Let’s Talk About Water Bottles

You don’t want to leave a trail of plastic water bottles behind you when you travel. But how do you avoid using plastic water bottles in countries where the tap water is questionable? Christine Mackay, one of the founders of Crooked Trails and the Travelers Against Plastic (TAP) campaign was able to take a few minutes to share her traveling experiences and her solution to the plastic water bottle problem.

When did you discover your love for traveling?

My mom brought me to India when I was 16. She was on some spiritual quest to go meet a guru in the Himalayas and she drug me along. Being only 16 at the time, I had no idea what I was getting into and travel was pretty rustic back then. But I was really fascinated by the whole experience and I was able to get myself back to India a few years later for three months. And it was during that trip that I started to realize, I really like this. I like being surrounded by people whose language I don’t understand, whose customs are different, whose food is exotic. The smells, the sights, everything. I love that feeling of Oh my gosh, this is all new!

After college, I went to go live in Europe for six months. When I came back, I went to grad school and after grad school I grabbed a backpack and headed around the world.

What inspired you to start a tour company?

I think because the more I traveled, the more I realized that there are a lot of negative impacts involving tourism and that it doesn’t have to be that way. So, I had met Tammy Leland, my business partner, in grad school. We both earned degrees in environmental education. Her focus was tourism. My focus was the marine environment. I think that tourism can be a positive force in the world, in fact, I know it can. It just has to be done right. I wanted to be a part of that movement. When I came back from my year of traveling, I had made some great contacts and I met up with Tammy and said, “You know what, we should do something here.” and she said, “Yeah, you’re right, we should.”

So, we sat down and came up with Crooked Trails.

How did you decide on the name Crooked Trails?

It was funny. We had a lot of names on pieces of paper trying to figure out what we were going to call ourselves. Most of them had to do with idea of the windy path, the path less traveled, the trail into the woods. And we kept thinking about the word crooked because we liked it but at the same time crooked sometimes conjures up images of bad things. But we ended up with Crooked Trails because – you’re going to laugh – there’s a C and a T in the name which stand for Chris and Tammy.

What has the journey been like since you started Crooked Trails?

We started Crooked Trails because we wanted to try and make a difference. The whole focus all along has been educational and community based tourism. We wanted to make sure that people who were impacted by tourism had control over it. We would always ask the communities, “When can we come? What can we see? Where can we go? How much do you want to get paid?” I mean we really put in the hands of the locals.

After spending so much time in these communities, we decided that we wanted to go even further. Our first humanitarian project was to build a community center in the village of Peng Sa in Northern Thailand. Since then we’ve organized a number of campaigns: we helped build a clinic and a water system in Kenya, an orphanage in Peru, and schools in Nepal. So, it’s been a good road for us. But TAP has definitely been our largest campaign.

How did the Traveler’s Against Plastic campaign get started?

Tammy and I started Crooked Trails about 15 years ago. We have always been passionate about sustainable travel and ecotourism, so right from the get-go we had our travelers be prepared to clean their own water. At the end of 2012, our team sat down and said, “You know what, we need to do something about this, because we are constantly seeing discarded plastic water bottles on trails, roads and community streets.” What we recognized was that our travelers would often get righteous about avoiding plastic water bottles. We thought that since we were already a non-profit organization, we were in a good place to start a campaign. So that’s what we did.

The first person I called was Kurt Kutay, who is a good friend of mine and was one of the founding members of the International Ecotourism Society. He is real big on sustainable tourism and he has a very successful tour company called Wildland Adventures. I knew that I had to call him and tell him about TAP. His response was so perfect; he said, “This needs to happen, how can I help.”

So I said, “well, you’re pretty influential in the travel industry and I would like to leverage that.” And from that point on, it has been a joint effort between Crooked Trails and Wildland Adventures to get the campaign off the ground.

Talk us through the kind of damage that is done by plastic water bottle use.

When I try to educate people about the effects of plastic water bottles, it’s really three-fold in terms of damage.

