As #plasticfreejuly is wrapping up, it’s a great time to talk about what it really means to be “zero-
waste,” and what that means for travelers. Does this mean we never buy anything in a package
and keep all of our trash in a Mason jar? Avoid air travel because of carbon emissions,
religiously carry around a metal straw? All of these things are great, but it’s extremely important
to acknowledge there is virtually no “zero” in “zero waste.”
I say this because I don’t want you to get discouraged before you start. I don’t want you to think
“I could never use shampoo bars and I always forget my reusable cup- I can’t do zero waste.”
Yes, you can! Each time you avoid a piece of plastic, compost instead of throw in the trash, or
take public transportation, you are helping. You are!
As travelers, we know that attempting zero waste while traveling is even more difficult. It’s hard
to know the facilities that will be available, what sort of packaging might be used, or even what
to plan in advance. That’s why I’ve created this list of things that you can do, proactively, to
make your travel as environmentally friendly as possible.
This article contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links
1. BYO on the Plane
It’s a common misconception that because you can’t bring liquids through security, this means you can’t bring bottles either. You absolutely can! I usually travel with a reusable water bottle and a reusable mug, too. Although I prefer to use steel, I do sometimes use plastic bottles or mugs because they are so much lighter than metal. Most airports around the world now have free drinking fountains, and most are equipped to fill up bottles specifically. As long as you fill up your bottle in advance, you won’t actually need to ask for water on the plane. You can also bring your own food on the plane, which I always do! I much prefer to bring my own snacks ahead of time than to be at the mercy of the overpriced, limited selection found at airports.
2. Only take the airline’s food and drinks if you really want them
I know, I know- it’s free! But honestly, do you really want a tiny package of potentially stale
pretzels? I love a freebie as much as the next person, but I’ve started to decline snacks and
drinks on the plane. My own water is just as good as what they give me on the plane, but
without the plastic cup. Of course, you can always bring your own cup and ask them to fill that
instead! There is no regulation that you have to use the airline’s plastic cup. If you are really
hankering for a Diet Coke and pretzels, by all means, take it. But if you aren’t, there’s no shame
in rejecting packaged food that you didn’t really want in the first place. You don’t have to take it
just because it’s there.
3. Request plastic/packaging-free when you order
Unfortunately, many servers automatically give you plastic straws, cutlery, condiments, and
excess napkins when you order food. It’s simply muscle memory for them, and I understand
they are just doing their job. I’ve found the most effective way to avoid these single-use items is
to request their absence when ordering. For example- “One-mojito-please-no-straw”, all in one
breath, usually does the trick! I also love getting Auntie Anne’s pretzels at airports, but they
always put them in a wax paper sleeve AND a bag! I usually use the bag for about 15 seconds,
so I have started just ordering “one pretzel no bag please” to avoid wasting it.
4. Carry your own set of cutlery
I know, I know- this one sounds more “out there.” But really, how different is it than carrying a water bottle or mug? A fork, knife, and spoon (or spork, or chopsticks!) really do not take up much space. It’s easy to have them in your bag, use them, and give them a quick rinse. You can bring some from the set you have, or buy something specifically for traveling. Bamboo sets are nice, but you can also buy cutlery in individual pieces at thrift stores for almost nothing. Bamboo is lightweight, but metal is really easy to clean. You can even reuse plastic cutlery- before I made carrying cutlery a conscious habit, I carried around a plastic fork I used from Chipotle. They are very sturdy and since they’re black, it’s easy to recognize which one is yours!
5. Bring a metal Straw
How beautiful are those big, fresh coconuts filled with juice, freshly cut and ready for you to enjoy? An Instagram-worthy treat for sure, and usually oh-so cheap! But what’s that? They’re putting a straw in, crap, it’s already in, might as well use it at this point… I have been there. Many times. The worst part about these situations is that many of these locations are near beaches, if not ON beaches, and the straws truly have a good chance of winding up straight in the ocean. It’s great to have a metal straw to use for those beautiful fruit-filled drinks in the tropics.
6. Boil instead of buy
If you are in a place where you cannot drink the tap water, don’t forget that boiling it will kill anything ominous that could make you sick. Many hotels, hostels, and guesthouses have electric kettles and refrigerators. You can boil water and then put it in the fridge for the next day- ready to go! This avoids buying bottled water and all of the plastic waste it creates. Even if you buy bottled water on the first day and are able to boil the subsequent days, that still helps!
7. Avoid Kitchy Sovenirs
I am so guilty of this. I have sorted through my own possessions years later and uncovered a
cheap canvas bag with “MADRID” written across the side, magnets and pins that I have no
desire to hang up or wear, and a sweater that I never loved but “I got it in Germany!” It takes so
many resources to create each item we see in a shop, and let’s face it- the world doesn’t need
any more stuff. If your gut is telling you this may end up in the trash within a year or two, just
don’t buy it.
