Waste Free Travel

How I found Niagra Falls when I visited on the Canadian side in 2014.

This post was originally published at Inspired By Maps and has been edited for this blog.

One of the first things I noticed when traveling, especially in urban areas, is that traveling results in so much ‘stuff’. Traveling often accumulates a lot of waste; single use plastics, stickers, tickets, receipts, individual use products and so on. Here we are trying to carry everything we own on our backs or in our suitcases and yet we are constantly amassing items we don’t necessarily want or need. Most of these items are used once and then tossed ‘away.’ But there is no away. Away usually means being buried in a landfill where it will last forever, contaminating the environment around it. Or it ends up in the ocean, where it will (again) last forever or eventually over hundreds of years break down to small micro plastics. Travelers often end up inadvertently trashing the very place they came to see.

A sign advising visitor’s to not throw items in to Morning Glory Pool at Yellowstone National Park, USA

The best option is to avoid this waste altogether, to avoid having to throw it ‘away’ or carry it around in your backpack. While some of these things are a lot harder to avoid as they are necessary, other single use plastics can very easily be avoided with a bit of preparation.

The easiest way to reduce your waste is to refuse.

Say no to unnecessary single use plastic such as straws and plastic bags. This can easily be done by being prepared.

Essential items to reduce your waste:


  • Reusable water bottle: Refilling your own reusable water bottle will save on copious single use plastic bottles as well as money. Some countries are harder to find refill stations than others, if you do need to purchase water buy larger quantities rather than single sizes.
  • Glass jar/reusable coffee cup/thermos: Use reusable cup or jar to buy takeaway drinks in such as coffee or juice. Useful to refill at water stations, purchase snacks straight in to and store food as well as any other bits and bobs.  
  • BYO utensils: By having your own reusable utensil set you can easily refuse single use plastic. Just be careful if you plan on taking you metal knife through carry on! Bamboo or hardy reusable plastic cutlery works too.
  • Cloth napkin (hankies): Cloth napkins may seem like a strange item, but they are life savours for sticky situations. This is the travel sized version of the towel in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.  Single use paper napkins are made from trees and use a lot of energy to make for one use. Cloth napkins can be used to purchase snacks in directly, such as baked goods or sandwiches. They are also great for when you accidentally leave the lid open on your water bottle…
  • Mesh or cloth bag: These are great for purchasing fruit, veggies and snacks in, as well as carrying and sorting items. You can easily use a cloth napkin instead if you don’t have any bags.
  • Reusable shopping bag: A small reusable shopping bag that folds away will save you having to resort to plastic bags. These bags are always handy when traveling for carrying extra stuff or sorting packing.
  • Menstrual cup: If you menstruate I would highly recommend getting a menstrual cup, these things are the best travel companions. This reusable cup will save you having to worry about tampons; you will never run out again and never be in an awkward situation where you have nowhere to dispose of your items. 
  • Soap & shampoo bars: Instead of buying liquid soaps and shampoos in plastic bottles or using the single sized ones at hotels bring your own bars. Bar soap is easier to travel with (I am speaking from a massive liquid soap leak experience here!) and last longer. Better yet, get a soap that doubles as both a shampoo and body wash.

Don’t panic; you don’t need to run out and buy all the new fancy ‘zero waste items,’ if you are in to camping then you likely own a reusable cutlery set or picnic set. Use what you have, reuse an old jam jar instead of a branded mason jar with a handle. If your jam jar doesn’t have a handle just use an old sock or a napkin to stop your fingers burning from hot drinks. I already owned a lot of these items and most can easily be found in second hand shops too.

Travel lightly

I know this seems like an oxymoron, after I just said to be prepared, but a lot of the above items are light weight and have multiple uses (except for the menstrual cup!). Travelling light is advantageous because you have less stuff to lug around making you more mobile. You don’t have to check in your luggage and therefore can avoid bag tags at the airport and waiting around for your gear. By travelling with less you pack with intention and multi-purposely, that’s less time packing and more time adventuring. Having less stuff means there are less things to worry about forgetting every time you repack.

Traveling is about experiences.

When traveling eat in when you can, this way you avoid nasty single use plastic/Styrofoam and have time to enjoy the experience and observe your surroundings.

A souvenir shop selling only magnets

Don’t buy tacky souvenirs; most of these are made in another country and end up collecting dust years later. Spend your money on experiences or buy from local handicraft shops, this way you give back to the local economy.

If you are really dedicated to refusing all unnecessary waste:

  • Plane Food: If you have the option, choose the no meal option before your flight and pack your own snacks (make sure you eat everything before clearing customs). If you are eating on the plane eat the whole meal, even food that is not opened still gets thrown out. You can refuse the plastic cutlery and use your own (do not try take metal knives on board though).
  • Compost: See if you can find compost/food scrap collection points along the way of your travels to compost all of your food scraps. Contrary to popular belief, food scraps do not happily break down in landfill like they do in compost heaps. Due to the anaerobic environment in landfills the scraps break down slowly while releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Use a bamboo toothbrush: Instead of using a plastic toothbrush switch to a compostable bamboo toothbrush. Make sure you remove the bristles before composting, these are usually nylon.

Is it possible to travel ‘sustainably?’

While most of us love traveling and experiencing new adventures, it can be hard to keep a clean conscious when you consider yourself to be an environmentalist. You may have heard of carbon miles, which is the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions your chosen mode of transport emits in to the atmosphere, thus contributing to greenhouse gases. I have seen many environmentalists having to explain themselves on their social media accounts, that ‘sorry, I know flying is bad for the environment and all, but unfortunately it’s my only option.’ Living in New Zealand makes avoiding planes very difficult when it comes to leaving the country. Fortunately many airlines now offer an option to offset your journey by charging a price to pay for the equivalent number of trees to the carbon miles produced from your journey. In some cases where the option to drive is available flying is the more efficient option due to the high number of passengers over the distance. Reducing your rubbish consumption can be a bit easier than minimising your carbon miles. There is a whole support network out there of people living zero waste (ZW), use their knowledge! From my experience many of ZW community are happy to meet like-minded people and help them out. Make use of the Bulk App (an app that shows you were local bulk food stores are) and the Zero Waste Bloggers Network. Traveling provides many opportunities and experiences that we wouldn’t necessarily get to experience at home, it can sometimes takes us out of our comfort zone. When traveling it is about accepting what you are in control of, and understanding the part you are playing on the environment both locally and globally.

Inspired? Follow these great bloggers;

Rob Greenfield: He recently traveled USA in the most sustainable fashion possible, and no money.

Zero Waste Home: Bea Johnson is the woman behind the movement, author of the blog and book Zero Waste Home. Bea does a fair bit of traveling to spread the zero waste movement.

Girl For A Clean World: Monica blogs about her plastic free sustainable travels around South East Asia.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *