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Zero waste travel: an extensive guide

What is the ‘Zero Waste’ movement? Put simply, it encourages you to change your lifestyle, in order to create less rubbish and waste. Is it hard to be a zero waste traveller? Not particularly – you just have to be aware and prepared. Discover the tips and tricks for zero waste travel.

Sunset in Kyrgyzstan. Learn tips and tricks for travelling zero waste around the world.
Sunset in Kyrgyzstan.

Zero waste travel – is it impossible? With the way industry and the world is currently set up, travelling 100% sustainably is a real challenge.

There are people out there who are trying to minimise their carbon footprint. I’m one of them and have been for many years now!

You can aim for a zero waste lifestyle. It takes a little preparation and a few lifestyle changes.

One thing I’ve noticed when travelling is you do tend to acquire a lot of stuff. Receipts, tickets, disposable items, somewhat useless souvenirs.

Sometimes, these are handy on your travels, but often end up being tossed once you’re home (or even along the way). More stuff to sit and rot in landfill for hundreds of years.

Once you start thinking about zero waste travel, you may get a little bit obsessed and ultimately, find ways to go green and lessening your impact on the globe. And it’ll definitely help with managing any eco-anxiety.

I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks throughout the years. Let me share them with you.

Tips For Zero Waste Travel

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A street in the city of Havana in Cuba, littered with rubbish, debris and plastic bags.
Rubbish lining the streets of Havana, Cuba.

This guide to going zero waste will cover:

  • What is zero waste travel?
  • How do you go completely zero waste?
  • What to consider before you go on your trip
  • How to travel zero waste
  • Zero waste travel essentials
  • What to do when you reach your destination
  • Zero waste principles while eating out

So, what exactly is this zero waste movement?

It’s essentially a push to live without creating any waste. No single-use items, no plastic. The main goal is to send nothing to landfill.

Seems impossible while travelling, right?

Not entirely, as you’ll see.

Crates of reusable glass Pepsi and Coca Cola bottles in Goa, India.
Reusable bottles in Goa, India.

How do you completely go zero waste?

Going zero waste doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, the term is a bit oxymoronic. If you live on the planet, you produce waste in some way.

The best way to go zero waste while travelling is to follow the following principles (and here are some examples too):

  1. Refuse – say no to things like disposable items, like straws
  2. Reuse – bring a zero waste travel kit and reusable water bottle travelling with you
  3. Recycle – see if you can compost your food waste or scraps, use a bamboo toothbrush on your travels that you can eventually compost.

By following these three principles and applying them to both your life, you’ll ultimately tread more lightly on your travels.

Things to consider before you go travelling

zero waste travel
A feast for butterflies in Costa Rica.

Where to holiday

Think about where you want to go. Are you heading overseas? Is there a way you can get there without flying?

If you just want a break, don’t mind where you go and are concerned about your carbon footprint, consider trying a backyard holiday, in your own country.

A road trip has less of an impact on the planet than flying (Australia in particular has some amazing road trip routes).

You can also catch public transport, ride your bike or even plan a multi-day hike! What an adventure that would be.

If you are heading abroad, consider extending your time there, or sticking to one destination. Travel slowly, with intention – don’t plane hop, or try to squeeze everything in.

Consider whether your destination of choice is suffering from overtourism. If so, lend your tourism dollars to somewhere else that needs it more.

How to prep your home, following zero waste principles

Food waste is a global problem. Contrary to belief, food in landfill doesn’t break down. Rather, scraps break down slowly while releasing methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

So, step one. Don’t do a big food shop before you travel!

Go through your fridge. Batch cook any leftover veggies. I usually chuck in noodles, hoisin, garlic and soy sauce to liven up the taste. You can also create stews, casseroles, soups… whatever tickles your fancy.

Pop the leftovers in your freezer and you’ll have a meal ready when you’re back from your trip.

Chuck anything uncooked but freezable in the old ice box, such as meat and fish.

Compost anything you won’t use, or gift it to friends, family, colleagues and flatmates.

Unplug anything you won’t need to be on. I usually do this to all household appliances, bar the fridge. It’ll help save on electricity too. A benefit of zero waste travel is that it can help lighten the load on your wallet.

A hand holding a tin of cream deodorant by Good + Clean.
My favourite cream deodorant.

Zero waste packing

If you’re super keen to travel zero waste, what you pack before your trip will be of great importance.

Pack lightly and pack efficiently. Think about what you really need and follow these tips:

  • Pack what you wear at home. Don’t buy new clothes for your trip.
  • Wear your biggest, heaviest items on the plane (if flying) and layer up.
  • Don’t pack travel-sized toiletries.
  • Pack neutrals. I generally stick to black, white and grey and add a pop of colour.
  • Only bring the jewellery you’ll wear daily.

