Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in CHILE – 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.
- Planning sustainable travel to Chile
- Fails: Sustainable travel regret in France
- Trying new sustainable travel swaps
- Sustainability information for travellers to Chile
- How to be a responsible traveller in Chile
- Carbon offset information to Chile
Planning sustainable travel to Chile
Chile was the third country I travelled to, following my transition towards sustainable travel in Nepal and India. (Technically it’s the fourth, since it was sandwiched in between the Netherlands and Australia on a long, round-the-world trip. But I don’t think a business trip really counts, since it is not as challenging as tourism travel.)
But the point is, I did benefit from the previous two attempts and have kept many of the sustainable travel habits. So I felt ready to plan additional sustainable travel habits into this Chile trip. In Chile, I planned to travel to Easter Island and the Atacama Desert, and I also ended up in Valparaiso.
Fails: Sustainable travel regret in France
But before I get to that, I should mention that I experienced a sustainable travel setback before I even reached Chile. My travel fail happened in France, while I was still travelling for work.
Travel without consuming plastic bottled water
A refillable water bottle is a must to never need to use plastic bottled water. There’s a surprisingly high rate of single-use plastic in the Netherlands, and I became used to relying on water I bring with me when out and about. So I brought the water bottle along with me, on an overnight field visit to Rouen. And I accidentally left it in the hotel before checking out.
I enquired after it later, but the hotel claimed it was not found in the room.
I was quite sad about this, because it was a wide-necked bottle, which is strangely rare among water bottles. (2023 edit: it’s not rare anymore!). The wide neck meant that you could ask for complicated drinks like mango smoothies andto be poured into it, and not just water, because you can scrub it clean easily afterwards. This increases the range of beverages for which you could refuse plastic containers.
Nor did I wish to buy another good water bottle in the Netherlands, because I already have backups at home. It seemed wasteful.
As a result, on this Netherlands-Chile-Australia trip, I used two plastic bottles. I obtained one plastic bottled water at my hotel in the Netherlands, which I re-used for the remainder of my time there.
Then I bought bottled juice on Easter Island, which was in a sturdier plastic bottle, and I re-used that bottle as well. This was also the bottle I took to Australia and used for the remainder of my round-the-world trip.
It was two more than I expected to use. Oh well. At least I didn’t lose the portable filter!
Trying new sustainable travel swaps
There were two sustainable travel swaps that I tried on this trip. Both of them relate to toiletries.
1. Switch to a bamboo toothbrush
Plastic toiletries containers weren’t one of the first things I focused on when I began this journey to travel more sustainably. The reason is because I don’t tend to dispose of the containers while travelling, either recycling them or refilling them at home. Instead, I focused on eliminating frivolous plastic at home.
As part of this, I switched to bamboo toothbrushes at home. I had used them for a while, and even though they were slightly more expensive than plastic, they lasted longer and they would decompose.
As my last plastic travel toothbrush was frayed anyway, I switched to a bamboo one in my travel toiletries kit for this trip.
What were the additional benefits with a bamboo toothbrush?
The only additional benefit I can think of, is that bamboo toothbrushes seem to last longer than plastic ones. My toothbrushes used to fray out in 3 months, tops. In fact, I had also begun to feel that toothbrushes fray faster than they used to, more like 2 months for the past few years. It’s almost like they want you to buy more frequently.
But the bamboo ones that I was using easily lasted beyond 4 months. This may be nothing to do with the material of the toothbrush, but rather the quality of its manufacture. (2023 edit: after trying different brands now that bamboo toothbrushes have become more common, I’ve confirmed that this is the case. Not all bamboo toothbrushes are the same quality.) But it does make you think about how many things could actually last a lot longer if the manufacturer simply wanted it to.
Are there any downsides to switching to a bamboo toothbrush?
Bamboo toothbrushes are a bit more expensive. At the time when I bought mine, there were none available in Malaysia, so I ordered online from Germany. Not long after, however, options became available locally (at least if you live in an urban area). Even though it’s cheaper now, it’s not cheaper than plastic.
Secondly, not so much a downside, but more of a caveat, are the bristles. Many bamboo toothbrushes have bristles made of pig hair, especially if the product is made in China, where pig bristles are an abundant by-product. Even when the listing states that the toothbrush is vegan, I did not feel comfortable that the sellers truly understood what that means, since the product description always focuses on the handle and never mentions the bristles. That’s another reason why I bought mine from Germany, from a seller who clearly understood what information sustainable & ethical shoppers are looking for.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for a sustainable traveller. From a strictly eco-sustainability POV, this is a plus, as it finds a use for a by-product. However, if you’re Muslim like me, this renders these toothbrushes haram. And if you’re opposed to animal farming in general, then such toothbrushes are non-vegan. (2023 edit: this problem has largely gone away by now. Manufacturers are adjusting to the target markets).
There are two basic alternative on the subject of toothbrush bristles. You could opt for a bamboo toothbrush that is not entirely plastic-free, i.e. plastic bristles (nylon). Or, you can go for the slightly more expensive bamboo toothbrush with cellulose bristles.
