Aerial view of sandy and clean beach with people vacationing sustainably
July 24, 2023
 in 
Lifestyle

Sand, Sun, and Sustainability: How to Enjoy a Green Beach Vacation

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or most of us, there’s nothing more relaxing than the idea of a beach vacation. Long days in the sea. Sun on your skin. Sand between your toes …

The best way to complete that seaside cocktail? A little sprinkling of sustainability. Coastal tourism has been linked to environmental issues such as pollution and coral bleaching, but there are a few surprisingly simple ways to ensure your next holiday is part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Consider this article your eco beach guide. We’ll go through sustainable packing essentials, ways to reduce waste on your beach travels, the importance of using biodegradable sunscreen, and other tips on how to make your beach vacations greener without compromising on any of the fun. The goal is to keep great beach vacations around for a long time, not just a good time.

Table of  Contents

Packing Tips for a Green Beach Vacation

sustainable beach bag made from straw with reef safe sunscreen and plastic free towel placed together on sandy beach

Littering and reef damage are two of the biggest struggles beach destinations face. Thankfully, there are some light, easy things you can pack to make sure that ocean sustainability is built into your trip:

  • Refillable Water Bottles and Travel Mugs: When staying at resorts, or even just going for day trips to the beach, it’s crazy how quickly you can accumulate single-use plastics from coffee stands and the like. Make sure to pack refillable water bottles and travel mugs to reduce waste. Thermal bottles can be used for both hot and cold drinks, but there are also great collapsible mugs that make packing easier.
  • Reusable Straws and Cutlery: Continuing from the previous point, having reusable straws and cutlery is another great way to reduce waste and litter. 
  • Sustainable Beach Bags and Shopping Bags: The most sustainable beach bag you can own is one that you use over and over again. As an added ocean sustainability measure though, we’d recommend using bags that are made from natural fibers such as straw, raffia, and linen. MadeTrade.com has a great selection of sustainable beach bags that meet these criteria, but other brands to look at are Mar Y Sol and Will and Atlas.

It’s also worth making sure you have a few extra shoppers handy in case you’re able to visit local craftspeople and stores.

  • Recyclable Trash bags: This is the only time you’ll see us recommending single-use bags. Recyclable trash bags can be bundled into your beach bag and used to collect up any wrappers or litter from your own day, or even things others may have left behind. It’s a simple way to reduce waste and help keep beaches cleaner for everyone.
  • Biodegradable Reef Safe Sunscreen: As we’ll dig into later, biodegradable sunscreen is an eco beach essential. It’s better for marine life and is still just as effective as chemical sunscreens at protecting your skin from the sun. For more information on biodegradable sunscreens, check out our sunscreen guide.
  • Sustainable Beach Towels: You won’t actively harm the beaches you visit if you don’t bring sustainable beach towels, but if you’re wanting to make your whole trip more eco-conscious, why not pay attention to every aspect? 

Try to look out for towels made from natural, recycled, and/or plastic-free fibers. Some sustainable beach towel brands also have ocean sustainability practices built into their businesses where they donate to eco-organizations. Examples include Nomadix, Sandcloud, and  Slowtide.

  • Sustainable Swimwear: Like picking out beach towels, the swimwear you pack is all about paying attention to the big picture of ocean sustainability. We mention a few sustainable beachwear brands in this article, including Chromat which is known for its body and gender inclusivity. Other brands work checking out are AminiSummersalt, and Toad & Co., or for a more easily available option, Eco Beach Swimwear at Kohls’s.

Sustainable swimwear standouts are any brands that use recycled material, have a good reputation in terms of longevity, and use plastic-free packaging. 

Waste Reduction at the Beach

Illustration of plastic bottle and cup with straw referring to plastic waste

Pollution is a problem that beaches around the world are facing. Researchers that studied the recreational use of Mediterranean island beaches during summer months found that tourist activity was responsible for about 80% of the litter that accumulated. 

Litter doesn’t just create dirty, unsightly beaches. It poses real health hazards to sea creatures, especially as the plastic breaks down into microplastics. These microplastics contaminate beach sand and waters and can cause health issues in marine life such as:

  • Stunted Growth and Development: When microplastics accumulate in the digestive systems of certain marine animals, they can block the digestive tract and stop them from being able to feed properly. Over time, this causes nutritional deficiencies and prevents them from being able to grow or develop properly.
  • Genetic Damage: Studies have shown that exposure to microplastics can damage the genetics of Mussels and fish.
  • Reproductive and Immune Issues: Some marine species have been shown to produce fewer eggs due to the presence of microplastics in their systems. This is made even worse by the fact that it lowers the white blood cells of some species, which points to weakened immune systems.

There’s still so much more that needs to be studied and research is just beginning on how harmful microplastics are to human health, but spoiler alert: it’s not looking good. That’s why, more than ever, we need to reduce waste in all areas, especially when at the beach.

