Sustainability - Vanlife and the vexed issue of plastic

Sustainability - Vanlife and the vexed issue of plastic

I'll admit it right at the beginning: The topic of plastic makes us sad, thoughtful, angry and above all one thing: often helpless.

For: Plastic is super. Light, malleable, easy to clean and, above all, very practical. All properties that speak in favour of plastic, especially in vanlife.

Unfortunately, plastic does not only have good qualities: It takes ages, many, many years, to decompose in the normal way. Only a small part is recycled. And: every newly produced PET bottle, every newly produced camping salad bowl or every quick-drying microfibre towel and every flip-flop - there are already small exceptions - piles up the mountain of the indecomposable.

We have a few tips for campers and motorhomers - and perhaps also for non-long-term travellers - further down in this article.

Oh, the "life-purs" are already so far! Not at all, mind you.

Before we give the impression that we are insanely perfect, of course we are not. We have set out to get a little better every day. And yes, we still have a lot of plastic stuff in our Felix. But: With every new acquisition, we take a close look to see if it can't be done better in the future, and we decide in favour of it. Because: Everyone has the opportunity to make a new decision every day.

Oh, I don't have that much plastic in my household. You think!

Plastic is omnipresent in everyday life:

  • Food packaging, Hygiene articles and child seats are made of polypropylene.
  • Plastic bags, cling film and Waste bags are made from LDPE.
  • Drink bottles and textile fibres contain PET.
  • Camping tablewareThe helmets and cases are made of polyester.
  • Textile fibres, ropes, fishing lines and Toothbrush bristles are made of polyamide (nylon).
  • Yoghurt pot and polystyrene for padding and insulation are made from polystyrene.
  • Slides, Rubber boots, Window frame and Electric cable are made of PVC.

Then there would be composites and additives

  • Milk cartons consist of cardboard with PE and aluminium barrier layer.
  • Coffee is often packed in PE bags coated with aluminium.
  • PE laminate tubes contain an EVOH (ethyl vinyl alcohol copolymer) barrier layer.

Composite materials are composed of two or more firmly bonded, different materials. Their recycling is difficult or impractical.

  • Dyes give plastics their colours.
  • Glass fibres, carbon fibres, flax and jute strengthen the mechanical properties of plastics.
  • Phthalates, as Plasticiser, reduce brittleness, especially in PVC.
  • Flame retardant are responsible for fire safety.
  • Stabiliserssuch as antioxidants and light protection filters are used.
  • Organic Barium, zinc, tin and cadmium compounds and inorganic Lead salts serve as heat stabilisers.

About PFAS there would be a lot more to say, but we'll leave that at this point.

So what's so bad about plastic?

Between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic were produced globally, which is equivalent to over one tonne per person. Most of this is single-use items and packaging. 9 % of all plastic was recycled.

Annual come 400 million tonnes of plastic added, with an upward trend. According to the OECD, global plastic consumption amounted to 460 million tonnes in 2019, whereby 40 % was accounted for by short-lived disposable packaging (e.g. plastic bags, coffee cups, straws, cotton buds).

At Plastic residues were discovered in the body: Researchers found traces of plastic in 17 of 22 blood samples. The health effects are still unclear, as is the accumulation or excretion of Microplastics in the body. The blood was most heavily contaminated with PET (from beverage bottles).

According to a report presented at the WEF in 2016, plastic production consumes about 8 % of global oil production, similar to aviation. By 2050, this share could rise to 20 %. In 2000, the per capita consumption of plastics amounted to 92 kg in Western Europe, 13 kg in Eastern Europe, 130 kg in North America, 19 kg in Latin America, 86 kg in Japan, 13 kg in Southeast Asia and 8 kg in the Middle East and Africa.

I don't see it in the sea any more, do I?

Okay, that wasn't nice. Unfortunately, a lot of waste, including plastic waste, is simply dumped into the sea. Here is a brief overview of the duration of the decomposition process of selected "waste in the sea":

  • Cigarette butts: 5 years
  • Styrofoam cup: 50 years
  • Beverage cans (partly lined inside with plastic): 200 years
  • PET bottles: 450 years
  • Disposable nappies: 450 years
  • Fishing lines & nets: 600 years

No problem, it's all recycled! Isn't it?

