How I avoided single-use water bottles in Asia

The trick is to get comfortable asking one question.

Open a tap, fill a glass of water. This simple act, repeated countless times over the course of an ordinary day in my home, becomes an act of tremendous privilege whenever I leave Canada. When I travel, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have clean water in every tap – and concerned about how I'm going to source it wherever I might be.

The issue, of course, is plastic bottles, which I avoid as a rule. So when I was invited by Intrepid Travel to visit Sri Lanka, I wondered how I could go without using disposable plastic bottles, or at least as few as possible without compromising hydration in a hot and humid country. What I've discovered over the course of two weeks is that it's easier than I thought. I didn't purchase a single plastic beverage bottle. This is what I did.

First, I came prepared for the worst. I brought a water filtration bottle made by Grayl that can transform any water from lakes, streams, or rustic hostel taps into clean drinking water in just 8 seconds of pushing it through a filter. (It was an old model, purchased at least 6 years ago.) Next, I bought a package of Aquatabs ($10 for 50) that kill microorganisms in water. The website says Aquatabs are “the world's no. 1 in water purification tablets” and the reviews were excellent.

I packed two water bottles – the Grayl, which can function as a regular water bottle and holds 710 mL, and a 1.1L Klean Kanteen. I had been told by Intrepid Travel that we should have at least 1.5L of storage capacity.

When I got to the first hotel, I discovered that there was a large drinking water dispenser in the main hallway. The guide told us at the initial meeting that we could expect it in many places, since it's something Intrepid has requested of all the hotels it frequents, although he did recommend purchasing a 5L bottle of water to top up in between. (I chose not to.) My delight was somewhat subdued when he told me later that many of the hotels bring out the water cooler just when Intrepid groups arrive because they know we want to see it. Some will hide it the rest of the time because then they'll be able to make money off the sale of small plastic water bottles in the rooms.

This led to my next strategy. If there was no cooler made publicly available, I'd ask the hotel serving staff to refill my water bottle whenever I was at a meal. Sure enough, they did, although they usually asked first if I wanted a bottle of water. On a few rare occasions I could tell the staff weren't overly pleased by my request, but they did it anyway; nor did it feel unrealistic of me to ask, considering I'd spent 1 or 2 nights in their hotel and eaten multiple meals. They'd made plenty of money off me already. (For this reason, I wouldn't make this request anywhere else, only at the hotels.)

These requests are what drive the broader behavioral changes that we so desperately need in order to shake single-use culture. Imagine if every single traveller asked for their water bottles to be filled from cooler; I bet the hotel would have one installed the next day.

Sri Lankans are aware of the impact of single-use plastic. Their beautiful island is lined with sandy beaches, many of which are now full of plastic waste from other people's drinking habits. One of their most famous historical and geographical features, Sigiriya, the lion rock, has a full ban on disposable plastic water bottles; although it's not enforced, there are signs everywhere warning against them and a shiny new water refill station at the base of the mountain.

plastic on beach in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka© K Martinko – Plastic on the beach in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

I ended up not using the Grayl filter bottle until I got stuck at Delhi airport for 24 hours, my flight back to Toronto delayed by heavy fog. In the hotel room, I filtered tap water before drinking and was grateful to have that option. I never needed the Aquatabs, but they'll keep until my next camping or backpacking trip.

Asking for refills worked well throughout my Sri Lankan trip and will no doubt become my go-to policy when travelling from now on. I encourage you to try it, too.

The author was the guest of Intrepid Travel in Sri Lanka. There was no requirement to write this article.

The trick is to get comfortable asking one question.