10 Tipps for Travellers who Want to Stay Zero Waste While on the Road

While looking for tips online, I found lots of posts by more seasoned zero-wasters, who make it look like avoiding waste while traveling is a breeze. To be honest, in the beginning, it was really, really tough for me to stick to zero-waste when in transit. And it’s still not that easy.

I’ve thought about why zero waste travel seems tougher for me than a lot of other people, and I think in part it comes down to being a “fast traveller”. While I’m used to slowly cruising along in different countries, I don’t see that as regular “travel” and it’s easy to be zero-waste when I spend a few weeks or more in one location. But then I also occasionally do fast travel, where I only stay in a city for a day or two at a time, spend lots of time out and about and don’t cook at all.

By now, I’ve developed a bit of a system to keep me fed and sane during trips that are a little more rushed. I don’t think that one style of traveling is bette than the other, but I feel that there’s a lack of resources out there for fast travellers who want to be zero-waste, and I’d like to address this by sharing my own guidelines.

 

Here’s what has helped me stay waste-free on the road

 

1. Pack enough sweet, and salty foods

When I didn’t have any food with me to stave off hunger in an emergency situation, I didn’t manage to stay zero waste. Now I bring both sweet and salty items with, to satisfy my tastebuds in any situation. I like to bring a bunch of sturdy fruits (apples, pears), some energy balls, some salty almond butter, and a nutty (non-sweet) granola/trail mix. I also bring some green algae, either Chlorella or Spirulina. The algae help keep cravings at bay and make sure I’m taking in all the nutrients I need.

2- Pack a zero-waste travel kit

My full zero waste travel kit includes:

A mason jar (for hot drinks)

a linen hand towel (to grab hot beverages and use as a napkin etc)

a large food container (for food on the go)

a mini mason jar (for wet purchases like nut butter)

some cloth bags

metal straw

stainless steel water bottle

When I travel, I use all of these items almost on a daily basis and I don’t think I could stay waste-free without any of the items on the list. I often need to grab food on-the-go, and the big food container is a real life saver in those moments. A jar would be way too small to use as a container for a full meal. I use my linen towel to pick up foods, and as a napkin. I drink water from my bottle, and coffee from the jar, and I stash all the foods I travel with in cloth bags or an extra jar.

3. Always keep a water bottle filled up

Being thirsty on a hot day makes bottled water look almost irresistible. Always keep that water bottle full – but make sure to empty it before you go through airport security (!) – else you might lose it or get held up at the airport .

4. Keep an empty jar or cup at hand, so you can use it for hot drinks

During a recent trip, I made the mistake of putting freshly ground almond butter in the one jar I’d brought with me. I got to eat almond butter and bananas for breakfast, but I didn’t have a proper cup to drink out of for 3 days and the cups in my hotel room were out of paper too. It really sucked. Now, I just bring along another small jar for my nut butter or other purchases and make sure to keep my main jar empty! The nut butter adds a lot of comfort to my morning routine, so for me it’s absolutely worth carrying an extra jar in my bag.

5. Take an empty food container with you when you’re going out

Even if I’m only planning to stay outside of my hotel or Airbnb for a little while, I always carry a food container in my purse. Plans change! My group might decide to stay out longer and grab dinner on-the-go, or we might end up having a ton of leftovers at a restaurant, or our plan A for dining out might fall through and we’ll end up at a place with only paper plates… All of these things have actually happened to me on trips.A lightweight stainless steel container like this means you’ll come well prepared for any surprises, or changes in plans.

6. Avoid hotel room coffee machines

100 % of the 8 or-so hotel rooms I’ve stayed in in the past few weeks, had a Keurig coffee machine. And most of them also had paper cups placed next to them, instead of real cups. Don’t touch that stuff! Coffee out of a Keurig doesn’t taste great anyway.