Single-use plastics tend to be the main culprit but that’s easy to fix. Just make sure to pack a few refillable and reusable items for your next beach trip. Even bringing just one reusable water bottle can help. Most reusable items are also light and small enough that taking them on long travels isn’t too much of an inconvenience.

Another way to reduce waste at the beach is to bring trash bags with you and make beach clean-ups a part of your trip. You can even make a game out of it with friends and buy ice cream for whoever fills their trash bag first.

Choosing Environmentally Safe Sunscreen

Packing sunscreen is essential for any beach holiday. The goal is to eat lobster, not look like one. When picking your perfect vacation sunscreen though, the UVA/UVB factor isn’t the only aspect worth considering.  Check if it’s reef safe too – it’s a matter of marine life safety.

The two main ingredients to watch out for are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. They’re considered harmful enough to coral and marine health that Hawaii recently banned the sale of nonprescription sunscreens that contain them. While it’s hard to determine the full damage these chemicals can cause, early studies have raised enough alarm bells that many other destinations are following in Hawaii’s footsteps. 

Mineral sunscreens usually exclude the worst ingredients, but anything marked “biodegradable” or “reef safe” is the way to go. It is also best to avoid aerosol products and ones with heavy fragrances as they tend to contain added chemicals.

You may wonder how big the impact of a little sunscreen could be, but it adds up. 14000 tons of sunscreen enter global waterways each year thanks to sunscreen application and wastewater runoff and has been linked to everything from coral bleaching to damaging fish reproduction. Choosing biodegradable sunscreen for your next vacation helps to limit some of this damage. Your skin will still be protected, but this way the ocean will be too.

For more information on this topic, check out our article on reef safe sunscreens.

Eco Friendly Beach Activities

eco friendly beach activity of surfing where surfboard is shown planted on the beach at sunset

Ok, your sustainable beach bag is packed with reusables. The biodegradable sunscreen is on. Now it’s time for the fun to begin with some eco-friendly beach activities:

  • Snorkeling and Diving: Spending some time with underwater creatures in their natural habitat, can be life-changing. It can also be pretty funny – ever seen the underside of a manta ray? We’d highly recommend it.

Jokes aside, snorkeling and diving are some of the best ways to experience marine life without disrupting it. Plus, it reminds us what all the ocean sustainability work is for and why the sea is worth protecting.

  • Paddle-boarding, surfing, and other water sports: Water sports can be a great way to learn a new hobby and enjoy the sea at the same time. Many activities, including kayaking, don’t even require you to be particularly athletic. Kayak trips are also a great option as they often allow for incredible dolphin and whale sightings without disturbing the animals the way an engine-powered boat sometimes can.
  • Beachcombing: Combing through shells, driftwood, and dried coral is one of those simple beach pleasures that never loses its charm. It kind of feels like treasure hunting but try not to get carried away with your bounty. Putting aside one or two keepsakes won’t do any harm, but collecting jars of shells, especially large ones, robs crabs and other creatures of important shelters.
  • Beach Clean-Ups: Picking up trash might not sound like a great vacation activity, but beach clean-ups can be rewarding, connective experiences. It’s a way to give back to coastal areas, meet other vacationers, and help locals keep their environments clear of pollution.
  • Build a Sandcastle: It’s a classic for a reason, folks. What’s more sustainable than a castle made from sand?
  • Kite-Flying: Windy days are the bane of any beach vacationer’s life … unless there’s a kite or two on hand. Kites can blow away or get lost easily though, so best to bring eco-friendly and biodegradable ones like these

The main activities to avoid are things like fish or shark feeding and going beyond the bounds of set hiking trails or beach rules. For example, beaches where turtles are known to lay eggs have strict guides against vehicles driving there as they can cause harm to the widely endangered animals. Some beaches don’t allow pets either, especially if there are penguins present.

Places like Hawaii are also home to many sacred, cultural sites and have their own guidelines on how to interact with the environment. That’s why it’s always worth doing a little extra research before your vacation to learn what is and isn’t appropriate. Locals will really appreciate it and you may even gain insight into other eco-friendly practices in the process.

Whatever beach activities you do, try to tread lightly. Give wild animals a healthy distance. Respect the environment you’re stepping into and the native cultures that have historically called it home. Doing this can help build an even deeper appreciation of a place and often opens up new experiences.

Keep The Magic Alive

Making your vacations greener and beaches cleaner doesn’t have to be complicated, or expensive. It starts with small steps like taking reusable items with you to reduce waste and single-use plastic, and packing biodegradable sunscreen that’s better for reef health.

If you can, it’s also great to get sustainable beach bags, towels, and swimwear where possible, and keep recyclable trash bags handy. There are also so many amazing adventures to be had at the beach, from snorkeling to kayaking, that won’t compromise the environment or any of its inhabitants.

Having an eco beach vacation doesn’t mean missing out on the fun, but protecting it. Many of the tips we’ve mentioned also travel well to other types of destinations. The point here is to take whatever sustainability steps you can so that we keep the magic of beaches and other natural wonders alive for as long as possible. Don’t worry about getting things perfect. A little care goes a long way.