Reducing Waste While You Travel

Last year, shortly after conducting my two-week zero-waste experiment, I packed up and prepared to go to Burning Man for the first time. This massive social experiment in art and community takes place a world away in Nevada, so I would be flying down to Reno, preparing there, and then driving into the desert, where I would (hopefully) be surviving for nine days.

The contrast between my zero-waste experiment and my Burning Man prep straight afterwards was stark, to say the least. With only two days to prepare, my brother and I were a whirlwind of activity as we tore through Reno. There was no time for preparing meals beforehand (in what, anyway, our hotel room kettle?). Instead, there was pre-packaged hummus, rolls of paper towel, bottles of Gatorade, individually wrapped granola bars, plastic bags to pack out our garbage, baby wipes.

This was a far cry from the lack of waste I’d just spent two weeks producing. I looked at all of the packaging in our trunk, frowned, and said, “Eric, we’re going to hell.”

While my burn was a somewhat extreme example of wastefulness on a trip, travelling can make zero-waste living more difficult. If you like to travel light (as I do), bringing along a travel mug, reusable water bottle, your own takeout container, and cutlery can feel like an unnecessary hindrance. Trying to mime what you want when you don’t speak the language can feel embarrassing.

But here are a few things that can make zero-waste travel a bit easier:

All-in-one coffee cup/water bottle

Bring a sealable cup that can double as both a water bottle and coffee mug. My Contigo water bottle would get nasty quickly if I put anything but water through it, while one of my go-to travel mugs back in Toronto doesn’t actually seal. Instead, replace both on your travels with an all-in-one like this:


Cloth napkin

Use a simple cloth napkin to tie up things like pastries, sandwiches, or fruit on the go. And — surprise! — you can actually use it as a napkin and handkerchief as well, rather than using disposable versions.


Collapsible tote bag

Stuff a reusable, collapsible bag in your purse or backpack for on-the-go purchases.


Bamboo utensils

Especially if you’re probably going to be grabbing food to go frequently, rather than sitting down in restaurants, you’ll want to bring reusable utensils. Buy a bamboo spork or bring along a bamboo fork/knife/spoon trio.


Refuse all the Cute Little Evil Shit™

Refuse all those cute little toiletries in your hotel bathroom by bringing your own supplies, and follow any hotel guidance that lets it do less laundry. Sometimes that means simply keeping the “do not disturb” sign on your door and making your own damn bed like the big girl you are.

If you use solid shampoo, conditioner, and soap, bring them along in metal tins. If you don’t, use refillable travel containers in order to bring some of your bulk liquid toiletries with you, rather than purchasing pint-sized disposable versions.


Explain what you’re doing!

This isn’t travel-specific, really, but if people give you confused looks or insist on giving you packaging, simply let them know that you’re trying to create less garbage. You might not be able to cut all of the waste out of your travel, but if you stay mindful of what you’re using and refusing, you can drastically cut back on the amount of waste you create.

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