Sunday, November 5, 2017

How to reduce your plastic waste on a climbing trip to Kalymnos

If you are a climber, chances are that you have heard or been to Kalymnos. Words like paradise, incredible, world-class climbing, excellent food and friendly locals spring to mind. If you speak to your fellow climbers who have been fortunate enough to spend some time there, they will all have this all-knowing smile and misty look in their eyes. I have just recently got back from a 10-day trip and I can report that it really is that good. 

                                                                Post-send happy face  
     The island has seen considerable increase in tourism over the past few years. Like most climbing destinations, Kalymnos has really benefited from visiting climbers. There are 6000 Greek Islands to compete with, and the fact that it has world-class climbing opportunities makes this place unique and as a result, attracts climbers from all over the world. The locals are really friendly and responsive to the needs of the climbing community, as climbers form a huge part of their economy.  Where else can you have dinner and a few drinks and buy a new climbing harness at 11 pm?

                     Beautiful sunset overlooking Poets Corner 
On a flip side, with this much tourism also comes the negatives. The disposable plastic culture. This is not a new problem which only effects Kalymnos but as we now know, it affects ecosystems all around the world. Somehow over the years, it has become acceptable to buy a piece of bread wrapped in plastic and carried home in a plastic shopping bag. Or to enjoy a cold drink using a plastic straw with every new round. Buying plastic water bottles to drink from when there are water fountains everywhere supplying safe drinking water is also another example of this widespread problem.

These pesky little items which find their way to our everyday life are called single-use plastics (SUP) and as it says in the name, they are only used once. They are hardly ever recycled as usual recycling bins don’t accept them and so they are just disposed of in normal rubbish bins. Depending on the infrastructure of each country, this trash either ends up in landfill, incinerator or even worse, in oceans and rivers choking the wildlife and polluting the environment. There is scientific evidence that plastic particles (microplastics) are now found in the most pristine ocean environments and as a results are ingested by fish and moving up the food chain. There is an eye-opening documentary called Plastic Ocean which I would really recommend watching as it will show you just how alarming the problem really is. 

          Overflowing bins full of plastic trash in the heart of Massouri 

Like all other beach destinations, plastic has found its way to Kalymnian beaches as well as mountain crags. Eric who lives and works in Massouri aims to raise awareness of this problem. He picks rubbish from the beaches and roads on a regular basis and documents what he finds through his Facebook page – Re(f)use plastic project. There are some amazing wildlife animals living on the island including the bottlenose dolphins. Eric’s biggest fear? That plastic will travel through the food chain to these beautiful creatures.  As this is something that is happening elsewhere in the oceans, these fears are justified. 

     A handful of sand on the beach...Photo courtesy of Eric's photo experience

There are many different reasons why this is happening. Some plastic washes on the beaches after the storm from elsewhere and some is simply left or dumped there. Unless the plastic rubbish is collected, it will stay there for hundreds of years polluting the environment.

                            Photo courtesy of Eric's photo experience

To complicate the matter, there is no official recycling on Kalymnos. All of the recyclable rubbish goes into an incinerator which stands there like a beacon shining its white walls, welcoming climbers as they get their first sight of the island.  There are a few individual initiatives but the official situation is that you can’t recycle anything on the island apart from local glass beer bottles (There is a deposit on the bottles which you get back when you bring your bottle back to the shop).

                    Spot the plastic rubbish - all within 1

However, recycling in itself should not be the goal but rather the last resort. Immense resources are needed for the production of any materials, whether recyclable or not and we should try and avoid disposables as much possible. If you buy plastic water bottles or plastic bags and use them repeatedly, it is obviously better than using it once. But it is not a good solution long term as eventually you will still be faced with the same problem of disposal. So how can we stop this vicious circle? The answer is simple- don't create the problem in the first place. You can achieve that by simply saying no to plastic. But how can you rid your life of plastic which has tangled its web of convenience into your life? By using reusable, long lasting and recyclable items instead of SUPS.  These substitutes are made from durable materials like stainless steel or glass or cotton and they can last years and in some cases a lifetime before they eventually get recycled. They are called Zero Waste as they will produce no trash which is destined for landfill.

