I’ve spent the last 18 months committed to avoiding unnecessary plastic. My food shopping is almost entirely plastic-free, and I especially don’t buy bottled water. Why would I, when safe drinking water comes out of my tap?
In Asia, however, the water that comes out of the tap is not safe to drink. The locals don’t drink it, and tourists shouldn’t either. When we decided to spend four weeks holidaying in Thailand at the end of last year, I really wanted to keep our plastic-free commitment and avoid buying bottled water in disposable containers. A holiday is no reason to throw our values and beliefs out the window! I just wasn’t sure how achievable it would be.
Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried! With a little bit of effort, avoiding using endless plastic drinking bottles on holiday was easy!
No expensive equipment required
Before we went away, I had a brief look at the water filters, water treatment tablets and other gadgets on the market. There’s plenty of options out there, from UV filters that zap bugs and parasites, to physical filters to remove debris, to the traditional water purification tablets. However, it’s not super straightforward. Ideally you need a bug-destroying filter and a physical filter, and the UV filters need recharging and will eventually run out. The traditional tablets involve using nasty chemicals so aren’t ideal for daily use. Plus these fancypants gadgets have fancy price labels too, and it didn’t feel right to buy more stuff that we’d use for such a short amount of time. If we had been going away for several months, or going into the wilderness maybe it would have been a worthwhile investment, but we weren’t.
And actually, we managed just fine without.
We didn’t buy any new gadgets, but we did take our two metal water bottles, two KeepCups and our two reusable collapsible plastic bottles – things we already had at home. I wouldn’t go anywhere in the Australian summer without taking my water bottle, so it made complete sense to take it with me.
It was a wise decision: all three were used regularly and if I went back, I’d take them all again. The bottles were useful right from when we arrived at the airport – both Perth and Bangkok airports had water filters once we’d passed through security so we could refill our empty bottles.
Make it a priority
Like most things to do with waste, it all comes down to convenience. There’s often an alternative way, even though it may require a little more effort than the conventional way. It’s all about priorities. So we prioritised, and made finding safe drinking water the first thing we did when we moved on to somewhere new.
We didn’t have too much planned when we jetted off, but I had booked our first night and last night accommodation in Bangkok, and I’d researched places that appeared to have genuine environmental policies and a focus on sustainability. This paid off: both places offered plastic-free drinking water, and we were able to refill our bottles hassle-free.
Find out what the locals do
Locals don’t drink the tap water, but they don’t all guzzle mineral water from plastic bottles either. So what do they do? In Thailand (at least in the places we visited), companies deliver treated water in big 20 litre drums to households and businesses, and the containers are returned for refilling once they are empty.
These containers aren’t marketed to tourists, and the empty containers need returning to the seller, so some retailers were reluctant to part with them. The first place we found would only let us fill up our own containers using their funnel, so we purchased one plastic 6 litre water container and used this for refills. This was our only plastic bottle purchase of the trip! There was no way we would have managed without it, either. We used this to decant the water into our little drinking bottles so we didn’t end up spilling it everywhere.
The second place we needed to use these, we found a seller willing to give us our own bottle by paying a deposit, which we got back once we returned the empty container.
Look for alternatives
If our water bottles were empty and we were away from our base and unable to refill them, we found we still had options, and there was no need to reach for the plastic. One alternative which comes in completely biodegradable packaging is drinking coconuts. They are very hydrating, refreshing and good for you, and in Thailand, they are available everywhere.
Lots of the cheaper Thai restaurants (which catered predominantly for locals rather than tourists) offer drinking water free of charge to patrons. We’d look out for restaurants with this service and try to use them where we could.
We discovered that a few restaurants sold water in glass bottles that are returned to the manufacturer for refilling. We did talk about buying water at these restaurants to fill up our water bottles if we ran out, but in the end we didn’t need to.
We did also see some water vending machines on the streets which filled empty containers. Our only issue was that the instructions were written entirely in Thai and we couldn’t understand how they worked. If we hadn’t found any other alternatives, we’d have popped some coins in the slot to see what happened, but as it turned out, we didn’t need to use these. It’s good to know that alternatives exist, though.
Reap the Rewards
We were completely prepared to pay extra in order to avoid using plastic; we figured it was worth it to limit our impact on the environment. Usually, a higher cost is something that we have to accept for “doing the sustainable thing”. Actually, it ended up being much cheaper! The 20 litre drums of water cost less than a dollar to buy, and many places charged more for a 500ml bottle of water, particularly outside of Bangkok. It was great not to contribute unnecessarily to landfill and keep our plastic-free pledge, and awesome to save money in the process!
Two people, four weeks away, and only one plastic bottle (reused several times before being responsibly recycled). Going plastic-free is just as possible abroad as it is at home if you put your mind to it!