If you want to bring home a gift for the person who has everything, consider bringing them a
food item. Unless they have a specific collection, I think most people would much rather taste
olive oil bought straight from Greece than have a plastic magnet with a Greek flag (which is
probably made in China anyway.)
8. Use a reusable bag
When buying anything at home or while traveling, it’s a simple but meaningful switch to use a reusable bag. The U.S. alone uses an astounding 100 billion plastic bags per year, and each bag is used, on average, merely 12 minutes.
Twelve minutes of use for something that never fully breaks down.
To keep it simple, plastic doesn’t actually break down. It photodegrades, which means that UV light from the sun eventually breaks it down into microscopic pieces. The extent to which this can damage our own bodies and eco-systems is still unknown, but I think it’s safe to say it won’t be good.
9. Avoid buying clothing you’ll only wear once
Avoid buying clothing that you only plan to wear on a trip, but never again
Have you heard about fast fashion and its negative environmental and human impacts? Basically, the fashion industry uses a ton of resources, treats workers poorly, and creates a lot of waste. The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water and produces more greenhouse emissions that the airline and maritime industries combined. I know we need to wear clothes, but let’s be conscious consumers. Make it a goal to only buy things you love and know you’ll wear. If you don’t feel 100% comfortable in a piece of clothing in a fitting room, you aren’t going to want to wear it on vacation either. If you’re only going to wear those heels to one dinner in Mexico, try looking for a different pair of shoes that you know you can wear for other occasions, too.
10. Carry Your Trash
Food wrappers, brochures, receipts…all of these things can add up quickly while you’re
traveling. However, many places around the world do not have a trash can on every corner. Be
prepared to carry these things with you until you find somewhere to throw them out. If you
consider this ahead of time, it will be no big deal to have them in your bag or pocket until you
get rid of them.
11. Take public transportation when you can
Many countries have great public transportation systems. These systems are the transportation equivalent of buying in bulk- moving lots of people together uses less resources than moving them in separate vehicles. Especially in big cities, avoid traffic and riding the subway or tram may not just be more environmentally friendly, but also much faster. Plus, public transit systems usually employ thousands of people and boost local economies.
12. Don’t use the little toiletries at hotels
If you’re like me, you put your bags down in your hotel room and immediately check out the bathroom to see how nice is and what amenities they have. The nicer the bathroom, the more likely there is to be baby shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and sometimes even toothbrushes, toothpastes, and combs, all wrapped in plastic. Unfortunately millions of these are disposed every year, and honestly, how often have you used the whole bottle before throwing it away? An easy alternative is to bring your own toiletries, which allows you to use the brands you know and trust. For that bar of hand soap you use while you’re there- bring it home! If it’s good enough for you at a hotel, it’s good enough for you at home, right?
Extra step– if you are in California, you can voice your support of Bill 1162, which would prohibit mini-toiletries in hotels statewide.
13. Use one trash can
Most hotel rooms have a minimum of two trash cans, obviously increasing in number as the size of the room increases. If you concentrate all of your trash into one bin, the hotel staff will only need to use one plastic bag to replace it- the others are already ready for the next person.
Bonus: Don’t buy a bunch of stuff to go zero waste
Although I’ve given recommendations and there are some links in this article, the point of zero
waste is not just to consume different things. The goal is to consume less. Please don’t go out
and buy a shopping bag if you have an unused canvas bag in your closet. You don’t need a
super special travel water bottle or a set of six metal straws. Don’t fall prey to trendy ‘zero waste
kits’ or organic, fair-trade cotton T-shirt sales when you have plenty of T-shirts already. As
travelers, we love to see all of the beautiful places the world has to offer. Let’s make a
conscious effort to keep that world beautiful for the generations after us.
About Fast Fashion-
Check out the documentary “The True Cost” on Netflix
The Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion, The Independent
10 Facts About Single-Use Plastic Bags, Center for Biological Diversity
Plastic Pollution, Our World In Data
Homemade Zero Waste Kit-
A Zero-Waste Kit That Costs Zero Dollars, Zero-Waste Chef
About the author
Rose Trafford is a travel photographer and writer with a passion for finding the positives in people and places. She has traveled to over 40 countries and gotten herself into all sorts of strange situations, such as locked in a Korean ATM and questioned in a Chinese police station. She frequently travels using points and miles, saving an average of $9,000 a year. She has appeared in Money Magazine and the Iowa State Fair Photography Salon (which is more legit than it sounds). When she’s not traveling she enjoys taking photos of anything and everything- lately with a 35mm or instant camera in her hand. You can find her at @thecompass.rose, www.thecompassrose.co or www.roseconstance.com.