“For me, the turning point was going to a turtle rehabilitation facility in Brazil,” said Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, about his commitment to radically reducing consumption of single-use plastic items like water bottles, shopping bags and straws. 

“There is such a glut of single-use plastic pouring into our landfills, the environment and the ocean. Animals, like turtles and whales, are eating plastic, which can cause them to actually die because their stomachs fill up with undigestible product.” Sea turtles are especially vulnerable, because plastic bags look like jellyfish, one of their natural food sources. Once their stomachs fill with plastic, “they starve to death,” Stowell said. 

Because 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean each year, according to earthday.org, this waste contributes to other environmental problems. “There are places that used to be considered magical and pristine, like Bali,” Stowell said. “A lot of the beaches now are almost unusable because the amount of plastic garbage that's floating up.” As a member of the adventure travel industry, which often focuses on remote destinations with beautiful natural environments, Stowell can see the impacts first-hand. He recalls a recent trip to a natural destination “that is iconic, globally known and loved. I was stunned by the amount of trash. It was almost ankle-deep in some areas.”

What is driving all this plastic consumption — especially single-use plastic? “The implications around safety with water are probably the biggest challenge,” Stowell said. “Even in destinations where the water is clean, there are customers who believe that the only safe drinking experience they can have is from a single-use plastic water bottle.” Because of this, customer demand, operators in the adventure travel industry use approximately 7 million single-use plastic bottles in one year, enough to fill the Empire State Building three times — and that’s just one sector of the overall travel industry. Worldwide use has reached 1 million plastic bottles per minute.

“There's a sense of pride. You can actually reduce waste and make positive change.”

Stowell acknowledges that clean drinking water is a serious concern for travelers. “If you land in Katmandu, what are you going to do? Any sane person is not going to drink from the sink in the bathroom in the airport, they're going to buy a water bottle. Right? So, it's very understandable.” 

But new advancements in water filtering technology could be a game changer. “Now there are technologies that can remove almost everything from the water that can be harmful,” Stowell said. This technology is now available in the form of personal, reusable bottles with filters that remove impurities from a wide variety of sources. “With one of these bottles, I drank out of my local river here in Washington, from public water sources in Brazil, and the Ganges River in India with no ill health effects,” Stowell said. “I've been using it in all my travels now. I just don't touch those plastic water bottles that are sitting on the nightstand.”

Stowell hopes other people will do the same, whether they are traveling to an exotic locale or just leading their daily lives at home. “I would encourage people to understand how senseless and damaging this plastic is, and just decide to trust filtration technologies. You stop paying companies pump plastic into the environment,” he said. The use of plastic straws and bags can also be easily reduced. “Some people are carrying collapsible steel straws,” Stowell pointed out. “And more reusable bags can be brought into play as an alternative to plastic.”

Most importantly, he said, “There's a sense of pride. You can actually reduce waste and make positive change.”