The first of course is environmental. When you’re traveling in many countries, you’ll see the plastic lined around the rivers or floating out on lakes or laying on the side of the road. A lot of people like to think that the garbage gets recycled but even the recycling programs in the United States miss most of the plastic bottles. Less than 20% of the bottles here are properly recycled. And then it takes almost 700 years for one bottle to decompose.

There’s also a tremendous amount of pollution that originates from the factories that create the water bottles. These bottles are toxic and full of chemicals. When they wash down rivers and into oceans, they eventually break down into little tiny pieces that are just big enough for animals to eat. And these pieces of plastic have floated together and created giant gyres in every ocean on Earth. The one in the Pacific is the size of Texas. I had a friend who sailed through it and he told me it took three days to get through to the other side. There are places in the garbage patch where the plastic outweighs the plankton 6:1. A new documentary called Midway has just been made about an island where this plastic has taken a real toll on the wildlife and I would encourage everyone to watch the trailer.

There’s also the environmental impact of creating the bottle itself and distributing it. On average, it takes about three bottles of water to make one bottle of water.On top of that, the amount of petroleum used to create and distribute the bottle would fill a quarter of the bottle. So, if you would image an empty plastic water bottle in front of you, if you filled a quarter of it with petroleum, that is how much fuel is used to create and distribute it. It’s just a complete and utter waste.

So that is the environmental impact. Then there’s the health impact. This is the one that I think people really need to know. Most water bottles are made from PET [polyethylene terephthalate] and PET has antimony in it which is an endocrine disrupter. At really low levels it can cause dizziness or headache but at high levels, which occur when the bottle is left in heat such as a hot car, the damage increases exponentially. This is incredibly deadly stuff. A study conducted by a german scientist found over 25,000 toxic chemicals in one bottle of water.

So when someone hands you a nice chilled bottle of water, you think, “Oh my gosh this is so refreshing, so healthy for me.” And to tell you the truth, now that I have looked at all of these studies, I look at that bottle of water and I just see chemicals, cancer, death. I really do, that’s what I see. I wouldn’t drink it and I certainly wouldn’t let my child drink it. I think what we have to realize is that we have no idea where that bottle of water was before it was placed on the shelves at the grocery store. It could have been sitting in the back of the warehouse for a week, two weeks. And then it could have been sitting on a non-refrigerated truck traveling across the country. So, it’s that image that we need to change of Oh this water is beautiful, fresh, healthy, and from the mountains when it is actually a stew of deadly chemicals.

Then of course there’s the cost issue, that’s the third main issue. We’re paying more for an item that is free than we pay for gasoline. Bottled water is 1,500 to 2,000 times the cost of regular water.

Your solution to this problem is using a permanent aluminum water bottle like a Klean Kanteen and a water sanitation system like Steri-PEN or a water filter. Have you ever had your doubts about whether or not those sanitation devices would work?

I do my research, you know, I use items that have been tested and proven again and again and again. I have never once doubted it. Although, there have been times when I have traveled to places that have heavy chemicals and things like arsenic in the water and devices like Steri-PEN will not filter those out. That’s when filters like GRAYL come in handy. GRAYL takes out everything! At the same time, GRAYL only carries 16 ounces, which wouldn’t last as long on trips. So, I have used a variety of different water filters in the past and Steri-PEN is definitely my favorite. I have used it for 10 years and I have never gotten sick from the water. But I love the idea of being able to get all the heavy metals out of my water as well.

What does the future look like for TAP?

Well, we just celebrated our second World Water Day event where we had the opportunity to get industry people together to talk about things we can do to make a difference. I’m hoping to speak at several conferences this year as well as additional webinars and meetings associated with sustainable travel. I have also been contacted by the Nepal Trekking Association which has 700 members strong. They would like me to speak to the entire constituency in Nepal. Other than that, I will continue to build our network of supports and sponsors. And one thing I would really like to do is to work on the resources page of our website. We have information there now, but I want a lot more so that when people are interested, they will know where to go to get all the latest and best information on plastic pollution, on health, on everything.

Travelers Against Plastic has received 100 pledges against plastic water bottles from tour companies and 422 pledges from individuals. Together, we can make a difference.

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