In fact, worldwide only About 9% of the plastic recycled. In Europe, the figure is 14%, while other countries recycle less. Let's imagine that only one in ten PET bottles is reused as a flower box or road surface. The other 9 bottles never end up in recycling!

Many developing and emerging countries lack collection and recycling systems for plastic waste. From 2000 to 2020, the annual plastic waste worldwide almost to 353 million tonnes doubled. Industrialised countries of the Global North have often exported their waste problem to other countries that are in danger of suffocating under the burden of waste.

Recycling is actually downcycling

The The term recycling often wrongly suggeststhat recycled materials can be reused for identical items. In many cases, such as food packaging, this is not possible for qualitative reasons and is prohibited by law (exception: PET beverage bottles). Recyclates are mostly used for low-quality products or coated with new plastic. Therefore, the Recycling largely about downcycling.

Some plastics, such as thermosets, elastomers and composite plastics, are not recyclable. The incineration of plastic waste also complicates the path to CO2-neutrality.

The documentary "The Recycling Lie" is recommended for this purpose.

And who is causing all the plastic waste?

In Germany Packaging accounts for around 50 per cent of plastic waste. (I haven't found anything for Switzerland in the mass of research or I've overlooked it, sorry!) Furthermore, the private households, whether stationary or mobile, are the main polluters: Of the 6.3 tonnes of plastic waste in 2019, the following are generated 5.4 tonnes from private households and only 0.9 tonnes from industry.

Oh shit, I guess we belong to that group too! Okay, we're not travelling in Germany, but we count ourselves among the group of polluters, no matter where in the world.

Interim conclusion

Those who have followed and read this far know, however, that we as private households really do have a lever in our hands. 40% of waste consists of short-life packaging (Useful life less than one hour!). And about 85% come from private households.

Moreover, recycling no longer seems as tempting as we have been led to believe. In view of the ever-increasing production and the enormous environmental impact of plastic waste around the globe, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn: We need to rein in consumption.

Now the good news: Appreciate the successes!


The campaign against plastic is gaining more and more momentum. India for example, has imposed a ban on single-use plastic that is considered the largest in the world. The Times of India reports on this with great enthusiasm.


Also the United States are setting an example by banning the use of plastic in national parks.


Australia also shows impressive results: Through dedicated reduction efforts, the country has seen a 29 per cent decrease in coastal plastic waste over the last six years.


In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, met in March 2022. Delegations from almost 200 countriesto sign a major agreement to combat the global plastic waste tide. This agreement is expected to become legally binding by the end of 2024 at the latest, and shows a shared determination to take decisive action against plastic pollution. Let's hope for the best.

The large black beetle can feed on polystyrene and plastic waste thanks to special enzymes

Researchers at the University of Queensland have made a fascinating discovery: the up to five-centimetre long Larvae of the great black beetle can feed on styrofoam and plastic waste thanks to special enzymes. This remarkable ability could play an important role in the recycling industry in the future. By artificially mimicking the feeding process of these superworms, recycling plants could be made more efficient and environmentally friendly. The plastic waste problem could thus be approached from a whole new angle.


Canada plans to gradually ban plastic and is pursuing the ambitious goal of achieving zero plastic waste by 2030. In doing so, the country is following the example of the European Union and wants to drastically reduce non-recyclable plastic waste and polluting parts. The production and sale of certain plastic products is to be discontinued from December, while the population is increasingly getting used to reusable alternatives such as canvas or silicone bags.

Enzymes break down PET plastic in record time and open up new recycling possibilities

Researchers have discovered an enzyme that breaks down PET plastic in record time and have been able to speed it up further. This fast-acting enzyme, discovered in a Leipzig compost heap, breaks PET down into its basic building blocks, which can then be used to produce new PET plastic. This enables a cycle in which no new petroleum is needed for PET production. The Leipzig research team is currently developing further powerful enzymes and plans to build a large-scale experimental plant to keep plastic in a closed cycle.

And now us: less plastic? But how?

Before we set out to shop, before we fill the online shopping cart or stroll through markets, we should pause and ask ourselves these questions (Source: Here I have used the content of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, because they simply have mega information on the topic).

  1. Is this really necessary?
  2. How often will i use it?
  3. How long will it last?
  4. Don't I already own something Similar?
  5. Couldn't I borrow?
  6. What happens to it, when I no longer need it?
  7. Is there a Comparable objectthat was produced in a more environmentally friendly and fairer way?
  8. Could I not used acquire?
  9. Do I desire it really? And if so, why actually?

