Traveling with Minimal Waste

Have you ever been relaxing while on vacation and enjoying a beautiful view but it’s totally ruined as a plastic bag blows by? You might run after the bag and successfully capture and throw it away only to wonder how this keeps happening wherever you go.

The reality is that tourism contributes greatly to the pollution of the world’s most beautiful destinations. The World Wildlife Fund found that in the Mediterranian alone, the 200+ million tourists visiting during the summer will cause a 40% increase in marine pollution during that time.

Research by United Nations Environment Program shows alongside the use of vital resources, and of its increasing contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, sewage, and loss of biodiversity, the travel industry’s contribution to marine pollution is on the rise.

If you’re wondering what you can do other than chase after plastic bags, focusing on limiting your own waste while traveling is an excellent place to start. It might not seem like a lot, but if more and more travelers reduce their reliance on single-use plastics and packaging, the less demand there will be on these types of products. Your individual actions, no matter how small, do make a difference.

Traveling without waste (or close to no waste) requires planning ahead of your trip, beginning with your itinerary.

Before you leave

Save the trees

Your detailed, 10-page itinerary is finalized and it’s time to pull out the pretty binder you curated some time ago. A divider for each leg of your trip and all of your vital documents because organization is key to a great trip!

But let’s pause for a minute. What actually needs to be printed and how can you avoid all of that paper waste? This likely depends on the circumstances of your trip.

A two-day business trip in San Francisco or a trip to visit your cousins in Idaho would be the time to save those trees and stick to digital versions of your itinerary and tickets.

Chances are that you’ll have access to electricity and WIFI if you’re not traveling abroad. If you’re at all worried, you can download these items on your phone to be accessed without WIFI or good reception.

International trips are a little different as there’s more room for mishaps such as losing your Passport or cell phone or being completely offline the whole time. Printing your tickets; photocopies of your passport and ID; and writing down the addresses and numbers of your embassy and accommodations would be a wise decision.

This can all be done using minimal amounts of paper by printing back to back. Your beautifully planned out, 10-page itinerary can still be downloaded to your phone digitally. This way you save on precious space in your luggage as well as reduce your paper waste.

Prevent food waste

You’re about a week or two out before your trip and your refrigerator is completely empty. We’ve all been there when we must decide between a trip to the grocery store or eating out for each meal until we leave.

Fast food or eating out not only costs more money, but it can be very wasteful. A trip to the grocery store would be more ideal. You’ll still want to avoid filling your refrigerator entirely by planning each meal out and by only buying the absolute necessities.

If you find that you’ll still have some bread or produce left over, freezing them is easy and also effective in avoiding food waste. Bread can be frozen in its original bag or in a flour sack towel, then defrosted and easily used for toast or sandwiches when you get back. Frozen fruit can be used in smoothies or overnight oats and frozen veggies can also be used in smoothies or warm meals when you return.

The trick to freezing produce is washing and chopping it up then laying it flat on a cookie sheet. Let it freeze on the cookie sheet for a few hours, then transfer to a Tupperware container or jar after. This helps to keep the food from sticking to itself when trying to get it out later.

Pack your own toiletries

Whether you dread packing or absolutely love it, this is where you can avoid a lot of waste during your travels.

Let’s start with your toiletries. Packing every toiletry you need requires a lot of space in your luggage and liquids can be a pain when going through security. In this case, relying on the hotel’s toiletries seems like a convenient way to avoid all of that. However, that option will result in unavoidable waste. Imagine all of those mini shampoo and soap bottles, as well as those bar soap wrappers everyone goes through. Most are likely not to be recycled and will just take up more space in the landfill.

Bar soaps and toothpaste tablets are a wonderful way to both avoid liquids and to save space while packing. There’s a bar soap for pretty much any need and you can cut off a small piece of each to minimize the number of containers you’ll need for them. Toothpaste tablets can be put into a small container like a contact case or pillbox.

Listed below are some product ideas for travel and at-home use:

What about sunscreen? This vacation (and health) necessity can be tricky to pack and an item a lot of folks purchase while at their destination. Most sunscreen containers can’t be recycled, especially if you don’t plan on taking the bottle home with you. This solid face and body sunscreen by Raw Elements comes in a 3 oz recyclable container and is also reef safe! Definitely worth the small investment for our environment.

Pack your reusable items

That just about covers most toiletry essentials you may need, but how do you avoid using disposable items while you’re away? Most of the single-use paper or plastic disposables are paired with eating, drinking, and shopping. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a coffee and pastry to-go from a local cafe? Or purchasing locally and sustainably made goods for gifts?

This is where you’ll want to pack some reusable items with you. Most can easily be found around your home so you won’t need to run out to purchase a bunch of new items.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Refillable water bottle (with filter if tap water is a concern)
  • Lightweight to-go coffee mug
  • Cloth napkin
  • Bamboo or metal utensils (per TSA, metal ones are also okay to pack with you)
  • Small Tupperware container
  • Stainless steel straw (optional)
  • A couple of foldable canvas totes

You may also want to consider packing some snacks like trail mix or pretzels to take with you in order to avoid plastic packaging on your trip*. If you already have ziplock baggies, use those and then reuse them on your trip for things like trash, dirty laundry, or wet bathing suits. If you don’t have ziplock bags, consider investing in this awesome silicone, reusable snack bags before you purchase plastic ones.

