Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Planning a plastic-free vacation takes plenty of preparation and observation, we discovered on a recent trip to the Florida Keys. Our goal was to eliminate single-use plastic items on a week-long trip full of diving, eating, and vacationing. It was harder than we thought it would be!

Somehow, we thought that in the Florida Keys, everything would be about conserving water and reducing plastic. We had predicted there wouldn’t be a plastic straw for 100 miles around. For some reason, I had been anticipating the Keys as the end-all, the final word on conservation, environmentalism, on recycling and environmental concern. We were about to find out how difficult it was to be single-use plastic-free in the Florida Keys.

Planning Ahead to Succeed

We started our voyage by mentally preparing how to avoid single-use plastics. I’d recently read two great articles about the practicality and scope of going plastic free. I was greatly impressed by solutions, including completely avoiding restaurants that don’t fit your plastic-free lifestyle.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys
We carry our own cloth napkins with us on road trips.

Before traveling, I love to plan ahead and try to predict and plan how to accomplish my goals. So, I thoughtfully armed myself with a Tervis insulated drink tumbler that I had earned for passing an industry certification exam. Then I added a Starbucks aluminum coffee mug with a lid, cloth napkins from a consignment shop and a kitchen towel. I even brought two multi-use plastic containers in case we ate anywhere that served large portions, and we needed take out boxes.

Daily Coffee System – Home or Away

Part of our daily ecoconscious morning is making our own coffee in the least destructive means possible, so our coffee kit was packed as always. We have a tiny metal whisk for stirring the sugar for the Cuban coffee. For stir sticks and to dig the coffee grounds out of the Bialetti Moka Pot, we use bamboo skewers. We bring a metal tamper, and a spare metal spoon.

Our two brewing methods accompany us everywhere – a Bodum French press and the Bialetti Moka Pot. We consume no plastic pods, no paper filters, and no disposable cups. So far, so good. Also, more efficient than boiling on a stovetop; we bring an inexpensive Hamilton Beach electric kettle. That frees up one burner for multiple-pot meals.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Into my toiletry bag went my eco-conscious body products, so neatly assembled in a single kit available from Stream2Sea and packaged in guilt-free sugar cane biodegradable containers. Little did I know how useful everything in the Conscious Explorer Kit would be! Feeling prepared! (“KimW” for 10% off!)

We packed the car, and headed South, full of healthy intentions.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys
It says “Eco.” Do I believe it? I left them there.

First Success – Turning Down Toiletries

Our first stop was a hotel in Stuart. I will admit, I had trouble keeping my hands off the “free” sample-size toiletries. I still have piles of what I formerly believed to be absolutely lovely hotel shampoos and conditioner bottles. For dive trips, I had gotten used to taking them. They are the perfect size for my post-dive shower; so tiny and cute and portable. No more.

I knew that if I took the toiletries, I was increasing the demand for them, and I would have to dispose of the single-use containers.

Not only were the containers probably not biodegradable, the contents probably were not safe for washing down the drain. Sure, it cost me a bit more to use my own Stream2Sea stash for showering, but I single-handedly saved the environment – twice! Yay! Score!

I had “passed” my first test! First, I had avoided the plastic! Second, I had used reef-safe products. While I had not changed anyone else’s mind, I had made a tiny good choice. Or two. Or three.

By the way, once I’ve used up my supply, I will keep the very best couple of the containers. I will simply refill them for the same purpose. I’ll need to keep ones with wide mouths, and sterilize them after emptying them.

Next Success – Passing on the Coffee and Tea In-Room Service Items

At the bathroom sink, I was glad to see real glasses instead of plastic cups in plastic bags. But then, right next to it, there was the whole coffee service setup; paper cups, plastic lids, packets of this and that, plastic stirrers.

In the past, I always took these, then used them later at work or while travelling. This time, I left them in place. We chose to stick to our system of our own Bodum French press, Bialetti Moka Pot, and Hamilton Beach electric kettle.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Choosing to Avoid Restaurants

Next was breakfast. The hotel had a complimentary breakfast. You know the one – it’s free, but it costs the Earth so much. Paper plates and cups, plastic utensils, packets of this and that, but we skipped it. Yes, we skipped the free breakfast, and headed across the street to Ihop.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

At Ihop, we knew we would be served on crockery plates, ceramic coffee mugs, multi-use water glasses whether plastic or glass, and metal flatware. Score! We win! Ooops – forgot about cream. Available only in plastic tubs.

Another good choice – and we felt fairly good about the ecoconscious start to our day. Performing quick calculations, we added up how many plates, cups, and plastic flatware we had avoided for just one meal and congratulated ourselves.

We planned to continue, so we had our personal water bottles filled with ice water and again headed South. They are plastic, and as soon as they wear out, we probably will replace them with stainless multi-use containers that will work for hot coffee as well as for ice water.

Next Stop! Success and Failure

Flush with our successes, we stopped in Key Largo at Denny’s Latin Cafe. We looked around to see what customers were served on – there was white restaurant ware – shew!

Crockery plates, metal flatware, and the most adorable Cuban coffee cups imaginable were on the tables. We secretly looked down our noses at the customers carrying out paper cups with plastic tops from the coffee chain next door. Snif snif.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Flan was our goal, and we found ourselves presented with enormous slices of that Cuban solid gold.

Bill’s Cuban coffee arrived in the adorable cup we had scoped out, and my coffee came… in a freaking Styrofoam cup! We were caught off guard. Fail. Failed to ask or observe long or closely enough, we sure did.

Had we stopped and really looked around, I could have asked for mine to be served in something else, or, changed my coffee order to Cuban coffee.

