Need a bit of extra incentive to start reducing your waste while you travel? Read on.
Yes, I too am all aboard this ‘let’s reduce waste’ sustainability train, so today I’ll share some tips on less waste travel. Note that I didn’t say zero waste travel, because I believe that would be practically impossible. If we’re being honest about our trash, then even a single paper parking ticket destroys the goal of zero waste, but I guess zero waste is the name of the game now.
However, less waste travel is totally doable and if you’re not convinced you should do it for the environment and other noble reasons, then let me tell you it can also save you quite a bit of money. Now, obviously we are not talking about tons of money, but when you’re planning your next trip every little bit helps.
#1: Bring your own
This is probably the simplest one for zero waste travel and also the hardest one to get used to in my experience. Bringing your own water bottle, cutlery, a coffee cup and some kind of food container seems like a lot of work, but it really pays off in the long run, I swear. Enough has been said about the ever popular personal water bottle, so I’ll not get into that too much, but I will tell you that if you bring your own bottle, you’ll never pay for one of those über expensive bottles of water at the airport again. The airport security people are quite used to travellers bringing through empty water bottles by now and they’ll even empty it for you if you forget to do it and most airports now have drinking water taps. So, if you decide to bring any of these, then it should be the water bottle. Pro-tip: get a glass or metallic one, because the plastic ones start to stink after a while.
Moving on: plastic disposable cutlery costs at least 0.5 € per pack these days and, if you buy one every time you eat any kind of takeaways, it will add up. You can bring one of these knife-fork-spoon thingies instead (or a full set if you prefer) and if they’re made from decent plastic they are very durable, easy to clean and super light. Metal ones also work great, but make sure the knife is not an issue for plane travel. I’m very anti bamboo cutlery, because we have perfectly good and practically eternal metal or plastic cutlery options, so the bamboo ones seem like such a hipster waste of wood with a shorter lifespan, but that’s a personal choice. As long as you choose something durable, it’s fine.
Also, it goes without saying: bring your own shopping bag! Reusable shopping bags are surprisingly useful for everything and take up very little space. You can use them to carry your shopping (obviously), to store shoes (the small grocery bags meant for fruit and vegetables are super good for that) or your dirty laundry (I find it smells less disgusting over time if you store it in a cloth bag, instead of a plastic bag – you can check out a few of my other tips for making the backpacking life less nasty here) or whatever else you might need. I’ve used one as an improvised rain cover for my backpack on more than one occasion.
Next up: the coffee cup. I’ll admit, this one rarely directly saves you money, unless the cafe offers a discount for bringing your own cup (which they sometimes actually do nowadays). However, often when I get takeaway coffee they’ll kindly fill up the whole cup, so I get more coffee for the same price, which ultimately means more bang for your buck (it counts, right?). It also has other uses, I frequently use mine to transport fragile small items, like souvenirs on the way back home, or to make my daily green tea when I’m staying in accommodations without a kitchen.
Finally: the food containers! The bulkiest and surprisingly the most useful items for solo zero waste travellers. When I travel alone it’s hard to buy the exact quantity of food for one person in the supermarkets. In the past years I’ve often found myself wondering how to store the leftovers without them leaking inside my backpack. Sure, you can wrap them in three layers of plastic bags, but even that doesn’t always prevent messy spillages. I usually ended up not buying such food to avoid throwing out half of it or buying a smaller, more expensive package, until I started carrying these around (a few examples of their usefulness in the gallery below). They’re super good for carrying around lunch for the next day as well, if you’re cooking food in a hostel or bought something you couldn’t finish.
Bringing even a single food container with me has helped me eat better and cheaper, so I now usually carry one or two. They come in different shapes and sizes and if you use the flat silicone ones they don’t take up any space at all when not in use (I got mine here). Additionally, food containers are great for storing jewellery or other sensitive small items, because they’re lightweight and keep their shape even when squashed inside a backpack. Just make sure whatever you are using seals properly to avoid any disasters that you are trying to prevent in the first place.
#2: Bathroom stuff
Airport liquid regulations are probably every traveller’s nightmare at this point, particularly for us women, as we tend to use many more different body care products than men. Buying small packages under 100 ml can be pesky, because they are actually quite expensive considering the volume and the same products we like to use are often not available in travel sizes.
The obvious solution is buying refillable travel sized containers. It’s a one time relatively small investment (I got mine for about 10 € here) and you can refill them with anything you like to use, which is ultimately cheaper and more convenient, particularly if you travel a lot. Just make sure whatever you buy is good quality, as the cheaper plastic ones tend to break or crack quite easily. If you get the silicone ones, they should last you for years and are super easy to clean (some of them are even supposed to be dishwasher safe, depending on the brand).