*Be sure to check with local customs on the types of food allowed.

On your way there

The day has finally arrived and you’ve made it safely to the airport. But how do you avoid waste while in transport? This can be a stressful time for anyone, so the last thing on your mind might be the waste you’ll create. Here are some easy and helpful tips for you to try.

Fill up your water bottle

Once you’re at the airport and through security, it’s time to fill up your reusable water bottle to avoid purchasing a plastic one. Most airports have drinking fountains or water refill stations, usually located near the restrooms.

Staying hydrated is important while flying and you’ll be able to avoid those small plastic cups from the service cart.

Avoid fast food

Fast food is somehow way more tempting while you’re waiting to board your flight. It’s also very convenient when you’ve rushed to get to the airport and skipped your last meal. However, most will come with a hefty amount of paper and plastic waste. Even if you drink from your reusable water bottle, use your own utensils, and wipe your face and hands with your cloth napkin, it’s difficult to find fast food that will not come heavily packaged.

There are a couple of things you can do to steer clear of that waste. You could always eat a full meal before going to the airport so that the waiting time to board is bearable. Plan out a meal beforehand and eat at home. You’ll save a bunch of money this way too!

We’re all human here, so planning a meal for yourself while also trying to remember everything necessary for your trip seems near impossible. Most airports will have some more fast casual or sit down restaurants. If it’s within your budget, try dining in at one of them. These places are more likely to serve you with real plates, utensils, and cups compared to a fast food joint. You’ll have your cloth napkin with you as well, so you can use that if they only have paper napkins.

Say no to drinks and snacks on the plane

This may test your self-control a bit, but it’s best to say no to those yummy snacks and drinks while in the air. There’s no guarantee that the plastic cups and aluminum cans for drinks will be recycled by the airline and all of the snacks come in small plastic bags that are impossible to recycle, even on your own.

Luckily, you’ve packed some snacks to hold you over and you have the reusable water bottle you filled at the airport to quench your thirst. You might even be able to convince the flight attendant to fill your to-go coffee mug with tea or coffee they normally serve in a single-use cup.

Longer, international flights may pose a greater challenge, however. It would be difficult to pack enough snacks in your carry on bag to sustain you that long without a full meal. If you do plan on eating the provided meal, you could try to pack away anything that is recyclable, like the plastic Tupperware they normally come in, and then clean and recycle it once you reach the next airport.

While at your destination

You’ve made it to your destination and have hopefully avoided any mishaps at baggage claim. Now, here’s how to make sure all of that packing and prepping does not go to waste (pun intended).

Dine-in or use your reusables

Food is arguably the best part about traveling. Trying new, exciting foods or drinks is how you immerse yourself in local culture. If you’re visiting a new place, it’s impossible to predict what kind of tableware or food packaging each restaurant or vendor may have.

The best way to avoid waste is by choosing establishments that allow you to dine in. Sit down, take a load off, converse with your travel buddy and/or staff, and enjoy the atmosphere of a local cafe or restaurant. You’re more likely to create great memories there than you would eating at a McDonalds or Starbucks.

Any leftovers can be stowed in the Tupperware container you packed if you have access to a refrigerator at your accommodation.

If you happen to visit an outdoor market or street vendor that’s impossible to pass up, take advantage of your reusables. You can use your cloth napkin or Tupperware container to hold pastries or drygoods and make sure to ask for drinks to-go in your coffee mug. Those canvas totes will also do you wonders if you plan on grocery shopping while you’re there.

Make thoughtful purchases

It’s tempting to buy a bunch of souvenirs for yourself and for friends and family back home. While it seems like a nice gesture, impulsive purchases will result in a ton of packaging waste and items that will likely be thrown away after a short time.

Making thoughtful purchases will help to avoid that waste and support the local economy. Try swapping figurines and knick-knacks for local art or consumable goods like soaps or food/candy (be sure you can get them back through customs if traveling abroad). Postcards can double as framable art and can easily be recycled.

Carry out your recyclables

Despite all efforts, there may still be a bit of waste produced on your trip. Nothing to be ashamed of, there’s no such thing as zero waste given our world’s current consumer and single-use economy. What you can do with waste you’ve accumulated is make sure it’s properly disposed of or recycled.

While abroad in some countries, you might be hard-pressed to find a place to recycle. Many don’t have the proper infrastructure in place or economy to support recycling. This might mean rinsing and holding on to your recyclables until you get home. You can use your packed ziplock or silicone bags to store these items and to keep them separate from the rest of your things.


Regardless of where you travel, or of how long you plan on being away, you’re now equipped with some easy tips to avoid waste while ultimately lowering your footprint. For what may seem like minor inconveniences, you’ll be playing a part in making sure our earth is protected and your favorite places to visit remain just as beautiful as the first time you saw them.


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