How To Fly Plastic-Free (as Much as Possible)

How To Fly Plastic-Free (as Much as Possible)

On Tuesday night I flew from Perth, Australia to London, England to see friends and family and spend some time back in the motherland. It’s a 21 hour flight (divided into two parts – 7 hours from Perth to Hong Kong, and 12 hours from Hong Kong to London). Flying is bad for the environment, we all agree – but I was determined not to add to the huge carbon cost by generating a huge amount of waste too. The question is – is it even possible to fly waste-free?

Despite my best efforts, I still probably produced more waste in those 21 hours than I’ve generated in the entire rest of the year. But there’s definitely things you can do to keep your waste down.

Preparation – What To Think About

With flying, trying to minimise your waste can be managed in two parts. Firstly, there’s all the things that you can do before you get to the airport. Like with all zero-waste and plastic-free habits, success comes with planning. Thinking about things to bring that will reduce reliance on single-use plastic, or avoid any other unnecessary packaging. Anything that you can bring of your own will produce the need to use a plastic-wrapped version on the plane. Think cutlery, cups, water bottles, headphones, blankets, a pillow, thick socks, a toothbrush…if there is something you know you’ll need or want, it’s best to bring it with you.

Secondly, there’s the choices you make once your strapped into your seat. If you’ve had to accept something made of plastic, is it possible to re-use it to get as much life out of it as possible? Can you even make choices that use less plastic, or create less waste?

plastic headphones and blankets
Plastic-wrapped headphones and plastic-wrapped blankets awaiting our arrival on our seats – fortunately we were able to return these as we had brought our own!

What to Wear – Keeping Comfortable (and Warm)

It doesn’t matter how hot it’s going to be at your destination, or how hot it is at your departure point, it is going to be freezing on that plane once the air conditioning is cranked up to maximum. You may be really excited you’re headed to the beach, but that’s no excuse to wear skimpy shorts and flip-flops on the plane. You. Will. Freeze. Once you’re cold, you’ll be reaching for those single-use airline socks, and the plastic-wrapped blanket; your best intentions to keep the unnecessary waste at bay will be long gone.

Pack a thick pair of socks, leggings or long trousers, and a warm jumper. A scarf is useful and can double up as a pillow or second blanket. If you have space, take your own blanket and pillow too.

Headphones

Airline headphones usually have that weird double pin adapter, so you can’t plug your own headphones into the jack. Except, you can. It’s possible to buy these adaptors for just a couple of dollars. When ordering mine, I was concerned that they might arrive wrapped in plastic, so was delighted when they arrived with minimal packaging. I was less delighted when I got on the plane and found I didn’t need it for these flights – the airline had standard headphone jacks!

Airline headphone adaptors zero waste
These 2-pin headphone jacks mean I no longer have to use airline headphones which are packaged in plastic, and have foam earpieces which are thrown away after just a single use.

If you don’t want to buy an adaptor, or leave it behind, don’t hand the headphones you are given back at the end of the flight. Keep them for any other legs, and the return journey, and hand them in when you’re back home. Before I got a headphone adapter I’d do this – it reduced the number of headsets I used from 4 to 1. As each headset is packaged in plastic, that saves three plastic bags, as well as 6 replacement fuzzy ear bits (they are replaced after each use).

Food

Did you know you can take your own food onto the plane? Most flights will let you bring your own food; you just might not get it off the plane and through customs at the other end. What effort you want to go to is up to you, but if you can bring your own snacks it will mean not needing to eat those tiny packets of peanuts, or other plastic-wrapped snacks that will probably make you feel stodgy and unhealthy anyway.

Yes, your flight was probably expensive. But trying to recoup some of the cost by eating 27 packets of peanuts won’t really cut it. Honestly.

As for meals, if you have the choice to not order the meal (if you are on a charter flight), don’t. Anything you bring from home will taste better and be far more nutritious. But commercial flights often don’t give you the option, and you can’t phone up and cancel your meal. If you refuse your meal on the plane, it will go in the bin. I generally do eat the plane meals, particularly anything “fresh” (you know what I mean!), but I hand back the long-life stuff in the hope it will get passed to someone else.

Drinks – Bring Your Own Water Bottle (and a KeepCup!)