The other option is going solid. You can use solid soap, shampoo and even conditioner and avoid the liquid regulations altogether. They tend to last much longer than the liquid products and are thus also cheaper. I’ve been using solid soap for travelling and my daily life for a while now and I recently even made my own solid face wash, but I occasionally still use liquid body wash. I also recently switched to solid shampoo, so I’m still trying to find the right one, however I don’t think I’ll ever switch to solid conditioners, because my hair just needs too much pampering.
Both options result in much less waste, less hassle and ultimately also some money savings. I use my refillable containers for things like make up remover, conditioner, toothpaste etc., but I definitely do not recommend using them for eye lens fluid or anything that needs to be kept sterile. As mentioned above, I also bring solid soap and shampoo, and if you are wondering about how to store these while travelling, I got you covered there too.
You can either use a metal or a plastic case, but I’m not a fan of that, because they are waterproof and everything inside will stay wet, which gets disgusting after a while. What I use are tiny cloth bags, which are made from coated cotton, so they are kind of waterproof, but not (I got them here). I use the same for my toothbrush as well, because the cloth and the items inside dry out during the day, as long as you take the time to shake off most of the water before putting the stuff inside. The bags do feel damp on the outside after you store the wet items inside, but don’t really leak through much and I find everything is usually dry when I use it again. It is not totally perfect though, as the soap tends to stick to the cloth sometimes and the inside of the bags gets soap-dirty after a while, but, luckily, they are machine washable.
#3: Bonus everyday less waste options
There are many everyday items you can replace with less waste options and I’m actively trying to do that, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much (I just don’t see myself ever washing my toilet paper or something similar). For women, one of the more obvious switches is the menstrual cup, which I’m actually surprisingly happy with and saves me at least 10 € per period (check out other eco-friendly menstrual options here). The other one applies to both genders and that is an old-school metal safety razor, where you only change the blades. I cannot recommend this one enough, as it just leaves everything so smooth and closely shaven that there is no comparison with the disposable ones. My boyfriend tried shaving with mine too and he’s got one of his own now, because he was so impressed by its performance. The good stainless steel ones are a bit expensive (I got mine here), but they should last you for life and the replacement blades are only a few € for 10 of them. I’m a super clumsy person and I’ve never cut myself with it, so it really is a safety razor. 🙂 However, be advised that you are not allowed to bring it on a plane inside hand luggage because of the blades, which is a significant travel drawback.
There are other less waste switches that I’ve made, like using reusable (washable) cotton pads, panty liners and handkerchiefs (I can’t for the life of me bring myself to try reusable ear buds/Q-tips, because they all just look so gross), but they are not very practical for longer travels. Everything washable must be washed at relatively high temperatures for hygienic reasons and when you are travelling you don’t often have the will (or the time or even the money) to do two loads in the washing machine, since most of your other clothes can’t survive such temperatures and you don’t really want to wash them together anyway. So, these things are great for home use or going away for a weekend, but I’ll honestly say that I can’t bring myself to bother with them when I’m travelling for longer than 10 days.
#4: Some other tips for less waste travel
Some other things you can do that don’t necessarily save you money, but are easy to do and result in less waste while you travel:
- Printing your boarding passes and other tickets, as you can usually get a mobile version instead.
- Not asking for receipts or printing them at the machines if you don’t actually need them.
- Don’t ask for/refuse straws if you don’t need them, or better yet, if you are really attached to drinking with a straw (again, a personal choice), then buy a reusable one, such as glass or metal. Paper straws may seem like a green alternative, but besides the fact that they get soggy, mushy and generally gross, you are still creating waste for no reason and the chemicals used for dying them pretty colours can potentially be detrimental to your health.
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought and a balanced, relatable opinion, as I am by no means fanatical about zero waste travel and living, but I do believe that whatever we can easily do, we should do. And although they require some initial investment, these adjustments really will save you some money in the long run, so give it a go! As has been said before, we don’t need a few people doing it perfectly, we just need everyone doing it imperfectly to make a difference. Since we can’t really control what happens to our trash after we toss it out, the only way we can make that difference is to not create a certain piece of trash at all. 🙂
P. S.: If you’ve made it to the end, you’ve probably noticed my less waste travel approach is not also plastic free. As an engineer who works with polymers, i.e. plastics, I’m well aware of the many benefits of plastics when used responsibly, so I don’t believe that anything plastic is inherently bad or incompatible with sustainability values. Good quality plastic products can be extremely durable and can be used for years when properly cared for, so think carefully before going on the increasingly popular zero waste anti-plastic binge and throwing out all your plastic containers to replace them with metal ones. Throwing out perfectly good, usable objects of any material is just creating more waste, which is essentially what we are supposed to be trying to avoid, so less sitting on the anti-plastic high horse and more using our brains, please.
P.P.S.: I was also on a radio show episode in Sweden where we discussed ways of reducing waste while travelling based on this post – come listen, it’s in English!