Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This first edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in TONGA – whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do.
- Zero Waste Travel Toiletries
- 1. Switch to solid travel shampoo
- 2. Switch to solid conditioner
- 3. Switch to solid deodorant
- 4. Switch to toothpaste tablets
- Fails: Sustainable Travel Regrets During My Trip to Tonga
- Sustainability Information for Travellers to Tonga
- Carbon offsetting information to Tonga
Zero Waste Travel Toiletries
At the time I was planning to travel to Tonga, my sustainable change journey at home revolved around eliminating plastic waste from my lifestyle. Specifically, I had been testing zero waste alternatives to common personal care products. Of course, before I would make my final decision on zero waste bathroom swaps, I had to test whether they would also be suitable for travelling.
Full disclosure: I first did some of these sustainable travel swaps in French Polynesia, and one was actually after Tonga. But I thought it would be more convenient to cover my final verdict on zero waste travel toiletries in the same article.
1. Switch to solid travel shampoo
One of the more popular zero waste travel swaps is solid shampoo. I had tested out shampoo bars by The Olive Tree at home for several months, and felt ready to make the swap when I packed for French Polynesia. I continued using solid shampoo when I packed for Tonga.
To be honest, even before trying it out, I was already packing low waste when it comes to shampoo, because I was re-filling liquid shampoo into my GoToob silicone squeeze bottle. However, I was considering potentially making the solid shampoo swap permanent at home. So I wanted to see whether I’d accept them for travel as well.
How does it reduce plastic waste?
Solid alternatives to liquid toiletries are considered zero waste primarily because solid versions mean you can eliminate the single-use bottles that liquid products come in. It also takes up less space, so such products make more efficient use of delivery trips during its logistics.
However, because solid shampoo comes without packaging, you typically have to carry a reusable container for it when packing for travel. Usually zero waste shops sell a tin for this purpose.
What are the additional travel benefits of solid shampoo?
The main benefit of liquid-to-solid travel toiletries swaps in general, is that you could take them with you as carry-on. Solid shampoo also lasts longer than liquid shampoo of equivalent size and weight, which can be useful for longer trips. Additionally, compared to refilling a GoToob, solid shampoo is a lot less likely to get stolen in hostel common showers (see Sustainable Travel Fail below).
Are there any downsides to switching to solid shampoo?
After persevering with it over three trips and several months at home, I found that solid shampoo takes a lot of getting used to. It’s not as easy to use as liquid shampoo, which I might be willing to put up with at home, but less so when travelling. For instance, sometimes you have to lather and apply several times to get enough for long hair, which can be tricky in tiny hostel shower cubicles that have nowhere to put your toiletries on.
Additionally, sometimes you can’t get it quite dry before you have to pack it for onward travel. Socially, you also can’t really share it if a fellow traveller runs out of shampoo.
Would I keep using solid shampoo for travel?
I’ve stopped using solid shampoo at home. Mainly this was because I seem to get more dandruff with it, which seemed to encourage hair mites. My hairdresser was very unhappy with my scalp health that year. So, all things considered, I decided to go back to The Olive Tree’s liquid shampoo, which I am able to refill at my local zero waste shop.
My travel shampoo choice has defaulted back to refilling my GoToob bottle with this zero waste supply. However, if I were to do short trips by air more frequently in future, and could get away with only carry-on luggage, I might re-consider solid shampoo.
2. Switch to solid conditioner
At around the same time as trying solid shampoo, I also tried switching to hair conditioner bars. I found them even more troublesome to use than solid shampoo, and I wasn’t sure if my hair wasn’t better off with no conditioner at all. But I tried it out for travel anyway, for the same reason as I tried solid shampoo.
As with the solid shampoo, you also need a travel container for the solid conditioner. Alternatively, you could cut both in half and put them into the same container.
What are the additional travel benefits of solid conditioner?
The benefits are basically the same as with solid shampoo. It’s the most beneficial for travellers aiming to eliminate liquids from their luggage.
Are there any downsides to switching to solid conditioner?
It’s just as awkward to use in tiny hostel showers as solid shampoo.
Would I keep using solid conditioner for travel?
I’ve gone back to conventional conditioner at home. Just like my shampoo, I refill it at my local zero waste store, and then refill a GoToob for travel. In fact, I had given up on solid conditioner by the time I packed for Tonga.
If I didn’t already have a GoToob, I might consider using hair oil instead of conditioner for travel purposes. I actually did end up buying tiare-scented oil in Tahiti which worked just as well. Hair oil has the added advantage of being able to be applied after the actual shower, so it could be more convenient in a hostel situation.
