How to travel through India, plastic-free

written by Rose Alateras August 10, 2018
plate of Indian food in Goa

I embraced a plastic-free lifestyle out of the overwhelming grief that surfaced within me when I first learned about the Great Pacific Garbage patch, two distinct patches of plastic waste that are currently swirling and congealing in the North Pacific Ocean.

In my daily life I’ve got it figured out. And I’m strict. No KeepCup? No coffee. My friends can be the ones to deal with my bad mood, I believe the environment suffers enough from the desires of humans.

Yet, as I stared at my airline tickets to India, I felt the upcoming frustrations and challenges tapping their fingers on my shoulder. I could hear my inner convenience addict laughing at me. Because there are things we are told about India, that make living plastic-free difficult, such as only drink bottled water. On top of this I knew I’d be reuniting with challenges I’ve met before when travelling: How to tackle the plastic riddled airplane meals, how to avoid those disposable toiletries, how to shop plastic-free. No one is perfect, least of all me. This journey is ongoing but I didn’t vow to go plastic-free only to return to my old habits when outside my own country. I’m in it for the long haul.

So here are my essentials, tips and wonderful experiences of plastic-free travel through India.

1. Self-care

Bamboo toiletry kit

Preparation is key. Image by Rose Alateras.

Toiletries are a huge contributor to our accumulation of plastic waste, the endless bottles, brushes and tubes we use to keep our body well maintained and beautiful have the opposite effect on our environment.

The essentials:

Conscious cosmetics:  Dirty Hippie Cosmetics supplies me with all my plastic-free goodies; shampoos, deodorant, cleansers, sunscreen, toothpaste, makeup, everything! The products are 100% natural, wonderful and responsible for my toiletry bag being completely waste free.

Keeping clean: Brush your teeth with a bamboo toothbrush and if you’re into shaving use a safety razor.

Tip for the ladies- Buy sustainable sanitary items before you leave home, so you don’t have to buy individually plastic wrapped items.


2. Eating

At restaurants, it’s easy to dine without plastic nasties but when making your way through the country you’ll need to be prepared.

The essentials:

Reusable cutlery set: Mine came from 51raw. A little canvas pouch complete with bamboo knife, fork, spoon and straw. I used them on long journeys to devour packed lunches, to eat delicious street food and never found myself unable to slice a mango. Just don’t try to board a plane with the knife and fork in your carry-on luggage.

Stainless steel containers: My bento box was thrilled to make the trip to India where it continued to keep my food fresh while I endured overnight, buses trains and delayed flights.

3. Drinking

My friends wished me good luck with the crippling stomach bugs when I told them I wasn’t going to drink bottled water. However, upon my arrival home, I was healthy and incredibly proud of my plastic-bottleless trip.

The essentials:

Lifestraw: Originally designed to make contaminated drinking water safe in developing countries it is now used by many trekkers and travellers. I used my lifestraw everyday, fitting it into my drink bottle or Keep Cup. It was affordable and easy to use on the go. Another alternative is a Steripen, equally effective yet more expensive.

Stainless steel water bottle: Any reusable water bottle is great. But for India’s warm temperatures I’d highly recommend an insulated stainless steel bottle to keep your water cool, like Earth Bottles or S’well Bottles. A challenge I faced, particularly in Rajasthan, India’s desert state was finding cold water. At times I had to cool the hot tap water in the fridge before I could drink it, giving me real appreciation for things I take for granted back home.


Reusable straw: If you’re like me you’ll be chugging a smoothie or cold coffee at least once a day and  I promise you’ll find it more satisfying when consumed through your reusable straw. And hey, if you forget just say “no straw please”.

KeepCup: Was the object of envy among other members of our group as I was able to explore winding streets while sipping chai and get a takeaway smoothie at rest stops on long bus journeys.

Tip- Use water filters and water refill stations: Many hotels and hostels provide filter systems that make water completely safe to drink. Plus, ask your local leader which train and bus depots have refill stations, where you can pay 10-20 rupees to get your bottle filled up. If you are not comfortable drinking tap water these are great alternatives to reduce your plastic waste.

4. Shopping

girl holding shopping and smiling

Reusable shopping bags are the key. Image by Rose Alateras.

Shopping in India plastic-free is easy if you’ve brought along the right tools.

The essentials:

Produce bags: My Ever.Eco bags were great for market trips and carrying the seven fresh bananas I ate each day.

Reusable shopping bags: When out purchasing beautiful textiles you can say no to disposable carry bags and place your treasures in here. My favourite brand is Envirosax as they compact into a small pouch which is great for travel.

Tip – Shop at markets instead of supermarkets: This is a great way to get the freshest unpackaged produce while supporting locals.


5. Connecting with locals

Travelling plastic-free always leads to heartwarming encounters with locals who are eager to hear your story. In Jaipur I bounded through the fruit market to my favourite mango man, only to realise that I had forgotten my produce bags. Sanjeev, the stall owner, seeing my disappointment turned his newspaper into a carry bag, a unique waste-free way to carry fruit. It was a beautiful moment in my trip.

man carrying sack on his back

“I watched an elderly man walk up hundreds of steps carrying a Santa-like-sack which he was filling with plastic bottles.” Image by Rose Alateras.

India is a magical country and the amount of rubbish being played with by children nibbled at by animals and filling the streets is confronting and troubling. Despite the daunting task, locals work incredibly hard to keep their streets clean. I watched an elderly man walk up hundreds of steps carrying a Santa-like-sack which he was filling with plastic bottles. I met street food vendors who served food in bowls made from vine leaves instead of plastic and heard “dhanyavaad” (thank you) each time I pulled out a produce bag or Keep Cup.

Unfortunately, tourists are huge contributors to India’s waste problem. An awareness must be cultivated of what drives our consumptive patterns: what is it that moves us over and over, to buy, throw away and buy again, particularly that which we don’t need? I believe living differently is possible, as is a revolution in thinking like a local. We can all do our part and we should, because when choosing, through our daily patterns, between the future of our planet and using disposable plastic, the latter doesn’t seem so convenient.

Do you want to travel responsibly through India? Book a trip with Intrepid Travel, the leaders in responsible travel.

Hero image by Mirae Campbell.

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