Over time I have developed my own list of essentials that I bring with me everywhere I go in order to help me on my quest to reduce plastic pollution. I also have some simple and effective tips which you can adopt in order to contribute towards the solution of the plastic problem. Following these tips has allowed me to produce hardly any trash on a 10-day climbing trip to Kalymnos. 

1.      Preparation is key 

These are my Zero Waste essentials that I use almost every day, no matter where I am. My kit list includes reusable spork, water bottle, tea flask and my lunch tiffin box. For Kalymnos I have also added a tote bag and some cotton produce bags. The items that I bring with me usually change based on where I am going, how long for and whether I will have to cook all of my food. I always have a checked bag when going on a climbing trip so I find that there is usually enough space for all of it. Being prepared with reusable alternatives means that I can buy most of what I need without packaging. You have to invest in some items to start with and although it may seem expensive, it is a worthy investment.  I bought my water bottle about three years ago (I now drink tap water every day) so over time I got my money back tenfold. Stainless steel items are also really durable and will last literally a lifetime, or unless you lose them! 

I also brought tea bags and made some homemade granola before I left as I anticipated that I can’t get it package free. This meant healthy breakfast and no waste in the process.

  Yorkshire tea and homemade granola in reusable cotton produce bags

2.      Bring a reusable bag  

If you only make one change, swap a plastic bag for a cotton bag. Plastic bags are one of the biggest culprits of plastic pollution. They are almost never recycled (you have to usually recycle them in a special recycling facility) and they just end up washed in the sea. The reusable cotton alternatives are readily available everywhere.  

3.      Use the water fountains

The fact that you can’t drink tap water on Kalymnos is actually a blessing in disguise as it means that there is access to fresh water in every village. There is literally no need to keep buying plastic water bottles! The water points are also incredibly social and serve as a bit of a meeting point. You are guaranteed to bump into someone you have met on your trip and chat about the (hopefully) sends of the day. I worked out that I need 3 litres of water a day so I have two stainless steel Kleen Kanteen bottles.

4.      Bring your crag lunch in a reusable container 

I think no crag days are complete without a good spinach pie from a local supermarket! Instead of using paper and plastic bags, opt for a reusable cotton produce bags. If you like to take salad or pasta with you, bring a lunch box. I have a stainless steel 3 tier tiffin which I carry everywhere which makes an awesome crag lunch container. 

The Kalymnian restaurants are so generous with their food portions that even hungry climbers struggle to finish the delicious food. There is an easy solution to that- bring your own take away container and there is no need to waste anything. Lunch at the crag the next day- sorted. 

5.      Say no to plastic straws 

                 My iced coffee tastes just as good without a straw

These little things are about as pointless as plastic coffee stirrers and teaspoons. Any drink that your order apart from beer or wine will come with a straw (good excuse to drink more wine or beer). I never really use any so I make sure that when I order my drink I say - NO PLASTIC STRAW PLEASE. I find this usually works. If you can’t imagine your cocktail without a straw, opt for a reusable stainless steel straw which will last you a lifetime. 

6.      Shop Zero Waste 

Shopping Zero Waste essentially means that you bring your own containers to the shop ready to be filled with produce. Fruit and vegetables are the easiest ones to buy without packaging as they come loose and are readily available in most of the shops around the island. For this purpose, I use my cotton produce bags. I use these bags for literally everything, they are so useful! Wooden Roots in Massouri sells quinoa, bulgur wheat, spices, honey and other things and the owner is happy to fill your jars with some wonderful produce.  

If you are buying gifts to take home, opt for things in glass or tin, or even better, buy it package free! I brought spices and salt and pepper home with me in my stainless steel lunch box. One of the supermarkets in Massouri even has olive oil you can carry in your reusable bottle, that is if you have the space in your hold luggage!  