3. Switch to solid deodorant
I’ll admit I was reluctant to try zero waste deodorant. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to leave to chance, because smelling bad is so embarrassing. It was one of the last things in my bathroom I swapped for plastic-free, but I did it. By now I have tried two different solid deodorants, but when I went to Tonga I was using Serasi.
I really shouldn’t have worried, and this should have been one of my earlier plastic-free swaps. Both types of solid deodorant worked well, although I personally preferred the texture of Serasi’s blend. I buy them from my local zero waste shop, which is also where I can return the empty tins.
What are the additional travel benefits of solid deodorant?
Solid deodorant takes up a lot less space than conventional deodorant, but it lasts about the same. That’s on top of helping you eliminate liquids in your luggage. Some solid deodorants are also sold ‘naked’, so you can just refill an existing tin. I might do this when I run out again.
The ingredients are also typically non-synthetic, so I’m less worried about whether I’m leaching potentially harmful chemicals into sensitive coral ecosystems when I’m travelling to such destinations.
Are there any downsides to switching to solid deodorant?
As a deodorant, I can’t think of a downside. However, conventional deodorants are often also anti-perspirants. Solid deodorants usually are not.
Would I keep using solid deodorant for travel?
It’s now my default at home and in my travel toiletries bag.
4. Switch to toothpaste tablets
This was my final sustainable travel toiletries swap, and I actually made it well after my trip to Tonga. This is because I took some time with testing out zero waste toothpaste alternatives at home. The first available option in Kuala Lumpur was a tooth powder, but I found it awkward to use and very abrasive to the insides of my mouth. So I went back to conventional toothpaste.
Then, Lush began stocking toothpaste tablets. They came in a plastic bottle, and Lush did not offer refills, but would take back the bottles for recycling. It wasn’t ideal, but I figured on balance it was better to support the effort and see if the product becomes more popular later. Sure enough, now my local zero waste shop also stocks toothpaste tablets. While they also sold them in small bottles, they would take back the bottles and plan to offer refill options in the future. [Update: within a month of writing this, refill options are already available.]
What are the additional travel benefits of toothpaste tablets?
Similar to other solid versions of toiletries, toothpaste tablets are essential if you want to eliminate liquids and pastes from your carry-on. You can also calculate in advance how many days’ worth you want to pack, since they are individual tablets.
However, you would need a reusable container for them, so that they don’t get crushed. I have saved one of the original bottles they came in, so that it is easier to explain to customs people what it is. My logic: the product is not yet mainstream, and its similarity in appearance to medicine tablets might flag it for customs checks.
Are there any downsides to switching to toothpaste tablets?
As the product is not yet mainstream, if you should run out during your trip (or if you’re travelling long-term), it could be difficult to get refills. You might have to intentionally plan layovers in cities where zero waste shops exist. In addition, at the moment toothpaste tablets are still significantly more expensive than conventional toothpaste. The loose tablets at my local zero waste shop are much cheaper than the bottled version, but it’s still more expensive than regular toothpaste.
Would I keep using toothpaste tablets for travel?
It’s now my default at home and in my travel toiletries bag.
Fails: Sustainable Travel Regrets During My Trip to Tonga
As always, I will share the ways that I messed up in my sustainable travel attempts. For my trip to Tonga, the first sustainable travel fail happened on the outbound layover, when I stayed at a hostel in Sydney.
1. Losing my GoToob silicone bottle in Sydney
At this time, I was in between experimenting with various zero waste toiletries options. I had facial cleanser in a GoToob, and I had gone back to refilling hair conditioner as well. But I was still using solid shampoo.
Unhelpfully, the hostel in Sydney had the most cramped shower cubicles I had ever seen. There was hardly room to turn around, let alone a ledge or hooks for your toiletries. I forgot a GoToob after a shower, but remembered it not long after. It was too late. By the time I went back to get it, it was gone. Mind you, there were other conventional bottles of shampoo still lying around the common bathroom area, left untouched.
That was when I learned a downside of the cute GoToobs. They’re more prone to getting nicked in hostels. Still, I suppose someone else now has the kit to go more zero waste.
2. I could have done better with single-use plastic
I also didn’t do as well as I could with avoiding single-use plastic while in Tonga. Part of this was because I got sick at the beginning, and continued to feel a little under the weather thereafter. This makes it a lot harder to be alert and assertive enough to refuse disposable plastic.
