Updated: Dec 7, 2020
I love travel. I think it opens our minds to different cultures, ways of thinking and ways of living. It makes us better people. We don’t have to go far to experience these shifts; quite often you can explore your own country and see through a completely new lens!
This happened to me with my recent trip to Newfoundland, in eastern Canada. The accent is different from mine; their history is different from the province of Ontario (Newfoundland was the last province to join Canada in 1949); the food, economy, and cultural norms are all distinctive in comparison. This could be an entire blog post, but let’s get to the main topic: zero waste travel.
Ever since starting my zero waste journey I’ve looked at travel in a new light. It’s much easier while traveling to enjoy the modern conveniences of single-use packaging, plastic bags, mini shampoos and conditioners, and basically anything in the to-go category. However, it’s not doing our hosts any favours having to clean up after us. We can reduce our waste instead!
Ummm but what about the carbon footprint?
We could have the conversation about how traveling (particularly air travel) is bad for the environment, we definitely could. But unless you plan on swimming across the Atlantic, or staying put, I’d have to guess that many people are still going travel. Because of globalization and migration patterns, most people have family and friends living at all
corners of the planet (I definitely do!). Here are some other options to reduce your impact:
Take fewer flights
Purchase carbon offsets
Choose lower carbon travel when possible (think trains, buses, boats, etc.)
Be a tourist in your own town or region
Walk and bike as much as possible
Take local vacations (beyond your own town or region)
Visit nearby cottages/cabins
Find eco-friendly accommodations
Now let’s talk about zero waste travel. While zero is obviously an unrealistic target, we can try to reduce our waste while traveling.
The experiences we’ll have trying to reduce our waste while traveling will vary depending on where we are in the world. Some places have way better recycling systems than others (think San Francisco vs. New Delhi), and your access to package-free and plastic-free options will be based on what's available. On top of that, not everywhere you go will have potable tap water. With all of this in mind, here are some tips:
Plan ahead: Whether your trip is planned from start to finish, or you have a general sense of where you’re going, planning ahead with a waste reduction mindset will set you up for success. Get to know where you’re going:
Is recycling available? Is compost available?
Are there zero waste grocery stores, or bulk shops?
If you can’t drink the tap water, are there places where you can refill your water bottle? (If you’re ever in a situation where you can’t find clean water, and your only option is plastic bottled water in a store, then you gotta do what you gotta do! Stay hydrated. I get this question occasionally about what to do in this situation, but your health always comes first)
Are there eco-friendly restaurants (perhaps vegan or vegetarian options)?
Create a zero waste kit: Much of the trash we’re going to create while traveling is likely going to be related to eating, drinking and shopping. Bring reusable items such as:
Straw (if you need one, and just remember to ask for no straw)
Cutlery (this is great when you’re not flying by air. I’ve had no problems with my bamboo cutlery set so far. A possible alternative when you’re flying would be to leave your cutlery set at home, or at the very least you knife, and stop into a second hand shop at your destination to grab a set. If you’re visiting friends/family, perhaps you can borrow a set from them while you’re there)
Silicone food storage bags
Shopping bags (perhaps you don’t plan on shopping much, but even if you head to a grocery store you may find a reusable bag comes in handy)
You can get highly compact versions of these items, in case you’re worried that you’ll be lugging around too much stuff! It’s times like these where zero waste and minimalism seem at odds, but that’s okay.
Pack snacks/food for your flights:
Bring an empty reusable water bottle, coffee cup, and napkin (you can normally fill up your water bottle, or grab a coffee, once you’re through security)
Have your own meal and snacks ready for the flight (if you’re on a budget airline, you’ll have to pay for these anyway!). If you’re on a long haul flight, meals tend to be included and are already accounted for, so just plan to eat those meals.
Things to keep in mind: Be sure that your food isn’t in liquid form! Skip the soup. For domestic flights, food isn’t normally an issue. However, if you’re traveling internationally, you’ll not likely be able to bring in any produce (check in advance, or make sure you eat your apple before you get off the plane).
Pack a good toiletries kit:
Tooth tabs or toothpaste in a jar
Soap bar for everything else
Homemade deodorant, or deodorant in a jar
Compact travel towel
Rechargeable electric shaver (I avoid bringing my safety razor for obvious reasons on planes!)
Keep the zero waste mentality in mind wherever you go on your trip:
Keep in mind ALL THE Rs:
Refuse: Avoid things like straws, disposables, plastic bags, and other unnecessary items. Decline freebies. Skip the free hotel toiletries. You’ll steer clear of clutter this way, and put less stuff in the trash bin.
Reduce: Pack light (haha I’m not one to talk! But I try), and buy only what you need while you travel.
Reuse: Bring your zero waste kit! Avoid disposables when possible.
Recycle: Figure out how to recycle where you’re at, and use the appropriate bins.
Rot: Find compost when possible. If not, don’t sweat it – not everything is in our control.
Repair: If something breaks while you’re traveling, try to find a way to fix it yourself or have someone fix it for you. While in Newfoundland, my husband’s hiking shoe came apart (he’s put a gajillion kilometres on his hiking shoes). He found a shoe repair shop, and they were good to go!
Want to learn more? Check out Zero Waste 101
The 5 Rs were pioneered by Bea Johnson in her book, Zero Waste Home, and the zero waste community added the 6th R: Repair!
If you’re camping: The type of camping you’re doing will probably influence your approach (i.e. car camping vs. backcountry camping). Here are some ideas for low waste camping:
Buy second-hand camping gear, or high quality new gear (to last a lifetime)
Pack your reusables
Find out if there is potable water on site. If there isn’t, bring enough water from home in a reusable jug or bring a water filter.
Use a BioLite or cook over a fire instead of using a propane based stove
Wash up with biodegradable soaps, and use reusables for all your washing needs.
Bring shampoo/conditioner bars
Meal plan with food purchased package-free, when possible
Much of the above can be easier said than done. It really depends on where you are, and how determined you are to be zero waste on your trip. Having the right tools and mindset will take you a long way, but there are likely to be instances where you just have to go with the flow!
While we were in Newfoundland, we decided to stay at a beautiful cabin in Gros Morne National Park. It was rustic, and we were lucky enough to borrow a lot of camping supplies from our friends in St. John’s. We drove from St. John’s to Gros Morne, and found a grocery store closer to the national park. It wasn’t a zero waster’s dream grocery store, so we ended up buying a lot of packaged items that we don’t normally buy at home. It is what it is, and as usual, it’s progress over perfection. We used reusable shopping bags, avoided plastic produce bags, and made the best of our situation.
I hope you find these tips helpful! At the end of the day, you have to do what works best for you and your family. You’ll likely find plenty of easy ways to reduce waste while traveling, but that won’t always be the case. Progress over perfection, and have fun! Happy travels!