Going zero waste is a process. When I talk to people who are about a year into their journey, they usually say the hardest part is when they’re away from their home. They’ve got their routine down, their grocery shopping kit is in their car, their packed lunches for work are second nature, and even their friends try to keep get-togethers plastic free when they invite them over. But traveling to a new place? That’s a whole 'nother story. You don’t know what the restaurants will be like or what amenities the place you're staying will have, or what the recycling regulations will be.
I’m 3 years into my zero waste journey, and I still find it hard. But after a recent trip to the East Coast to visit family, I was in New York and Philadelphia for 10 days, and I only made 4 pieces of trash. It was so satisfying to finally feel like I’m getting the hang of it! I decided to compile this guide of my all time favorite travel hacks for staying zero waste on the go.
1. Pack light
When I go on a trip, I like to travel light. For me, minimalism and zero waste go hand in hand - they’re both about simplifying your life. I only ever pack a carry on, and I bring a few interchangeable outfits no matter how long my trip will be. I once went to Europe for six weeks with 6 tops, 4 shorts/skirts, a dress, a bikini, and 3 pairs of shoes (birkenstocks for walking around Italy, tennis shoes for exercise, and a pair of sandals for beach days or evenings out). For a week long trip, I'll bring even less. It usually consists of 3 tops, 2 bottoms, a sweater, an exercise outfit and a swimsuit.
If you want to know how I packed for a 10 day trip to the East Coast, I made a packing video.
Packing light allows you the freedom to go wherever you please. No more worrying about checkin and checkout times and where you’ll leave your suitcase. No more “I’d really like to set this heavy bag down first.” If you decide you want to stop by a pretty beach you see outside the bus window or walk through the farmers market that’s on the way to your BNB, you can. Because everything you brought is in a totally manageable backpack.
Only bringing the essentials means you spend less time packing and unpacking, organizing your things, and trying to make sure you don’t forget anything. You’ll find you get out the door faster in the mornings and you actually use everything you brought because you were purposeful with every item.
Plus, traveling with a carry-on means you can go straight to security when you get to the airport, and don't have to wait for checked luggage later. Travel days are long. Any way you can simplify your trip gives you more time to experience the things you came to see.
2. Go paperless
Pro tip: if you buy tickets in advance, you can usually get them paperless. If you use your phone to check in for your flight, you can get a boarding pass in your Apple Wallet. Even if you decide on a spontaneous trip, check to see if you can buy your train ticket online and get an emailed PDF. You can get concert tickets and event registration emailed to you too.
You can even download maps. If you just want a map of a neighborhood or a city center, there’s usually a PDF online; that’s what I’ll do if I’m going up to Vancouver or Victoria for the weekend. But even abroad, Google Maps can actually download an area when you’re on wifi, so you can navigate without the need for a paper map. It may seem insignificant, but taking a paper map or brochure tells the big companies “please, go cut down more trees to print more disposable flyers.”
If you're looking for a guide book, check at your local library first. Want something new to read on the plane? Download an iBook. Living a zero waste lifestyle is about slowing down and being a little more mindful about what kind of world your actions and consumer habits create.
Living a zero waste lifestyle is about slowing down and being a little more mindful about what kind of world your actions and consumer habits create.
Above: Genevieve looking at a subway map of Manhattan
3. Carbon offset your trip
Next time you plan a vacation, factor in a little extra cost ($30-60) to add carbon offset to the price of your ticket. Flying is one of the biggest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions. I'm not saying we shouldn't travel, but when I can, I like to take responsibility for offsetting my share of the carbon produced.
Paying for carbon offsets is a way to invest in renewable energy projects or planting trees, in order to offset the amount of carbon it takes to fly a plane across a country or an ocean. It's about investing in cleaner air and a cleaner planet.
This video talks about My Climate, which is a nonprofit carbon offset company that has a calculator for calculating the carbon emissions from a single flight, household, cruise, car, or even your personal footprint.
When you get to your destination, try taking public transportation. Riding the bus or taking a train gives you a better view of the place you're exploring, and it dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of your trip. Even taking a Lyft Shared is great, not just because you’re carpooling, but because Lyft is one of the biggest companies to voluntarily pay for carbon offset for all their trips.
Better yet, rent a bike when you get there and see the city or countryside that way! Fresh air, exercise, free transportation and a fun way to see the sights - What more could you ask for?
4. Feng Shui your hotel room
As hippie as it sounds, I absolutely feng shui my hotel room when I arrive. I find that if you take just a couple minutes to settle into the place you’re staying and make it feel like home, you’re more likely to settle into your routine and carry your sustainable habits through to your travels.
I find that if you take just a couple minutes to settle into the place you’re staying and make it feel like home, you’re more likely to settle into your routine and carry your sustainable habits through to your travels.
When I get to my destination, I’ll open the windows, maybe light a candle or burn some sage (although I never leave the room while I have a candle or incense lit), set out my cosmetics bag, hang up my jacket, line up my shoes… Sometimes I’ll even make slight adjustments to the furniture so everything is oriented well and feels natural.
Time after time, Feng Shui-ing my AirBNB makes me feel refreshed and more myself after a long day of travel. It allows me to be more mindful by the time I head out again - meaning I'll remember my reusables - and it makes for a refreshing place to come back to. Who doesn’t love coming home to the smell of sage and fresh air and a few personal touches?
Bring Your Own Reusables.
Because I don’t always know what restaurants or cafes will be like, I try to anticipate anything, while keeping my kit as small as possible. In my bag, I’ll have a set of Togoware, with my stainless steel straw tucked in, a few cloth produce bags, and a handkerchief. These compact items allow me to refuse countless plastic silverware, straws, plastic bags, and paper napkins.