If you can’t live without coffee straight after waking up, then bring your own little travel kettle, coffee powder and mini filter. My mom actually does this, because she’s really, really into coffee and prefers to make her own when she travels. Those items don’t take up that much space, but I tend to travel as light as possible, so I’ll just order in-room-service (no paper please!) or step out and fill up my jar at the next cafe or coffee shop.

7. Don’t touch any travel toiletries, just pack your own

You can make your zero-waste toiletry kit. It’s so easy! Here’s what I do: I just fill up old empty travel size bottles with bulk shampoo and conditioner. For my face, I use this charcoal soap. They sell it in bulk at Whole Foods, both in the US and in the UK. It’s easy to cut off a travel-size piece, because this soap has a pretty buttery consistency. I use a little tin to carry it. I also bring a small piece of regular organic soap which I like to use on my body – but in theory I could do with just one piece of soap. And lastly, I bring a tiny jar with some toothpaste.

If you don’t already own little containers, do your health a favour and purchase glass or metal ones instead of plastic. When at a hotel or serviced apartment, I generally don’t touch the hotel toiletries and try to leave them in their original place, so that it looks obvious that I haven’t used them.

8. Plan ahead for meals

I tend to live in the moment and had to consciously train myself to plan ahead for meals when going zero-waste. At times I’d find myself super hungry while at an airport, a train station, or inside a plane – and I’d just buy something reasonably healthy-looking, even if it was packaged. When I’m super hungry, I tend to not care about whether a meal is packaged in plastic, or not – at least not enough to starve for several hours. 🙁

Fortunately, I’ve managed to remedy this situation by following Tip 1 (bring enough food), and planning ahead for meal times! I look for restaurants with decent service that serve their food on real plates. Pictures on yelp help a lot with figuring out ahead of time, if any of their dishes might come with any trash. Farm-to-table style restaurants are usually a pretty safe bet. A lot of them tend to stay clear of disposables.

9. When dining out – ask your server to bring your food without any disposable items

Right when you get into a restaurant and sit down at a table, say “hi, can you serve our food without any paper napkins and without any straws?” – If they have cutlery wrapped in paper napkins, ask them to bring you some without. If they don’t get it (servers work in a high-stress environment), I find that it helps when I pull out my cloth napkin and stainless steel straw. They might not ask any questions, but when they do, explain “I live a very eco-conscious lifestyle and I avoid all single-use items in my life.” It also helps to thank them “I really appreciate the extra effort, thanks so much.” It has only happened to me once, but if they flat out refuse to serve you without using paper or single use plastic, you have the option to get up and leave.

10. Stay Positive

Overall – traveling while being zero-waste isn’t that hard. It just takes a bit of focus. Sometimes, mishaps happen. The other day I almost ended up with a plastic straw in my drink, even though I’d asked for “no straw”. The waiter I’d ordered with passed my order on to a bartender, and forgot to pass on the “no straw” bit. I managed to stop him just in time, as he was reaching for a straw… I recommend not giving up, and not getting discouraged if you accidentally end up being served trash. Just collect it, toss it in a proper recycling bin (if applicable) and continue with living a more conscious lifestyle.

 

Some additional thoughts..

Zero waste while traveling can be pretty simple – in fact Kathryn from goingzerowaste.com managed to stay zero-waste in LA with just a mason jar and a cloth napkin… Pretty amazing! Unfortunately, for me it takes a LOT more than that to stay waste-free, because the types of places I spend the most time in, aren’t very eco-friendly. Back home in Berlin, I was hanging out in a lot of startup workspaces (keurigs…) and at tech conferences (flyers, paper cups, wristbands…). As I’m currently taking a break, I spend a significant amount of time in airports, in chain-cafes, at bars, on the road… and frankly, I don’t want to avoid any particular venue, just because it’s not zero-waste friendly. It’d be easy to just opt out of “normal life” and live in a sort of parallel anti-waste, anti-consumerist world of my own, where I’m only surrounded by likeminded people, but that’s not the point of this lifestyle for me. I’d rather confront the almost inherent hostility of my “natural” environment and find ways to live and thrive within it.

How do you stay waste free on the road?

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