Toiletries

Toiletries can seem like the hardest thing to change. However, I think re-evaluating your beauty habits is the easiest part of zero waste travel prep.

As you finish off your conventional toiletries, swap them out for zero waste travel items. Solid or powder products are key.

You can get beauty products with plastic-free, compostable packaging, such as shampoo and soap bars, toothpaste tabs, cream deodorant in tins. These last for ages, don’t spill and are easy to get through airport security, unlike liquid toiletries.

Here are a few eco-friendly toiletry items I always take travelling:

  • Shampoo bar – I use refillable shampoo bottles from my hairdresser at home, but it’s easier to take a bar travelling. Ethique are really good.
  • Lip balm in compostable tubecan’t survive flying without it.
  • Cream deodorant – Meow Meow Tweet make baking soda free deodorants in compostable tubes. My go-to is Aussie brand Clean + Good.
  • Tooth brush and tooth tablets – I’ve been using Brush With Bamboo for years. New favourite Georganics make tooth tablets and compostable tooth floss.
  • Reusable cotton rounds – can be used to wipe your face down on the plane, or remove makeup when paired with Jojoba oil.
  • Menstrual cup – I’ve used my Lunette cup for years and it’s saved me hundreds of dollars. There are many benefits to having a zero waste period, particularly financial.

See other eco-friendly toiletries.

A woman with a hat on looks out over the ocean in Western Australia. She is holding a zero waste travel kit, which is incredibly useful for eco-friendly travel.
Exploring Western Australia with my zero waste travel kit.

Actually travelling zero waste

Some tips for zero waste travel to consider while in transit.

Pack a zero waste travel kit

A zero waste travel kit will help you immensely in your planning.

In essence, it’s a kit that will include everything you need to avoid single-use plastics, such as a lunchbox, reusable bag, reusable bottle, bamboo cutlery and straw. Many of these items are perfect for plane travel, too.

Some companies now sell these kits, but it’s also quite easy (and cheaper) to build out your own.

Your kit should contain:

  • Reusable water bottle: there’s plenty of good options for travel and ideally, you should pick one with a filter.
  • Reusable coffee cup or thermos: I swear by my KeepCup
  • Zero waste utensils: such as bamboo or stainless steel knife, fork and spoon, a spork, chopsticks if you use them often
  • Cloth napkins/hankies: can be used for eating or if, you know, you need to blow your nose
  • Mesh or cloth bag: for storing not only food, but grouping together items in your suitcase or backpack
  • Reusable shopping bag: perfect to take with you if you’re leaving your luggage somewhere while you go for a day trip. These are available just about anywhere and you can even make your own.

Bring snacks for the plane/transportation, if you can

Not easy when you’re flying long-haul from Australia or NZ, I know. But every bit counts.

At the very least, I’ll take some fruit and nuts (NOT peanuts because allergies), to snack on at the airport or on the plane. Pop a sandwich into a cloth bag if you’re flying for a few hours and want something more substantial.

Once onboard, I ask for water in my lightweight reusable bottle. Tea and wine, I drink out of my KeepCup.

Say no to single use straws, napkins and those annoying stirrer things you get for coffees.

With companies like Qantas looking to operate zero waste flights, hopefully the amount of landfill produced by airlines will start to diminish.

Go paperless

Only print documents if necessary, which it rarely is, these days. Just whack your ticket on your phone and off you go.

Most airlines and other forms of transport tend to have apps, so you can purchase a ticket online and scan it off your mobular device.

Offset your flights

Sustainable travel routes aren’t always an option, especially in countries like Australia (massive) and New Zealand (miles away from just about anywhere).

Many airlines now have carbon programs. You’re charged a price to pay to cover carbon miles produced from your journey.

You can use these programs, or perhaps even consider donating to local not-for-profits (in your own country or the country you’re visiting) who are doing good things.

Or, get involved yourself. Look for local tree-planting organisations and cover your carbon miles before or after your trip.

The front of a small cottage in the south of France.
Flâneuring around southern France.

Zero waste travel once you reach your destination

Here are some tips for making your holiday on ground as eco-friendly as possible.

Research how to get to your accommodation ahead of time

See if there are public transport options for getting to your accommodation, such as trains or buses.

They’ll end up being much cheaper than taking a taxi or rideshare, plus you’ll be reducing emissions by doing this.

If you do have to take an Uber or similar, consider using the ‘pool’ option.