Note: if I’m just going on an overnight or backpacking trip, I’ll just bring a spork-knife I have that’s practically flat (Thank you, REI). And a handkerchief that doubles to use as a hand towel, a napkin, a bandana or to hold snacks.
Speaking of snacks, I’ll bring a few cotton produce bags to pick up bulk snacks at the grocery store, muffins at a cafe or fruit at the farmer’s market.
6. Bring a meal for the plane
I like to bring a stainless steel container to carry a meal on the plane. No matter what you order, the snacks and meals on planes are covered in plastic galore. Even if you were to order one of those paper boxed meals, they come with plastic wrapping, a plastic tray inside, with a plastic sealed top and plastic bagged snacks. It’s really strange the amount of plastic in each one.
In a pinch, if I don’t have time to pack or am going on a longer trip where I purposely used all my groceries, sometimes a pizza or sandwich shop at the airport will let you get something in your own container. Or if you have the time and your flight isn't too long, you can find a restaurant before you takeoff and order “for here.”
You've gotta plan for drinks on the plane too, because who doesn’t love the fact that you can have a glass of wine at 10,000 feet? That leads me to my next point.
6. All hail the mason jar
I used to scoff at the idea of lugging around a heavy and breakable mason jar on my travels. But I took one on my New York trip, and I’ll be honest, I’ve reformed.
The mason jar is absolutely leak proof. It can hold anything from coffee to cocktails, cold or hot. You can fill it up at a juice bar or a water fountain and just rinse it in between. It can even hold your compost if you’re in a place with a drop-off location near where you’re staying. Plus, they’re relatively durable with their thick glass.
Get this, I’ve even used mine to hold leftovers after a meal out.
With a single mason jar, you can refuse plastic water bottles, the plastic cups on the plane, coffee cups which are lined with plastic and can't be recycled, and more.
*If you do use it for hot beverage, you can tie a bandana around it to be extra cautious.*
Below: Joe & the Juice, one of the many places in New York that let me use my own cup.
8. Bring a travel shawl and your own headphones
This is a tip Bea Johnson swears by. When I fly, I like to bring a travel shawl because it can act as a scarf to dress up an outfit, a beach towel, and a blanket for the plane (instead of the airline's, which is wrapped in plastic). She uses a Turkish towel, which I am dying to get.
Don't forget your headphones, too. The free ones offered on planes are wrapped in plastic and are cheaply made, meaning they're designed to wear out. Bring your own so you can listen to podcasts or watch a movie on the flight.
9. Shampoo bar
A single shampoo bar serves all kinds of purposes when on the go. It’s conditioning shampoo, body soap, shave cream, and even facial soap in a pinch. This one item will avoid so many pieces of trash, while saving room in your suitcase. Our stainless steel tins don’t leak like shampoo bottles either, so no need for extra ziplock or plastic travel tubes.
Those little plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion in hotel rooms are often replaced with every new guest, which is so wasteful. By refusing them, your voice will join the others who are encouraging hotels to boycott them or, like some have started to do, offer refillable dispensers on the walls as an alternative. Your actions add up and slowly but surely, we’re part of a powerful tide.
Above: My Shampoo Bar and Soap Tin, two of the top ways I refuse single use plastic when traveling
10. Do your homework
Do a little research on the place you're going so you have an idea of the local recycling and compost regulations. For example, if there isn't recycling, you might bring more reusables and do a shopping trip the first day... try deli counters and salad bars in grocery stores or restaurants and breweries to fill your containers).
Bea Johnson's bulk finder is a great place to start.
Find out if there's a compost drop-off in the city or town you're going to; places like farmer's markets, co-ops and garden stores are all likely to have one. When food scraps are thrown in the landfill, they don't have the oxygen they need to decompose, so they don't properly compost. Finding a way to compost and reduce food waste is a big part of the zero waste lifestyle. Try Google searching "compost drop off (city name)" and see what comes up. Most major US cities will have an option.
When you research your destination, find some zero waste activities that don't produce any waste... instead of shopping, go for a hike or a bike ride. Try a new restaurant. Check out the local farmer's market. Look for experiences instead of souvenirs.
When you do go to a restaurant, glance at the photos on Google Maps to find out if you need to bring your own straw or a utensil set. In a coffee shop, refuse the disposable packets of sugar, plastic stirrers, paper napkins. Follow the 5R's and you'll be well on your way to a zero waste trip: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
Pictured Below: my delicious lunch at ABCV, a Vegan restaurant in New York.
That's a wrap, of my list of zero waste travel tips.
If you're curious what my 4 pieces of trash were, here goes:
- A cream cheese container at the airport. It was 6am, and I had all my reusables in hand, and I totally spaced on ordering cream cheese. Having a zero waste fail right off the bat was frustrating but funny, and I didn’t let it set me back.
- An accidental plastic spoon from a root beer float stand that had paper straws but used plastic spoons instead of reusable silverware like the rest of the hotel. We had a little talk.
- A bag of popcorn with my cousins.
- And a plastic top that came with a compostable sushi box (I had meant to go to the sit-down restaurant but got the locations mixed up).
That’s what zero waste looks like in real life, doing the best you can and planning ahead because you realize the impact of your choices. I was so happy to avoid countless plastic silverware, plastic straws, paper napkins, plastic waterbottles, disposable coffee cups, single use chopsticks, and plastic bags that came my way.
To see what I brought for a day trip in NYC, check out our Youtube channel. What's one thing you travel with that helps you stay zero waste?