7.      Reusable napkin 

That happy face when you discover Miltos restaurant serves package free butter 

Bringing your own napkin doesn't seem like a big change, but if you like to eat out a lot, you will use a lot of disposables in the process. Sure, paper is better than plastic but why produce rubbish if you can eradicate it with a single zero waste swap? Reusable napkins are really inexpensive and can be picked up in vintage stores or online in a multi-pack. You can give them a quick wash and they will be ready to sample the best of Kalymnian food with you.

8.    Recycle 

Sometimes, even if you have the best intentions, you can produce recycling. Plastic bottles, beer bottles or cans find their way into your life, especially if you cook a lot of meals. Because of the lack of recycling facilities on Kalymnos, I took all of my recycling with me and disposed of it in Mastichari. There are recycling bins just as you get off the ferry on your left-hand side which makes it really easy to drop off your recycling. You can recycle plastic bottles, glass, cans and cardboard. Recycling should by the last resort though (after reusing) rather than the goal. There is a lot of energy and resources which goes into producing things like cans and glass and so reusing your own containers over and over again is by far the best option. 

9.   Shopping is voting 

  Every time you refuse plastic bag or a plastic straw on Kalymnos, you are sending out an important message which is that you don't want this kind of products available. Because the island relies heavily on climbing tourism, the shop owners are very accommodating to demand. With every single thing that you buy, you are essentially voting for that product to be available again. Shopping is voting. That is quite a powerful message! So vote for reusable packaging, no plastic and longevity of resources. The shops will respond to that. Your individual message will not get lost.

10.   Spread the word 

  Proudly displaying my water bottle- it is a great conversation starter! 

It often only takes one person in your climbing group to bring a reusable water bottle in order to start the conversation and inspire the rest of your buddies. Be that person! The climbing community is relatively small and so messages get spread around quickly. I am always happy to chat to anyone about Zero Waste so get in touch if you have any questions. 

If you follow the steps above, you should have very little trash at the end of your climbing trip. The rubbish that I produced on my 10-day trip was minimal and consisted of mainly organic trash (banana peels etc.) and a few items which made their way in despite best efforts (food wrapped in foil courtesy or the apartment owner and plastic straw, even though I expressly said no beforehand). 

Climbers will be long gone before the crags off Kalymnos are too polished and new destination takes over the title of one of the best climbing spots in Europe. For the wildlife and the locals, however, this will be home for many generations to come. Let’s not take this for granted! We are so lucky to be able to enjoy these beautiful crags which form the backdrop for local people’s homes.  In turn, we have a responsibility to look after those places and leave them without a trace and preserve the beautiful island for many more generations to come.



  1. An excellent article and fully agree. However, I was on the island in September and didnt see a single drinking water fountain. I didn't get everywhere so could easily have missed them. I will return to this lovely island and want to avoid buying bottled water so a list of fountain sites with a rough idea of where they are would be really useful to the members of the I Love Kalymnos FB site. Thanks.

    1. Hello!
      The water fountains are literally in every village as the locals rely on it for fresh water. There are at least 4 that I know off in Massouri. One opposite Miltos restaurant and several every few hundred meters in the same village. They have some traditional ones in what looks like a white box with the word TEMAK on it. If you are struggling to find any just ask the locals :)

  2. The "fountains" are actually town wells for residents and visitors to freely fill water containers to use at home.
    I know of one on main road (Potamoi) from Panormos to Porthia next to a kehas. Another in Horio across from the veterinarian. I'm sure there are others in other parts of the island.

  3. Good tips Polly! The only thing i'd question is the need to swap a plastic bag for a cotton bag. In 2018 Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food that said that plastic bags are better for the environment than organic cotton tote bags ( - they need to be reused thousands of times to have the same environmental footprint as a lightweight plastic bag. The UK published a similar assessment in 2011 ( Of course it's not that simple, the Danish study didn’t include marine litter as an impact factor. Really it comes down to 'what environmental impacts am I most interested in mitigating?'.

    I'd say if you already own a Tote cotton bag, great, keep on using it. Just don't go, rush out and buy a new one.
    Whatever the grocery bag of your choice, try to re-use it as many times as possible, even if it’s a single-use plastic bag. You can line your trash can with it, use it to carry your lunch, or carry it with you next time you go grocery shopping.