You can’t take bottled water through customs, but you can take reusable water bottles through, provided they are empty. What’s more, once you are through customs, many airports offer filtered water for refilling your bottles, so you can get on the plane with a full bottle of water. At the three airports I travelled through (In Perth, Hong Kong and London Heathrow), all had free water bottle refilling stations.

water bottle refill at airport
Water bottle refills are available after security at most airports meaning if you bring your own bottle, there’s no need for single-use plastic cups on the flight!

Once your on the plane, you can hand your empty bottle to a steward and ask them to refill it for you.

If you really want to avoid waste on the plane, just stick to drinking water rather than individual serves of spirits, soft drinks, juice and other alcohol. Bring a KeepCup for tea or coffee.

Toiletries

Current rules for international flights state that if you want to take your toiletries onto the plane, they have to be presented in a clear, resealable plastic bag. The most obvious way to avoid this is to check your toiletries in by placing them in hold luggage. If this isn’t an option for you, and you’re travelling with others, sharing will reduce the number of bags needed. If you do need to take a bag, keep it so you can reuse it when you next fly – just store it with your passport so you don’t forget!

Duty-Free

Duty-free generally means excessive packaging, but if you’re thinking you’ll pick up a couple of (glass) bottles of duty-free alcohol, many airports now insist that this is packaged in sealed plastic bags for security purposes. On top of that, the glass bottles are often packaged with foam nets, which is also made from plastic. If you’ve gone somewhere and want to bring some of the local tipple home, buy it before you fly at a local store and pack it in your hold luggage – you may even find it is cheaper than the inflated airport prices. Just remember to check the customs restrictions for your destination!

Do you have any tips for travelling plastic- and waste-free? Is there anything else you’d add to this list? Or do you find it’s easier to suspend your waste ideals for the holidays? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think!

22 Responses to How To Fly Plastic-Free (as Much as Possible)

  1. I’ll fly in a couple of weeks to Canada to get my daughter settled back at school. I feel guilty about it, but I’ll at least try to make it waste-free. Like you say, you just have to plan ahead and get organized. Once we get to my mum’s though, look out! Milk comes in plastic bags (!). We can shop at a huge bulk store there, but it won’t allow you to bring your own containers :/ Maybe it’s time for a change.org petition (the store, Bulk Barn, is a large franchise).

    • Haha, I’m having a similar experience right now! I don’t think there are any bulk places nearby my parents, so everything is packaged in plastic! Bit of a culture shock!

      I can’t believe a bulk place won’t let you bring your own containers! That’s outrageous >: (

  2. My next overseas flight is with Icelandair where you only pay for meals if you want one. Tickets really are a bit cheaper, so you save money as well as plastic. I’ll be looking for those water bottle fillers at Heathrow. Thanks for the tip!

    • I think all airlines ahould do that – after all, who really wants the meals?! The water filters are often near the toilets, good luck with that! : )

  3. First – JAL and the rest of Japan hasn’t yet mastered arctic air con – something I leant on my most recent trip :p

    I have a neck pillow, with my ear phone and ear muffs, that I always BYO on planes (and have one of those adapters when I need it too!) I also took the metal bottle, which worked pretty well (McDonalds at Sydney International refilled it for me – thanks!). But you’re right – so much waste. With the liquids – I almost never follow the rules (with the 1qrt bag) and just use a mesh bag like the things usually are in, in my handbag. It’s more durable (ok I don’t always carry shampoo in my handbag, and I don’t when travelling – it’s got lip balm and that sort of ‘liquid’).

    Alas, I eat all that is provided to me – and I find it mostly makes me feel fine – better than the stodgy of some of my own choices on holidays!

    • I’ve seen people with those neck pillows… In fact we travelled so light I packed two actual pillows in my hand luggage! I don’t think I fly/travel enough to warrant a neck pillow.

      I’m impressed you got away with not having a plastic bag! I’m always terrified they will confiscate my things if I don’t follow the rules! I don’t think they’d allow that at Heathrow but maybe at Perth they might. I’ll have to try!

  4. You know how so many people bring those u-shaped neck pillow things? Those are usually made out of plastic and once they break, they are done. I made one out of some second hand cotton sheets I had used to make a gift bag for a friend’s birthday. I left both ends open, so I can stuff in some of the smaller things, like socks, hankies, panties and thin shirts. I then use hair elastics to tie the ends. It is an extra space to pack these items (especially when you do need to bring a lot with you), it is hard, meaning it holds up my head (no kinks in the neck!), and I can easily fix it if need be!
    In fact I am about to fly tomorrow and will be using it once again :D
    http://obibinibruni.org/

  5. Most of my travel is inside Europe and when I fly I tend to use budget airlines (= cheaper tickets) who give nothing free. Good for avoiding waste if nothing else as I refuse to pay their prices!

