Zero Waste Traveling Tips

Summer officially begins this month on the 21st, and many of us will be traveling this season. Although vacations are relaxing, traveling itself can be a bit stressful - especially if you’re waste-conscious. As I’ve attempted to go zero waste these past few months, I’ve wondered, “Is it possible to produce zero or very little waste while traveling?” The answer is “yes”, though it does take some planning and gumption. While preparing to leave for a trip halfway around the world in several days, I’ve come up with several steps you can take to help you reduce the amount of waste you and your family produce while abroad.


Step 1: Sit Down & Start Mapping Out Your Schedule


This one is pretty obvious, but we often need a reminder to sit down, think out our schedule, and make a plan. I prefer to write or type out my schedule so I can visually break down what I’ll need.


If you are taking a road trip, how long will you be in the car on the way there and the way back? Where will you be able to make pit stops? Do these stores provide food options that aren’t in a ton of packaging?


If you’re traveling by plane, you also have to consider hours spent in the air as well as potential layovers and what food is available in the airports you’ll pass through. Additionally, you must consider what food and beverages will be served during your flight. Requesting water requires a small plastic cup, and that water will often be poured from a plastic water bottle. Common snacks are those packaged in foil-lined bags that can really only be recycled if you’re a part of a TerraCycle Brigade. Even then, you’d have to carry it with you the whole trip if you’re determined for it not to go to the landfill. Larger meals may come in plastic containers with a thin plastic seal, plus plastic utensils that aren’t recyclable as well as a paper napkin.


On longer or international flights, you may also get a blanket, pillow, headphones, and other items in a sealed plastic bag, as zero-waste pioneer Bea Johnson points out in her Zero Waste Home blog. Make sure to bring your own headphones, and consider getting a neck pillow if you don’t already have one. Do you like complete darkness or silence while sleeping? Bring your own mask and earplugs. Will you be brushing your teeth on the plane? Pack your toothbrush and some toothpaste. Want a blanket but don’t have room for it in your carry-on? Dress in layers for your flight (this also leaves some extra space in your suitcase).


The list goes on, and I’m sure you’re feeling overwhelmed just reading through this. To avoid the stress of creating waste in the moment, the key is to do your research beforehand. Check out what food and other items will be made available to you, and consider how they may be presented (i.e., in plastic wrap).


Step 2: Pack Your Own Food


While there are very few limitations on what food and beverages you can pack for a road trip, bringing your own food on a plane trip can be daunting. Many people seem to get stopped by airport security for carrying something that doesn’t follow the rules. However, it is still possible to bring your own food on the plane with you!


First, read about bringing food and beverages through security on the TSA website, then supplement that with a quick review of their page “Traveling with Food or Gifts”. You may be surprised to find out that you can bring dry, solid foods in plastic containers! This includes wraps, sandwiches, salads, rice bowls, and dry snacks like raisins, pretzels, dates, and granola. Scroll to the bottom of this page to view a slideshow of great meals to cook up for the plane. Dips, sauces, and jams can also be brought along, but only in 100 mL containers.



Many dry snacks that are suitable for both kids and adults are available in bulk right here in Contra Costa. While you can pick up some dry snacks from the bulk bins at Whole Foods and Sprouts in Walnut Creek, one of my favorite places to shop in bulk is the Harvest House in Concord (off of Monument Boulevard across the street from Costco in a little strip mall). As you can see from the picture at right, they have hundreds of options. Great travel snacks include dry cereal, figs, raisins, dry fruit, granola, and more. Many of their options are also organic! Make sure to bring your own bulk bags or jars when filling up for the plane. Just ask the employees to help you get the tare weight of your containers before you fill them up. I like to bring a dry erase marker to record bin numbers on each jar. You can also put some paper tape on jars or bags and use a pencil to mark down the numbers (then you can just erase and rewrite each time you shop!)


Step 3: Lay Out Your “Zero Waste Essentials”


There are a handful of items anyone can bring with them on the plane or on the go (once at their destination) to prevent waste while traveling. Here is what's in my bag, whether it’s on the plane or out and about on vacation:


  • Cloth napkin: for meals and as a handkerchief

  • To-go utensils: a spoon, fork, and knife (there are some sets available that also include chopsticks)

  • Collapsible, reusable bag: in case I need to take food home, buy something unexpectedly, etc.

