Zero waste travel tips

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Although travelling far isn’t really an option at present, if you’re anything like me you’re still dreaming about it and taking short trips close to home whenever possible! While researching or taking mini-breaks, it makes sense to learn about about zero waste travel so that international travel opens up again, we can do it better than before.

With more than 91% of the world population exposed to some kind of pollution, it makes sense that you want to reduce your carbon footprint both at home and abroad. You probably already know what is zero waste at home, but what does it entail on the road? Here are our best zero waste travel tips.

Packing for zero waste travel

Firstly, you need to pack items that won’t end up in landfills. There’s already far too much plastic and cardboard out there; you really don’t need to add any more.

So wherever you can, avoid plastic and cardboard packaging. That’s easy enough for some products, but others, like toothpaste, mostly come in non-reusable or recyclable packs. The same goes for a lot of liquid skincare and hair products. Luckily, there are ways you can go about avoiding plastic packaging when you pack for a trip.

Simple zero waste swaps
Some reusable and compostable bathroom options.

Rethink your bathroom items

Our personal care items can be quite wasteful, especially when we can’t rely on recycling facilities to exist, or recyclable plastic to actually be recycled.

Similarly to creating a zero waste bathroom at home, you can also travel with compostable, reusable and plastic free items as you travel.

Toothbrushes

You can get a compostable corn starch or bamboo toothbrush rather than a plastic one. Using manual ones also saves you needing to take a charger for an electric one! To dispose of them simply remove the bristles and then compost the handle.

Cornstarch toothbrushes are a great zero waste alternative.
Cornstarch toothbrushes are a good option for people who don’t like the feel of bamboo ones (like my hubbie!) or for kids who prefer theirs to look more like plastic ones.

Solid is the way to go

Solid bars of soap are quite common and I’m sure you’d take one to replace a bottle of body wash. But have you ever tried shampoo bars? Moreover, there are also toothpaste tablets and even mouthwash tabs to consider!

Solid products take up less room, don’t spill, and don’t have flight limits like liquids do. And as an added benefit, these often come in vegan, all-natural options which reduce the amount of chemical pollution in the process, too.

Toothpaste tablets are also an excellent product for zero waste travel.
Toothpaste tablets work well and are a great zero waste travel option.

Reusable packaging

If you prefer liquid shampoo and conditioner you can refill from a bulk store or larger pack. Travel sized bottles made of silicon or aluminium are durable, practical, and don’t take up a lot of room in your travel bag. Also, because of their safety caps you won’t have to worry about any spills.

Reusable food and drink items

It goes without saying to take your reusable water bottle with you. You can refill it at airports and in many places along the way, or buy a large container for your room and fill your water bottles each day for exploring. These are our favourite water bottles as they’re insulated, so they keep our water cold all day, and they’re leak-proof: very handy for travelling!

Allegra filling our water bottles with filtered water for exploring in Malaysia.
We loved to fill our leak-proof bottles with cold, filtered water as we travelled in Southeast Asia.

I suggest going with bamboo or Tritan rather than plastic cutlery, as they’re lightweight yet sturdy, and reusable straws made of silicon if you’re worried about the safety of stainless steel while travelling. Cloth napkins are useful in many situations, and reusable coffee cups are a must! They can be used for hot or cold drinks and don’t use much effort to carry and maintain.

Depending on how much room you have and what your plans are, you can also bring foldable or lightweight bowls, smoothie cups and washable wraps or even reusable containers. There are many options perfect for zero waste travel available, and most establishments are happy to use your BYO gear. You can see what we used on our Adelaide to Uluru road tip for some ideas.

Allegra eating lunch in the car using reusable cutlery and containers.
Allegra eating lunch on the road with a Tritan spork, stainless steel lunchbox, and a 4MyEarth washable snack pack.

Reusable menstrual gear and nappies/diapers

Find out before you leave whether you prefer a menstrual cup, period-proof underwear or washable pads. I personally love menstrual underwear and have travelled with mine across long distances in comfort, and without worry of leaks. In addition it’s helpful to pack a nappy bag/waterproof bag to store rinsed or unwashed products until you can launder them.

My favourite zero waste menstrual item: period-proof underwear.
My Modibodi period-proof underwear.

If you’re travelling with young kids it might seem overwhelming to pack washable diapers, but it can also save you the worry of finding the right disposables in different places. Here are 10 tips for using cloth nappies while travelling from a fellow sustainable family travel writer.

Reusable bags

One final thing to pack is some foldable reusable tote bags and produce bags if you plan to buy fresh fruit and veg. Large polyester bags are strong yet fold down to almost nothing, and they’re surprisingly eco-friendly considering how long they last. I’ve had mine for over 11 years and they’re still going strong! In addition to carrying shopping they can be used for laundry runs and even makeshift seat covers if necessary.

Using our reusable bags for laundry in Singapore.
Our reusable bags were very handy for shopping and laundry needs! We’re headed to a laundromat in Singapore.

Check out my detailed comparison of 11 different bags to find out more about the best reusable bags for any situation.