Would I keep using bamboo toothbrushes?
It is my default. I no longer even take free plastic toothbrushes in hotels.
2. Eliminate travel-size toiletries
For many years, I have been guilty of saving ‘travel size’ toiletries. I would always recycle the bottles, but it is not exactly the best approach if you truly aspire to travel sustainably. A very low proportion of plastics sent for recycling actually gets recycled.
Later, I began saving only those bottles with necks wide enough to be refilled. I stayed with liquids because I still had a lot of liquid personal care products that I wanted to use up at home while slowly testing plastic free versions.
However, free plastic toiletry bottles with refillable necks are rare. In addition, if you drop it during use, it’s easy to spill the liquid. So I replaced them with refillable silicone squeeze bottles (I went with GoToob).
What were the additional benefits with silicone toiletries bottles?
Aside from being at least as durable as the average travel-size toiletries containers, the GoToob bottles were easy to refill. The top unscrews to give you access to wide neck, so that you can even refill quite viscous liquid fairly easily.
Because of the soft silicone body, the liquid – even viscous ones like lotions – are easy to squeeze out, and the silicone valve is leak-tight enough to deal with pressure changes in airplanes for almost all liquids (light toner might evaporate out). The silicone is also food grade, in case you were thinking of using it for consumable liquids like sauces.
The bigger tubes even have a rotatable neck band with common liquid types embossed so that you remember what you’ve got in it. I have used it for shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, facial cleanser, and toner.
It’s a good option for people who are not ready (or can’t) switch to solid versions of their personal care products. The silicone tubes are more aesthetically pleasing, while being lighter and easier to travel with than glass.
Are there any downsides to using silicone toiletries bottles?
As I mentioned before, extremely light liquids might evaporate out through the valve, especially across pressure changes such as in an airplane.
Aside from that, for me the biggest downside is that you can’t clean it out easily. It would be great if you can turn it inside out, and fully clean it. I tried to do it with one of my GoToobs, but ended up puncturing it. So, practically speaking, you have to continue refilling with the initial liquid you chose for it, or at least change to a fairly compatible liquid. For example, lotion to sunscreen would be fine, but not facial cleanser to sunscreen.
Another important downside for backpackers is that the silicone bottles are too useful and cute. This means, you can’t leave them in hostel showers etc. as they are more likely to be stolen. I lost one in Sydney, during a subsequent trip to Tonga, having left it in the extremely cramped common bathroom. Even though I remembered not too long after, and even though there were other bottles of shampoo left on the sills, my GoToob was gone. By contrast, I don’t think people would steal bar shampoo. I mean, usually bits of your hair will be stuck on it.
And finally, I’m not sure what will happen if you bring sunscreen in a GoToob into territories that ban non-reef safe sunscreens. Without the bottle, you can’t show what the ingredients are, and that yours is reef-safe. The bottle might be confiscated?
Would I use silicone toiletries bottles again?
I still use them for those toiletries that are just better as liquids. However, if you already have reusable bottles that are well-made and sturdy, even if they’re plastic, it isn’t really worth swapping those for silicone.
Sustainability information for travellers to Chile
The main portion of my trip to Chile was spent in two remote locations. Having returned, I can describe the water supply and waste situation which comprise the biggest impacts you would introduce as a traveller.
1. Water sustainability
One of the first questions to consider for remote or island locations, is where the water comes from. It is very likely that the place is water-scarce, so being frugal in water use is usually warranted.
What is the source of water supply in Easter Island?
Water quality is reasonably good on Easter Island.
Despite attracting as many as 100,000 tourists a year, Easter Island relies on rainwater. Volcanic craters on the island hold the rainwater supply, and that’s it. They’re not that big, and the water is also needed by the last remnants of Rapa Nui native ecology. I filtered this water for drinking purposes and experienced no issues.
What is the water supply in the Atacama desert?
My hostel host had previously explained how he had to lobby the bosses of the Chilean telco companies directly, so that they would actually process his fiberoptic cable application. Apparently, these things are not reliable in Chile. Anyway, that’s why my hostel had really fast WiFi.
So I thought, perhaps he could also tell me about the local water issues, since I had seen a mural in San Pedro about valuing water. On one of the tours I took, I had seen what looked like water pipelines descending from the high plains. There was an industrial water tanker taking water too. Spying a water conservation sticker on my hostel’s office wall, I thought to satisfy my curiosity.
That’s how I learned that water supply in San Pedro de Atacama comes from the geysers, which flow into creeks. The water at the geysers is not potable, since there is toxic mineral content. But, they filter the water afterwards.
I used the tap water as is. I figured because of its geological source, the town has no choice but to treat the water very well to remove the hazardous contents.
2. Plastic pollution
I already knew beforehand that Chile supermarkets do not give out plastic bags. A friend of mine had gone bike touring there the year before and told me about it, knowing my interest in sustainability. I found this to be true. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of bringing a reusable carry bag before your trip to Chile.
That said, Chile is not low on plastic waste, and shops other than supermarkets would still give you plastic bags.