Next Stop: Island Fish Co.

South we headed, shaking our heads and promising to do better. On Marathon Key, we stopped for lunch at the Island Fish Co. A quick glance revealed crockery plates and metal flatware. We thought we were safe.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

We ordered apps and lunch, and were aghast when our drinks arrived. Bill’s mojito arrived in a sweating glass, and though we had chorused “no plastic straws!” – those came anyway.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

And my rum concoction? It arrived, strangely enough, in a plastic cup with a plastic straw. All it was missing was a plastic sword skewered through the maraschino cherry! Fail! It tasted great. I felt guilty. I drank it anyway. In other words, the damage already was done; now all I could do is try to educate the server.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Next, our meal arrived – and we learned another lesson. Every single condiment came in a little plastic pot with a tiny plastic lid. I imagine someone arrives every day and fills hundreds of little cups with cocktail sauce and pink sauce. Restaurants probably cannot leave larger squeeze bottles at the table in the heat.

We predicted that even if we had noticed other diners’ plates and said, “no plastic,” they would simply have scooped the condiments out of the plastic pots back in the kitchen, presented us with the plate, and still not have saved that bit of refuse. Fail.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Lesson learned. Look around before you sit down – look closer. This is, of course, much easier at a restaurant where you dine often. For instance, we are used to bringing our own takeaway multi-use containers when we eat out locally because we know they use foam containers. So, we go prepared.

Still Determined

We arrived in Key West, feeling mediocre about our successes and failures at avoiding single-use plastics. So far, we had tallied more “fails” than “wins” in our reduce plastic use goals. Better times were ahead!

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

We hit up the grocery, then prepared our own dinner, and we used zero plastics. As a result, using our linen napkins for the week saved tons of paper napkins! Three meals a day times ten days times two people equals 60 napkins avoided. We knew we had that “win” already chalked up for this challenge week!

Blindsided, Again

The next morning, we decided to treat ourselves to coffee at Baby’s Coffee on US1. We brought our two insulated coffee mugs, and proudly presented them to the cashier. “Please use these,” we said, as we noticed their own logo-ed coffee mugs with reduced price refills.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

We watched the barista at Baby’s – she prepared our coffee in huge Styrofoam cups, while we protested we had brought our own. In order to measure the serving, they were going to use their cups no matter what. The contents were poured into our cups, and the Styrofoam cups went straight into the trash. They didn’t even get to enjoy a long use before being tossed.

I thought maybe water is such a commodity in the Keys that it is more affordable for businesses to buy and toss more single use items and generate more trash than to pay for water to wash more dishes? I could not get an answer on that one, even after asking at several places.

Sundowners at Sunset Point, Sigsbee

That evening, we decided sundowners at the Sunset Point Lounge would be the perfect end to our first day in the Keys.

Drinks were inexpensive, the breeze was pleasant, and all eight of us – the only eight people in the entire place – had front-row seats for the sunset.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

While Duval Street was teeming with tourists, we congratulated ourselves on sitting in the one location for miles around with a killer view of the sunset, and no crowds.

A friend also was camping the same week, and texted for me to check the webcam at Sloppy Joes. They were right by the bar. We watched a bit, they waved, and we loftily declared our spacious, quiet, completely uncrowded venue far superior to the crowds in town waving plastic cups around.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Our drinks were ready shortly. Plastic cups, plastic straws and icy colorful drinks with exotic names. Drat. Curses. Foiled, again!

I asked if we could bring our own cups the next evening and reuse them. The answer was no, they could not guarantee our cups were completely clean. We were not even allowed to reuse the first cup for a second drink.

They were our first – and nearly our last – cocktails in the Keys. Sometimes you have to make a choice, and there’s no modification possible.

Choices To Make

The first morning, we thought the choice was whether to eat free food off paper and plastic, or spend more for responsible consumption. If only it were always that easy to simply choose a different restaurant.

We learned that even when you choose to eat somewhere else, you might hit a few snags. Also, we noticed that you must be really observant when you go somewhere so you can try to avoid dishes that require plastic pots of condiments. You can try asking for a dispenser – if they have one.

Were we willing to be jarred and jostled in a noisy, smoky, crowded bar and be – maybe – served in glasses while watching the sunset. Or would we opt for peace and quiet, and suffer the environmental consequences?

I started thinking about fast food restaurants that wrap their food in paper, and ones that use plastic clamshells. I vowed to patronize paper places.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Can’t Bring Your Own Cups

When we asked if we could use our own cups and glasses – the answer was no. I understand the sanitation concern. That would have made things so much easier. But, restaurants can’t take the chance that you become ill from your own dirty container. As a result, we learned that a different trade-off would be necessary in order to accomplish our plastic-free vacation.

We figured with the volume of people downtown; many establishments would be serving in plastic. Probably, there were some nicer options that would serve us in glass. As a result, along with those nicer options would come higher prices, maybe less crowded views, and higher parking fees. Above all, we weren’t that desperate for drinking in the Keys – it doesn’t go well with diving anyway.

We survived the rest of the week without another single-use plastic intrusion, other than a few bags from items packaged at the grocery.

Moral to the story: be prepared, be observant, and speak up regularly.

, Attempting a Plastic-Free Vacation in the Florida Keys

Do your part in protecting our oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams! For instance, after you’ve figured out how to dispose of all your toxic sunscreens in their plastic containers; treat yourself to a new tube of Stream2Sea sunscreen this season. Here’s a 10% off discount to reward you for being environmentally conscious; just use “KimW” at the checkout.

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What to Watch Next: Trying & Applying Reef Safe Mineral Sunscreen – Tinted and White // Deep Water Happy


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