.

Monkeys throw away garbage everywhere.

3) Tablets, boiling and coconuts

As a backup plan, you can use iodine or chlorine water treatment tablets. The other solid option is boiling water, which is quite easy in many hotels or guesthouses. Or how about drinking coconut water?

Editor’s note: By bringing a mini electric coil water boiler (or mini camping stove) and small metal mug with you on your travels, you can also make tea.

4) An extra bladder

For long hikes, train rides and any extended time off the grid, flat refillable plastic water bladders (or camelbacks as they’re often called) will give you some extra litres of clean water. Hydrating hands-free while riding a camel, elephant or motorbike is pretty nifty as well.

Most backpacks now have a special slot for such bladders and when not in use, they barely take up any space. In retrospect, I wish I chose one with a wider mouth for easier cleaning and drying but a little mouthwash rinse every once in a while seems to do the trick.

A water bladder can be folded flat when not in use.

A water bladder can be folded flat when not in use.

5) Eco-friendly choices

Now this part isn’t easy. In my travels, I’ve found that “eco-tourism” and “eco-friendly” can often just be fancy marketing terms – I’ve been dumbfounded to see the plastic waste in some so-called “eco-lodges”.

When possible, before choosing restaurants, hotels or trip providers, see if they have a water purifier and practise other environmentally-conscious values. If they don’t, let them know what you think. Hoteliers will change when enough travellers speak up.

6) Debunking bottled water

While many people make the case that bottled water is somehow safer or better, little do they realise they are often just drinking (treated) tap water. For instance, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have publicly admitted that Aquafina and Dasani, their brands of bottled water, actually come from tap water (it was labelled as PWS or “public water source”).

In Myanmar, where giant jugs of potable water are found in nearly every hotel and restaurant, I was frustrated to see my fellow travellers buying so many small plastic bottles bearing the same exact label (even coming off the very same truck) of those giant jugs.

The writer using her magic wand, a UV pen that makes any tap water safe to drink.

The writer using her magic wand, a UV pen that makes any tap water safe to drink.

Editor’s note: For Malaysia, in the past, the Consumers Association of Penang has exposed that some so-called “mineral water” was actually just filtered or treated (tap) water. This has led to stricter rules on labels – read them carefully to see what the source of the water is.

7) Reuse those empty bottles!

Not only might you find a practical use for the insane numbers of silly plastic bottles piling up behind hotels, on the mountains, in the rivers and at the beach, you might also inspire more folks to think about the state of our environment and change their habits too.

You could try making backgammon pieces out of bottle caps. Or you could even make a boat!

While many use the recycling argument to defend their consumption of single-use bottles, I’ve seen too often that many bottles never make it to a proper recycling plant.

As always, the better “R” guidelines to follow are to Reduce and Reuse (before thinking of Recycling).

Whatever you do, I wish you safe journeys full of good hydration!