10 Practical Tips for Zero Waste Travel

Here are my top practical tips for reducing your waste while traveling abroad or near home. I share these tips after traveling for more than 11 months in the 4 years since I’ve adopted a zero waste lifestyle. I’ve found some aspects of Zero Waste travel to be very easy in certain destinations and quite a challenge at others. Ultimately, it comes down to doing your best and remembering that just like travel, zero waste is a journey.

  1. Be Prepared Many zero wasters will agree that being prepared with your reusables is key to reducing your waste abroad and at home. I could list a one-size-fits-all zero waste kit, but instead, I encourage you to build your own depending on your destination and what you’ll be doing there.
    The reusables I used while traveling in Southeast Asia are different from I what use  in Spain and also different from what I used back home in California.
    Will you be eating at restaurants or buying take out? Will you be drinking out of coconuts or buying take out coffee? Will you stay in an apartment and do your own grocery shopping and cooking, or mostly stay at hotels and eat out? Ask yourself these questions beforehand to figure out what you’ll be needing. Many times we don’t know what our travels will hold and what reusables we’ll need, but thinking about this beforehand will ensure we bring the true essentials. Oh, and don’t forget that a single jar can be used for drinks, leftovers, bulk food, ice cream, and so much more.

    thai coconut
    During my 2016, 8-month South East Asia travels I regularly used a glass straw for inexpensive smoothies and drinking out of coconuts and a stainless steel container and reusable utensils for buying food at the night markets


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    For roadtrips in Baja, Mexico my camping mug and spoon worked great for roadside ice cream. 
  2. Learn as you Go Waste will happen, that’s a fact. When you don’t speak the language and are not very familiar with your surroundings, it’s much more likely to happen. However, instead of feeling down for creating waste, see it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
    If you’re given a straw you weren’t anticipating, next time you’ll be prepared to ask for “no straw”.

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    We had a big language barrier when traveling in rural Laos. After getting an initial straw, we learned to be more animated when ordering a drink without a straw and paying more attention while they were serving our drink.
  3. Be resourceful Is there anything else you can use if you’re caught unprepared without your resuables? If you don’t have a reusable water bottle you can reuse a disposable one, even better if it’s glass. Don’t have a bag for your bananas? Maybe you can use your backpack or jacket. You forgot your jar? How about re purposing the tomato sauce jar you bought for your dinner last night.
  4. Learn about the local recycling options  Search online and talk to the locals to learn about local recycling options. In countries where recycling is non existent, try a little harder to reduce your recyclable waste altogether because it will ultimately all go to the landfill, or even worse, the ocean! To avoid packaging, choose unpackaged fruit instead of packaged snacks and be prepared with your resuables. I’ve actually found composting to be the most difficult aspect of zero waste travel in areas where there’s no organic waste disposal. That’s why I’m so grateful to be currently traveling in Catalunya where there are organic waste disposal bins. You can try your hand at guerrilla composting, although it’s not recommended in the Leave No Trace principals, or see if there are any listings in Share Waste.
    I really enjoyed learning about the local recycling and zero waste efforts in Barcelona.

    We spent 6 weeks in Aragon, Spain where there’s no organic waste disposal. Fortunately, we were able to compost!
  5. Fill up your water bottle, even if you’re not thirsty If refill stations are few and far between, refill when you get the chance. This way you’ll have hassle-free water when you need it later.

    Filling up at a potable water fountain in Horta de San Joan, Spain.
  6. A smile goes a long way The server or shop owner might not understand exactly why you don’t want a straw or don’t want a bag, especially if they’re free, but they’re much more likely to go along with your request if you smile and ask nicely. This also makes it easier for the next person who comes along with the same request.
  7. Health first, always. If you’re unsure of the safety of the tap or fountain water, then go with bottled. Drinking unsafe water to save a plastic bottle could easily get you sick, resulting in a doctor’s visit which will ultimately create more waste than the bottle you were trying to save.  Not flossing to avoid the waste will also result in more waste at your next dentist’s appointment.  The If you’re ever in a situation where you feel your efforts to save waste will make you unhealthy, then don’t do it! Health comes first, always. While traveling plastic free in Asia, the only water bottle Fernando used during the 8 months was when he woke up with a fever and a terrible headache. We both agreed that the hotel room water bottle was a-okay. It turned out he had dengue fever!
  8. Go Small Choose the small neighborhood stores rather than the large supermarket chains. In my experience, it’s easier to use your bags and containers at smaller shops. They’re also more likely to sell imperfect produce and be less wasteful altogether. You’ll also be supporting a small neighborhood business and supporting the local economy.
  9. Bring a water filter If you’re traveling in a country where the tap water isn’t safe to drink, then bringing a water filter might not only save you a lot of plastic bottles, but also a lot of time searching for potable water. There are all sorts of filters out there in every price range. I’d recommend doing your own research for the best fit.
  10. Pack Extra Toiletries This goes especially for longer trips. Although eco-friendly products are becoming more popular all around the world, depending on your destination you might have a hard time replacing your shampoo bar or bamboo toothbrush. If you think you might run out of something hard-to-replace on your trip, then it might be worthy to carry it along. I wish I had packed a box of baking soda for my Spain trip. It’s been hard to come by.
    My stainless steel razor has traveled with me to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and now Spain. Note that the blades are not allowed on the plane!
    shampoo bars
    I ran out of the shampoo bar but I knew I’d be able to find it here in Europe too. This one is from the Zero Waste Path Shop.


    There you have it, my top tips for reducing waste abroad. Zero Waste travel is a bit more of a challenge, but reducing waste is always worth it! Happy Travels and thanks for reading.

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