    As I usually travel just with my rucksack I have limited space and that includes limited toiletries. I have kept some hotel shampoo/shower gel bottles in the past and fill them up before I travel: they are usually the right size for a long weekend. My own water bottle is a must, even if I only walked to town! Our new colourful stainless steel water bottles arrived yesterday and as I so rarely buy any new ‘stuff’, I got really excited! Using them should be healthier than reusing single use plastic bottles indefinitely!

    Although I use my rucksack or another reusable bag for shopping, I have use for plastic bags too if places insist on giving me one (esp in countries where I can’t speak the language and they won’t take ‘no’ as an answer!). The standard plastic bags are the right size for our kitchen bin or I can use them for cleaning cat litter (glamorous…) or just spares in the bag if I need one for a wet umbrella etc. Basically I try to reuse everything at least once although I do realise I should make more of an effort to avoid packaging in the first place. Will. Try. Harder.

    • Travelling without waste is definitely a challenge! I love taking my stainless steel water bottle on planes, at least they fill the entire thing up and you don’t have to press a bell for a thimblefull of water every time you are thirsty. All airlines are very accommodating – the only confusion is the Asian airlines (who fly Perth – London) seem to think it’s a thermos and always ask if I want hot water. Fortunately that hasn’t happened yet – I think it would wreck it – or give me burns!

      It’s funny what you say about plastic bags – we don’t have any and sometimes I almost think that one would be useful! But I’d never do it ; ) If I’m ever handed one I give it straight back. We have calico bags that we use for wet or dirty stuff, and just wash. We try to keep containers upright so they don’t spill. And we don’t live in a place where it rains often ; )

      Using anything more than once is the best place to start… and finding things that have multiple uses. I think (glass) KeepCups are great not only for hot drinks but also as containers for leftovers etc. Stainless steel ones would work too. I also have some waxed sandwich wraps that I always carry when we travel (they don’t leak or get greasy like paper bags do either). Solutions come one by one… : )

  6. Truly enjoyed reading your article. You have touched an important topic, which I’m still working on improving. Creating actually a checklist for inland and international flights (maybe even by airline), so I’m better prepared. Just went to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, which was quite a short flight, but waste was certainly accummulated. I had left my beautiful snack box at home and needed some munchies on the way over… Terrible!!! I bought some snacks and in the end there was more packaging than actual food. Blanket is never a problem as that is probably one of the items, I will never leave home without when traveling. I have been carrying my baggie, which includes everything from fork and spoon, chop sticks, bamboo straw) as well as my reusable cup. Sadly only a few airports have water stations and I have my doubts with them. Looking for options with a filter as I travel in South East Asia frequently. If anyone can suggest a good bottle with water filter, I would highly appreciate it….

    • Thanks Mad! Checklists are always useful, especially when you first start trying to make new habits. Eventually they become habit but that takes time, of course! I reckon my water bottle is now up there with my passport as “important things not to forget”.

      I have no idea about water bottles with filters, sorry, although I know they do exist. Definitely worth looking into it if you can’t drink the tap water! Bottled water is such an environmental burden, but when you don’t have drinkable water from the tap it’s a little different from having that option but choosing to import your water from Fiji or France!

  7. Thanks for the very timely post, Lindsay, as I’m heading overseas soon for the first time in years. One thing I’ve decided to do to reduce waste is take a Steripen and my trusty battered aluminium water bottle to Bhutan rather than accept the twice daily disposable plastic water bottle. Chris Hogan (Transition Town Guildford) recommended the Steripen. The one we are getting can be recharged by mains or solar, so no disposable batteries either. Thanks for the reminder about arctic conditions on planes and BYO snacks and cutlery. One thing I’m looking forward to is meeting the team behind Clean Bhutan, their equivalent of our Earth Carers.

    • Oooh Bhutan, that is exciting! You will have an amazing time, I’m sure! (You must tell me all about it when you’re back.) Steripens – oooh, I have heard of them now you mention it. Be interested to hear your opinion of how useful you find it once you’ve given it a go. And what Clean Bhutan are up to!

  8. “Yes, your flight was probably expensive. But trying to recoup some of the cost by eating 27 packets of peanuts won’t really cut it. Honestly.” oh my gosh, you made me laugh with this line!

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