  • Glass mason jar with air-tight lid: I don’t always bring this with me since it’s bulky (especially on the plane), but if there’s any possibility I’ll be ordering a drink or smoothie where plastic, styrofoam, or paper cups are offered, I bring this along with me

  • Metal straw: for smoothies, etc.

  • Metal mason jar straw lid: to help contain liquid in jar on the go but also enable me to drink from a straw

  • Container for leftover food: I don’t always bring this with me since it’s also bulky like the glass jar, and I usually only order what I can eat; it’s best for buffets and instances where I know I might get a one-use plate


Of course, the glass jar isn’t the best thing to bring on the plane. Instead, I bring an empty reusable water bottle and refill it after I get through security. Additionally, my to-go knife is, in my opinion, too sharp to risk carrying on with me, so I often change it out with a butter knife from my kitchen. As long as it’s a round-edged butter knife, you are permitted to bring it on the plane with you.


If you’re not already carrying these things around with you, I will admit that it takes some getting used to. Readers who consider themselves more masculine may not be interested in carrying around a purse to store these items, so a backpack is also an option. Planning ahead and thinking about what you’ll really use when you go out is also a great way to only bring what you need - this can really help downsize and keep things light.


Step 4: Packing Multi-Purpose Items


Even if you’re not going to throw it away, it’s still wasteful to bring a bunch of things you’re not going to use. Most of the trips I’ve taken in the past, I’ve brought extra clothing items I didn’t end up wearing. I also used to fill my toiletry bag with all the products I felt I needed. A good portion of my bag used to consist of “just in case” items.


Thought it may be difficult to predict exactly what you’ll need or what you’ll realistically be wearing on vacation, you’ll stress less with less stuff. You won’t have to keep track of it, getting ready for the day will be quicker, and you will have some room to bring back a special item or two from your trip. Consider this: does the success of this trip have anything to do with the clothes you wear, or is it more about exploring new places and seeing loved ones?


As you plan your schedule, think about what you’ll be wearing and how much time you’ll have to get ready. Do you really need two jackets? How many times do you think you’ll use soap to bathe? What pieces of clothing can be used for several different outfits?


For clothing, bring a handful of basics, like tanks, tees, pants, and a jacket/sweater. Pack a few other items that can be mixed and match with these basics. I think you’ll be surprised by how many outfits you can get out of very few clothing items. For guidance planning out your travel wardrobe, search “capsule wardrobe” in Google. You’ll find a ton of blogs like this one that help you pare down things you don’t really love and focus on the few items that are versatile and practical for you.


It can be tougher to downsize on personal care items, so think about what products are multi-purpose. Baking soda can be used as an exfoliant and as toothpaste (it’s safe for your enamel, as it’s not overly abrasive). It can be added to a variety of other homemade personal care products such as deodorant, if you really want to reduce your waste and go package-free. Baking soda can be bought in bulk from the Harvest House (mentioned above). Another great item is castile soap. This natural soap is available in liquid and bar form at local health food stores and can be used for washing hands, bathing, cleaning your face, and as shampoo. Coconut oil can be used as a moisturizer, shaving cream, a very light sunscreen, and also as an ingredient in various homemade products, like toothpaste. Check out New Yorker Lauren Singer’s blog Trash is for Tossers for a toothpaste recipe using coconut oil, baking soda, and essential oils.


Step 5: Be Strong, But Don’t Stress Accidental Waste


In a society where trash is a byproduct of most of our public activities, it can be very difficult to stick to your zero waste lifestyle. You will get weird looks, and many people will push for you to take a plastic straw or plastic bag. Of course, the majority of these people are well-intentioned, but you must learn to be confident with your requests and firm in your responses if you want to follow through with your beliefs.


That said, make sure to have fun and enjoy your time away from home. We are humans, and you are bound to produce some trash here and there. Though it feels good to stay strong, don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re going to attempt the steps detailed in this article, you’re already a step ahead.

Did I miss any key tips? Please share your opinions, experiences, and helpful resources in the comments. It’s always helpful to achieve a waste-free lifestyle when you have the support of others!

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