Possibilities, hints and decision-making aids for Plastic-Free or Plastic-Reduction

Here I already have to "Sorry!" shout out for the wealth of ideas. Some points have occurred to us and we are already implementing them. Others we stumbled across during our research and have noted them here.

Yes, the list is long. And I am sure that everyone is already doing something. If we can now inspire them to do a few more tiny points, that would be wonderful, wouldn't it?

If you're just starting out, pick a corner: the fridge, maybe. And think about how much plastic you can save there. Or the bathroom cabinet.

Shopping & Eating on the Road

  • Consider whether you really came from somewhere Souvenirs you want to take with you that are made of plastic or packed in plastic. (For example, we took home two ceramic bowls and two plates in a cloth bag).
  • Large supermarkets produce more plastic waste than small shops.
  • Try one Unpacked shop out. Maybe you like the concept only for oatmeal, pasta and lentils. Okay, then shop only for those! That also makes a difference.
  • If possible, leave the Packaging right in the shop. That works! The trade would have a huge problem if we all did that. And they would call on the manufacturer for less packaging!
  • Why don't you try to do without plastic when you go shopping? Not so easy, I can tell you. Plastic-free yoghurt pots, margarine, lentils or tofu? Hm. Cheese paper is coated on the inside, so-called compostable plastic bags are only 30 % compostable and definitely do not belong on the compost heap at home.
  • Buy Fresh fruit and vegetables, best on the market.
  • Meat, sausages and cheese can also be bought at the counter and have them filled into their own vessels. Don't let the sellers tell you that it's not allowed. If they refuse, don't buy anything.
  • Take always, always, always a few cloth bags with (or plastic bags if you already have them anyway).
  • If you have packaging in the van, consider whether you can Use multiple times (margarine tins for craft materials, cereal bags for cat food, refilling PET bottles at the fountain, etc.).
  • Water can be drunk almost everywhere (we filter it from time to time), so do not use PET here either. (In the photo you can see our complete plastic-free failure in Tunisia, the drinking water was tasteless, here we bought water for tea, coffee and to drink. For cooking, showering etc. we used the slightly salty tasting water).
  • Fast foodThe rule here is simple: No, just don't buy it! Order a pizza from a restaurant to eat on the spot, or buy a hot stuffed pastry from the bakery and have it wrapped in your own packaging. For this, we always have bread roll bags or small plastic bags that we already have anyway and carry around rinsed out and clean in our backpacks.
  • Always take Fork and knife with. This way you can do without plastic cutlery.
  • If you see plastic tableware and cutlery being used in the restaurant too, ask for porcelain and reusable cutlery or move on! (Very bad in Italy!) Paper cups are also coated with plastic on the inside to remain waterproof.
  • Coffee-to-go: Take your own cup with you (there are now beautiful porcelain cups with lids) and make yourself comfortable on a park bench. Because on-the-go drinking is so 2000s and nobody wants "fast-quick" anymore! Practise more quality of life!
Sustainability - Vanlife and the vexed issue of plastic
Sustainability - Vanlife and the vexed issue of plastic

Kitchen & Co

  • In the van you definitely need No rubbish bags. We have two rubbish bins where we separate the rubbish and simply dump it out at the appropriate disposal stations or bins. On the bottom of the bins we just put a piece of paper (what we always have somehow, a flyer here, a piece of newspaper there, a bag of bread from the bakery).
  • Our kitchen is mainly made of glass, porcelain, wood and metal. Only the hand blender and its bowl and a few old things like the whisk handle or mum's Tupperware are still made of plastic. Nothing is broken!
  • Washing-up liquid for kitchen and laundry refillable Buy or make it yourself (It's easy, we'll write about it separately)
  • Bialetti or French Press instead of capsule or filter coffee
  • Wooden board instead of plastic board
  • Dry products such as lentils, rice, oatmeal unpacked or buy in bulk
  • We didn't need plastic coasters, anti-slip mats and rattle guards right from the start. Here we have Felt used or made from old garments "Overcoat" made.
  • Important: Don't throw away all the plastic, use it until you can't anymore. Because resources are also needed again for new wooden boards or metal whisks.