Walk as much as you can

Embrace your inner Flâneur(ess) and walk everywhere!

It’s the best way to experience a new city. I walk constantly around the city of Melbourne (where I live) and am always finding some new street to explore – bonus points if it’s full of street art.

Plus, it’ll count as your daily workout, too. Get those legs moving, that blood pumping and those steps rising!

Obviously, exercise some caution if you’re a woman by yourself. It sucks, but practicalities is that this is the world we live in. Be safe above all else.

Exterior of a guest house in Goa, India, with local flowers in bloom.
Guest houses in Goa, India.

Consider home shares or house sit

Home shares and homestays are one way to get a bit of the local business/actually meet locals. I did this in Cuba, staying in casa particulars and loved it.

House-sitting is another way of reducing accommodation and cooking costs, that doesn’t negatively impact the local community.

You usually get to play with pets as well, added bonus. I’ve not house-sat abroad, but my friend Rhiannon has and shares some tips on getting started.

What about AirBnb, you may ask? A strong hell no, from this girl.

I am wary of AirBnb, for many reasons, some listed here. As a sustainable traveller, I don’t use it. Plus, it’s illegal in some cities now. Shadynasty.

Opt for green hotels

If you love the hotel experience, research hotels that have high eco-ratings and lend them your support by booking in there.

Unable to find one? There are ways you can make your hotel stay more eco-friendly:

  • Consider cold showers – they’re upsetting at first, then get strangely pleasant/addictive. Try water only hair washing to cut down on shower time it makes for an excellent detox! I also don’t shave my legs under running water.
  • Reuse your bath towel and hang it up to indicate this. Plus, don’t leave it on the floor when you leave – think of the cleaning staff and their poor backs.
  • Put up the no housekeeping sign to save on washing.
  • Turn off lights + air con/heating when you’re out for the day.
  • Refuse single use water bottles.

Hostels are a good option, too. They usually have shared kitchens where you can cook meals (some have their own compost systems too) and are great if you want to meet fellow travellers and party some.

Experiences over souvenirs

I do love souvenirs, but I’m careful in what I choose now. I tend to buy books, art, jewellery by local makers.

Taking lots of pictures is one easy way to bring back souvenirs from your trip. I usually take my Canon GX7 travelling. It’s lightweight, but takes really good quality photos.

Beyond that, consider spending your dosh on experiences, rather than carting back a bunch of useless things that’ll just take up space in your house.

If you do accumulate tickets, you can use them to make some travel-inspired art when you’re home, instead of tossing them. Something to remind you of happy times spent wandering the world.

I do allocate a substantial amount of my budget to food-related experiences, which is never regretful, rather led to some interesting experiences.

A plate of food containing crickets.
Trying new things in Bangkok.

Eating out as a zero waste traveller

Food is where you’ll encounter most of your issues, when trying to travel plastic-free. Here are some of my zero waste travel tips, for dining on vacation.

Eat in at establishments

Eating in is one way to drastically reduce what you send to landfill.

You’ll generally use zero packaging, plus you can relax and soak up the atmosphere.

People watching when travelling is amazing and should never be discounted.

If you have to take away your meal, look for places that have recyclable, or compostable food containers, or bring your own.

Sometimes something as simple as a mason jar will suffice.

Refuse utensils – use your own.

Street food

Opt for local street food. Most is handheld, or packaging free. Refuse extra paper, napkins or containers – you can often ask them to pop the food into your own.

If you have a sensitive stomach, bring something like Travelan. They’re not zero waste, but it’s better than spending your entire trip on the toilet. Been there, have the slightly soiled t-shirt.

A hand covered with henna reaching for piles of food on a banana leaf plate in India.
Eating zero waste in India.

Recycle and compost everything

You can use public recycling bins, or ask locals where a recycling station is. Some places give back cash for bottles and the like.

Local community gardens may willingly take your food, or some places will have their own compost systems.

I hope this guide will help you on your zero waste travel journey. As you can see, it’s not a case of reinventing the wheel – just taking some steps, putting in forethought and tweaking habits.

With luck, you’ll be travelling zero waste in no time at all!

Any tips for zero waste travel that you’d like to have? Please pop them in the comments below.

Pin me baby, one more time.

Want to embrace a zero waste lifestyle while on the road, but don't know where to start? Check out these tips for zero waste travel.  / #EcoTraveller / #GreenTravel / #SustainableTravel / Eco friendly products for sustainable travel / Eco-friendly products / Travel accessories / Eco friendly travel bags / #EthicalTravel / #Responsibletravel / #zerowaste / #zerowastetravel / #sustainability /

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