Single-use plastic is surprisingly common in Tonga – in airport cafes, snack kiosks, markets. Still, I did manage to use my cloth bags at the Chinese supermarket. And I avoided it in all the ways that I planned ahead for, e.g. drinking water and toiletries.
Sustainability Information for Travellers to Tonga
My Tonga trip was limited to Vava’u and brief layovers in Tongatapu. Noteworthy things I learned that could be useful to a sustainable traveller to Tonga are described below.
1. Logistics and fuel in Vava’u
If you want to get around Vava’u, you will need a car. I saw people walking, and I saw them driving. But I did not see bicycles. Pacific is the only gasoline retailer in Tonga. My host told me it’s a New Zealand company; all fuel in Tonga is from New Zealand.
2. Plastic pollution on Vava’u
There is a lot of plastic-packaged food in Vava’u. I guess it’s not surprising, since it is technically a tourist island, even if Tongan culture is predominant. And let’s be honest, junk food is tasty. All the more reason why we need less problematic packaging for these things.
Consequently, you can see plastic waste on beaches, where people have had picnics. There were no rubbish bins on the public beach my island guide took me to. Predictably, there were junk food wrappers, drinks cans and bottles on the shore. However, as in French Polynesia, I rarely saw plastic while in the sea.
3. Is it easy to support local businesses in Tonga?
It’s not for nothing when people say that Tonga is culturally authentic of Polynesian nations. The economy seems very local, and even the tourism businesses seem to be at least partly local. The market in Neiafu sells locally made souvenirs.
Tonga has the self-assurance of a people contented with their culture. It has not been overwhelmed by foreign culture, but neither does it feel apologetic or defensive as might often be the case in post-colonised countries. In fact, in that respect it kind of felt like Oman.
The tourism industry seems proportionate rather than excessive. Although I came in the off season, I don’t imagine that it would be over-touristed in the peak season. There just doesn’t seem to be the capacity for it to happen.
4. Water resources on Vava’u
Iloa had stopped at a swampy depression during our island excursion. It was the island’s only freshwater spring, and had been Vava’u’s original source of water. “Before civilisation,” said Iloa frankly.
There were new digs for water nearby, but rainwater harvesting is more common now. Around the island, there are many water projects with solar pumps bearing the names of many donor countries. Vava’u considers it ‘good water’. There was water infrastructure from near neighbours like Australia and New Zealand, which explains Tongans’ favourable opinion towards westerners (given that they are also the only Polynesian nation who were never colonised). But elsewhere on the island, there were also projects by the USA, Japan, and even a Chinese one which looked new.
5. Dietary notes for travellers to Tonga
Food in Tonga is typical of Pacific cuisine. A lot of fruit, roots, and seafood. In Tonga, commercial fishing is only carried out in deep water. Coral fish are harvested, but only for local consumption. On the island, Tongans keep chickens, goats and pigs. Unlike ‘the main island’, Vava’u farms organically. (I assume by ‘the main island’, Iloa meant the capital island of Tongatapu.)
If I were staying longer I’d probably learn how to cook with kape. It is the most abundant carb, and can be purchased without plastic packaging from the market. Vegetables are abundant. I often simply plucked sweet potato leaves growing at my Airbnb (although my host calls it ‘spinach’).
Self-catering vegetarians and vegans shouldn’t have trouble in Tonga. The restaurant menus, however, are short on non-meat / non-dairy options.
Muslim travellers would surprisingly be ok in Tonga, given that a lot of the supermarket groceries are certified halal, and the fact that there’s always fish. However, Tongans eat pork as a normal part of their diet. Diplomacy would be required in case you receive an offer of such food and need to decline.
6. Cultural & religious considerations in Tonga
Like many Pacific nations, Tonga is predominantly Christian. However, it bears noting that Tonga is very observant in its Christianity. This means that they really do take Sunday as a day of rest, and spend it going to church and being with family. Shops don’t open and it’s not easy to get anywhere. In fact, an article in Real Tonga’s inflight magazine even says that business contracts signed on a Sunday are legally void. Therefore, plan around this if your trip spans a Sunday.
Additionally, the magazine article also requests modest dress of visitors, as would be expected of Tongans. In practice this should not be difficult since the dress norms seemed to be the typical shoulder-to-knee default also common to Southeast Asia.
Carbon offsetting information to Tonga
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Vava’u via Sydney and Nuku’alofa produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,559 lbs CO2e. It costs about $43 to offset this.