Zero Waste Travel: How to Plan a Trip That's Fun, Easy, and Sustainable

Travel and zero waste aren’t always natural bedfellows. If you frequently travel by air, your travel likely makes up a significant portion of the emissions you generate each year. Sometimes there are greener alternatives to air travel – trains, ferries, even long-haul bike rides. But, in many cases, especially in the U.S., these alternatives are not practical, or even present.  

There are people who choose to give up air travel all together out of concern for their environmental impact. But, most people, including myself, aren’t willing to give up flying entirely. For me, one of the greatest things about the time in which we are living is the ease and speed with which we can traverse the globe. It is absolutely amazing to me that someone can wake up in France and be in New York by afternoon. Journeys that used to take weeks can be undertaken in a single day. Travel freshens our perspective, gives us a chance to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds, try new things, and speak new languages.

So, when we are traveling, how can we make our travel more zero waste?

Consider other transportation options both to and at your destination. Since air travel is a serious polluter, investigate alternative methods to get to your destination. Trains, buses, and ferries are all possibilities in many places, and generally produce fewer emissions per person than commercial air travel.  Also consider your transportation options once you reach your destination. You could skip the rental car office, and investigate local mass transit. Many cities have excellent subway systems, trains, and buses. They will not only save you money over rental cars, but also spare you the stress of driving in an unfamiliar place, and the hassle and cost of parking.

My favorite option for on the ground travel is human powered. Consider renting a bike at your destination, or simply exploring your new locale on foot. One of my favorite things to do when traveling in Europe is to simply wander on foot. The sometimes stressful pace of travels drops away, and you get to see a side of the city you would never see if you were simply hopping from tourist destination to tourist destination (plus, I find the best coffee shops this way!).

Pack food. Purchased ‘on-the-go’ type foods tend to be highly packaged and the snacks and drinks handed out on planes create a lot of garbage – and many airlines do not recycle. So, the plastic pretzel bag, the aluminium can your Coke came in, and the plastic cup you drank it out of, all will likely end up in a landfill. So, bring your own snacks in a reusable container. My kids and I each carry a backpack on the plane with a stainless steel bento box inside filled with healthy snacks – think trail mix from the bulk bin, tangerines, and dried apricots.

Pack a reusable water bottle. Carry an empty reusable water bottle to airport and fill it at the drinking fountain once you are through security. With your own snacks and drinks in place, when the flight attendants come around offering snacks, you  can politely…

Refuse. Refusing free things can feel awkward at first, but with practice it gets easier. Refuse the snacks and drinks you don’t need and prevent them from ending up in a landfill later. At your destination, refuse the extra napkins, the straws, and the flyers handed to you. If you feel uncomfortable saying ‘no’, remember that you are helping to normalize refusing. It will not only get easier for you, but as refusing becomes the norm, you will be making it easier and more natural for others to refuse too.

Bring a tote. I always keep a small tote bag folded up at the bottom of my backpack (which goes everywhere with me). If you make a purchase while out and about, you can refuse the plastic bag and pull out your tote instead. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezee, as my six-year-old likes to say.

Skip the hotel. If you enjoy shopping at farmer’s markets and eating local fresh produce, consider staying at a condo or an airbnb. Having a kitchen allows you the option to prepare your own food, which provides you with more control over your waste – and more options about the food you eat. On our Hawaii trip, we stayed at a condo with a kitchen. One of my favorite parts of the trip was slicing up fresh local fruit (pineapples!) every morning to eat on the patio while we sipped coffee freshly ground from locally grown beans.

Skip fast food. If dining out is more your style on vacation, go with sit down options or street food over fast food, as fast food tends to have more wrappings.

Reuse. If you need to buy a single use container on your trip, try to reuse it if at all possible. If you can’t fit your empty travel mug in your suitcase, try to get multiple uses out of a disposable one. Refill it in the hotel lobby on your way out the door each day. Throw it in your bag when your done to use again the next day. If you’ve forgotten your water bottle, but one single use water bottle and use it for the rest of the trip.

Find joy within imperfection. Travel + zero waste is not always an easy combination, especially if you are traveling with kids. Don’t ruin your trip or punish your kids by trying to be perfect. Do your best and celebrate your successes. Last summer on a camping trip, I brought along a package of veggie dogs and bag of vegan marshmallows to roast over the campfire. I wanted my kids to have that experience, which comes with lots of fond family camping memories from my own childhood. Was it zero waste? No. Is it worth it to make an exception sometimes – especially when far away from your kitchen? In my opinion, yes. Zeroish living should be fun and a source of greater happiness. If you need to make an exception for the sake of fun sometimes, I think that it is fine. Perfection is not a requirement around here!  

Travel can be great fun, and is even more rewarding when you know that you are doing your best to keep the places you love visiting as pristine as possible – so, making your travel as zero waste as possible is a no-brainer!

Happy Trails!

Meredith Hanson lives on six acres of land in rural Minnesota with her husband, three kids, nine chickens, and six guinea fowl. She loves running through the woods, digging her fingers in the dirt, and making things with her hands. In 2018 she’ll be learning to live a more zero waste lifestyle, trying to feed her family on veggies grown in the backyard, and making rather than buying just about whatever she needs.

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