Bath & WC (er, sorry, TTT)

  • Cotton buds comes with cardboard sticks (if you need them at all)
  • Menstrual cup instead of pads and tampons (brilliant invention!)
  • Instead of toilet paper wrapped in plastic, there are also other options
  • Hair soap instead of disposable shampoo bottles
  • Shaving soap and plane instead of disposable razors
  • Toothbrush made of bamboo (we don't like it) or at least with exchangeable heads (saves the handles for years)
  • Instead of toothpaste, we have been using Toothbrush tablets to chew and then clean. Small packaging, simply great.
  • For years we have also used the App Codecheck, to be warned about microplastics and all sorts of other smut in cosmetics.

Otherwise in the van

  • Decorations can be made from natural materials or second-hand items
  • Camping chairs and tables: a big challenge for us. Unfortunately, we then bought new. Here, second-hand things would be much more sustainable or at least to buy with the thought that you will use them for a very, very long time.
  • The storage space is often filled with Plastic boxes filled to keep things tidy. Here you have to pay attention to stable quality, our cheap Ikea boxes have already all cracked and unfortunately we now have to buy more stable boxes. It didn't have to be this way.
  • Mosquito nets made of fabric instead of plastic search
  • About the number of Sports equipment and Accessories think about it, see above, first thoughts and the questions that go with them. (Helmets, pumps, shoes, clothing, care, mounts, latest version, heart rate monitor etc...).

Conclusion: Joie de vivre instead of renunciation

All right, we're going to Not saving the world alone can. That is not our aspiration either. We want to be able to say in the evening: We have contributed little or nothing to the plasticisation of our world today. Likewise, we do not want to point the finger at others or even the industry, we want to make, to set an example and, if we succeed, also to inspire a little.

But the most important thing is: Please use everything you have for as long as possible! Yes, even the plastic bowl, the washing line, the plastic colander or the yoga mat. It would be really stupid if we forced plastic-free at all costs!

And remember that the vanlife lifestyle is not one of renunciation, but of abundance and the joy of living in nature. A life that shows us, how little we can be happy and satisfied with.

Films, books and blogs worth watching

YouTube short film of the Heinrich Böll Foundation

"The Recycling Lie

Plastic in the sea: The Sisyphus task

UNPACKAGED! The report from the unpacked shop in Zurich

The Plastic Problem (English, quite easy to understand)

Milena Glimbovski: Without ifs and buts - How I escaped the packaging mania.

Shia Su: Zero Waste - Less waste is the new green

Verena Klaus: Müllkommanix - life is easier without waste

Olga Witt: A life without waste

Renate Schickler: Zero Waste - Without waste and without plastic

Samuel J. Flynn: The Zero Waste Practice Book: 150 + exciting tips and tricks

My research sources, also very worth reading

This is now a long list, but I want to and have to give it. I have taken a lot of information from the sources, shortened it a little or rearranged it. If you want to read more deeply into the subject, you can do so right here.

I have put my favourites at the beginning.

And now all the other sources.

Thank you for reading our sustainability thoughts. Every two to three weeks on Mondays we write something about the possibility of living future-oriented in the van. We try to shed light on different areas and hope to do so without pointing fingers.

Our focus is on the joy of van life and the many possibilities. We want to avoid the usual doomsday and renunciation communication.

You can find all the sustainability posts collected in the Category Future.

You think this could also be of interest to others? Then you can download the Share post quietly. By e-mail or however you want to do it.

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We are also very happy to hear your views, your tips or your questions. Just comment on the post!

Best regards - Heike & Gerd


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1 year ago

Thank you very much for your comprehensive list! That was a lot of work!

Perhaps this is a small glimmer of hope from our city: Newcycling® - turning complex waste into high-quality plastics

1 year ago
Reply to  Beate

Hi Beate, thank you!
Oh, that looks really good! There are always good solutions! We just have to keep at it!
But consuming less is really one of the most important steps!

Best wishes!
Gerd & Heike

Sabine End
Sabine End
1 year ago

Thank you for the detailed research.
Yes, Italy is extreme!
We have not yet implemented as much as you.
But they are getting better and better.
Use all "unavoidable", or long acquired, plastic items for as long as they last.
We would like to have new plates, but the old ones from 2007 just won't break.
Happens with porcelain: one pothole and six plates smoothly through.
Everything is not so simple.
Kind regards