You might also like to take a foldable backpack for day outings.

Traveling zero waste

Packing is just the first step, of course. There are lots of things you can do during the trip itself that can help preserve the environment. It comes down to thinking in advance and taking advantage of modern technology.

Carry-on travel

Carry-on travel has been popular with minimalists and eco-conscious people for decades now, and for good reason. If you can condense your items into a small bag or backpack that you can carry-on, your reduce your weight on the plane and therefore your carbon footprint, and you’re saving yourself the trouble of checking your bags and waiting around for them.

Our family's luggage for carry-on only travel.
Our luggage for four months of travel in Southeast Asia: carry-on approved backpacks for adults, small Trunki suitcases on wheels for the kids, plus a small backpack for each child and a foldable day pack for each adult.

Bag checks waste paper, which ends up in landfills. And speaking of paper…

Avoiding paper and disposable items

If possible, avoid paper products whenever you can. You can purchase e-tickets and sometimes show show digital variants of your documents (passports, ID cards, etc.) instead of carrying paper documents with you. In addition, avoid taking a paper receipt whenever someone offers it to you.

And it’s not just about the paper. While on a plane, you’ll probably be offered a variety of disposable items, although some airlines like Qantas are making the switch to compostable food containers.

Taking your own snacks and/or utensils can help avoid food waste on your journey, and if you’re on a long flight consider taking your own earbuds, too.

My kids watching on their iPads while waiting for a flight.
If you can take personal tablets and headphones, it saves some waste (and a lot of fights!)

Choose conscious tours, activities & accommodation

Many accommodation providers and tour companies are updating their products and practices to reduce their waste and impact. Supporting these businesses encourages them to continue and reduces the impact of your travels, too.

For some examples from our travels:

Just be mindful of greenwashing: if a business makes empty claims to hook into the eco-movement, they probably aren’t making any meaningful changes.

Dev's Adventure Tours use glass water bottles for guests.
We chose an ethical and responsible company for our Langkawi Mangrove Tour.
Image credit: Dev’s Adventure Tours.

Dining green and waste-free

Zero-waste dining isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit of effort on your part.

The place

Lots of fast food restaurants pack their meals in styrofoam or cardboard, and they provide disposable plastic utensils. Try to avoid these spots and eat at a sit-in restaurant, with proper utensils and plates.

We love finding ethical restaurants and cafes to support on our travels, which work to improve communities and are usually very conscious of their waste and impact, too.

Also, try local street vendors who sell fresh food with very little packaging. And while there are meals that require at least a napkin, you can always refuse to take it and use your own washable cloth napkin or handkerchief.  

My kids eating at a street vendor in Malaysia.
Our kids loved this (potato!) street food in Melaka, Malaysia.

The tools

When shopping for food, remember to use your own reusable bags instead of single-use plastic. If you aim to carry snacks, use a small mason jar or Tupperware instead of buying products with disposable packs.

The aftermath

Some meals will inevitably produce leftovers. But don’t just throw them away at a nearby bin. Instead, do a bit of research on the spot you’re visiting. If it has a recycling or composting facility, take your waste there and let the professionals handle it the right way. In addition, if you can’t avoid using plastic, cardboard, or tin, look for nearby recycling containers, or keep them with you if you can.

Recycling bins at the Lucky Mall, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Recycling bins at the Lucky Mall, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Some zero waste travel no-nos

As noble as a zero waste lifestyle can be, there are a few things you need to consider, especially if you’re abroad. The following list of things to avoid when going zero waste is universal to any traveler, anywhere.

Don’t buy tons of new stuff

Be vigilant with your purchases while travelling. It can be very tempting to buy a lot of items to take home if they’re much cheaper than you’re used to, or very beautiful souvenirs are on offer. But be honest with yourself: what do you really need, and what will you really use? Do you need a souvenir from every town, or will it just become clutter at home?

Don’t be hard on yourself

There are many things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, and nobody will fault you if you can’t do them all. You’re not superhuman! Instead, try to do as much as you can given your situation and budget. Remember, even the smallest of efforts will help.

Don’t force your beliefs on others

I’ve seen many articles that state something like ‘educate others on going zero-waste’ or ‘if the restaurant or vendor serves food in styrofoam, make your opinion heard and let them know you don’t appreciate that.’ Honestly, even a devoted zero-waste adherent would tell you to sod off if you started preaching at them.

By all means, talk about reducing waste but don’t be incessant or indignant about it. That way you only end up hurting your own cause, especially if you’re in a different country with people who have customs and values different from your own.

Final thoughts

Thus we conclude our handy guide of zero-waste travel tips. Hopefully, it has helped you learn something new and prepare for your next trip, whenever that may be! Remember, you can have fun and save the planet at the same time, and every little bit helps.

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Zero waste travel may seem a bit daunting, but it's really not too hard. The aim isn't perfection, it's to reduce our impact when we can. 
Here are some easy tips to help you travel with less waste created, whether you're going to the next town, camping in nature or finally able to travel internationally again!

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