What happens to waste on Easter Island?
How does waste collection and disposal work on the most remote inhabited island? My Airbnb host requested that we recycle, so I figured it must go somewhere. Easter Island is generally clean and tidy. It was on my return flight to the mainland that I discovered where.
LATAM flies waste back to mainland Chile for recycling. So actually, there is a point to separating your waste on this remote little island! It also follows, the less waste you generate, the more manageable this would be! Also, I’m not 100% sure what happens after LATAM unloads the cargo. After all, not all waste you send for recycling really gets recycled.
Plastic pollution in Atacama
Despite being on the mainland, with a good road connection to Calama, it is San Pedro de Atacama that has a plastic waste problem. Like Easter Island, San Pedro gets a high volume of tourism. But the vacant areas by the roads are littered with plastic waste. It tells me that basic waste recovery is an issue in San Pedro, never mind recycling. All the more reason to travel as zero waste as you can.
How to be a responsible traveller in Chile
Sometimes, there are sustainability issues that you wouldn’t be able to anticipate when you’re planning for the trip. Occasionally, they would even be opposite to what you would assume. So keep your eyes peeled when you’re travelling. Some sustainability issues in Chile I learned on location. Here are three.
1. An eco-resort may not be sustainable!
We normally take it for granted that an eco-resort would be completely sustainable. Surely the company wouldn’t stop at environmental sustainability, and ignore social sustainability? But on Easter Island, I saw a protest that reminded me that it’s not always as simple as that.
I came across an Easter Island eco-resort that looked well-designed and built with environmental sustainability principles in mind. The buildings were Earthship-like, with grassed roofs. They looked like they would have things like rainwater capture and all sorts.
But black protest flags and banners ringed its fenceline. I asked a local islander what it was about. According to him, they were put up by local Rapa Nui. The grievance is that the resort is not Rapa Nui-owned, nor even Chilean. It is a European resort, and perceived as not benefiting the local people. Since tourism is the major income source for the island, with not much else going on, understandably locals are sensitive about outsiders profiting from their island without proper compensation or other benefit for locals.
I think this will be a more pressing issue in the future. It would no longer be enough for businesses to profit from a local attraction and just pay taxes to the country. Local people will increasingly demand why the business opportunity should not go to them. An outside business would need to bring more value to the table.
2. Hitchhiking in Polynesia
Hitchhiking is common across the Pacific islands. I read about this when researching trips to the South Pacific, and confirmed it during those trips. Easter Island is a Polynesian island, so you might assume that hitchhiking is also common here. Indeed, if you happen to be walking while a local car drives past, you’re likely to get a hitchhike on Easter Island.
That said, the island is very small, with only one town. The other locations on the island are moai sites, which are not daily destinations for locals. Most traffic to these places are by tourist rented cars, or taxis.
So I was surprised when a newly-arrived traveller flagged down my taxi as we passed by the airport gate, headed towards Tongariki for the sunrise. My driver stopped to hear what she wanted. She asked him something in foreign-accented Spanish, which he refused.
When we drove away from her, I asked him if she had wanted to share the cab. I didn’t mind, if it’s just along the way. Alex replied that she had ‘no muy dineros’. She wanted a lift for free.
I thought it was quite over the limit to ask a taxi for a free ride. Especially when the taxi already has a passenger, who presumably paid for the service. For me, that is the line where you are no longer a hitchhiker, but actually a begpacker. While hitchhiking can be, begpacking is not among the ways to travel sustainably.
Seriously, please don’t go to remote bucket list destinations reliant on tourism if you’re just going to mooch from the locals. Travel sustainably, or accept that you really can’t afford to go there.
I spent quite a bit of time simply roaming around the streets and alleys of Valparaiso’s old quarter and downtown areas. I knew that Valparaiso is a university city, and has a reputation for being the party city for Santiago. On one such foray, a laminated printed sign caught my attention. It was stuck onto a corrugated metal wall of a Valparaiso alley.
Overtourism is a big issue in the tourism industry, but is subjective. 10,000 tourists in a big city with efficient infrastructure and good regulations may be palatable. 1000 tourists in a small village could be too much. But in all cases, the point when local residents begin to resent tourists, is when their daily lives are negatively affected.
It could be an increasing difficulty to get affordable housing, because apartment blocks get rented out as Airbnbs by real estate investors instead of housing local people. Or it could be when a stream of insensitive tourists continually disrespect the local culture or important sites. In this case, it was the excessive partying by weekenders and gap year travellers, disrupting sleep and family/community life.
Whatever it is, it’s about travellers treating the place they visit as a ‘theme park’ that revolves around their holiday, rather than a place where people live.
Yet, if you yourself live in a neighbourhood back home, surely you can imagine what would be obnoxious. If you want to travel independently, staying within communities instead of dedicated hotels and resorts, then travel sustainably.
Be a good neighbour – even in someone else’s neighbourhood.
Carbon offset information to Chile
Travelling to Chile, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Santiago via Sydney, produces carbon emissions of approximately 14,400 lbs CO2e. It costs about $72 to offset this.
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