Zero Waste Travel: 11 Tips, Tricks & Hacks For Low Impact Traveling
Zero waste travel isn’t about perfection, but it does take a little bit of sustainably savvy know-how.
As travel ramps up around the globe, we’re heartened to see tourists, sightseers, visitors, globetrotters, backpackers, pilgrims, gadabouts, rovers, explorers, vacationers, vagabonders and [insert any other traveler distinction] are making more conscious choices regarding sustainable, waste free travel.
But people get a little mixed up between sustainable travel and zero waste travel. They aren’t legally defined but there are important differences to be aware of.
Here’s how we distinguish the two.
Sustainable travel is a more general concept where the aim is to reduce the tourism industry’s negative impact on a social, economic, and environmental level.
Zero waste travel is the fine print, or the specific details of how to make sustainable travel come to life.
If you’re asking yourself “How can I travel waste free?”, this list of zero waste travel tips and tricks is for you.
Be sure to (scuba)dive to the end to read about the growing impact the travel industry has and why zero waste travel matters in the fight against climate change.
1. Source Second Hand Travel Gear
Making a list of necessary items for a trip is one of the most exciting parts of travel (or is that just us?).
While buying new, sustainable gear is a solid step, we recommend sourcing second hand first, which is always more environmentally friendly.
In terms of shoes, you can definitely get a new pair so they’ll break into your foot shape, but things like backpacks, clothing, tents, and other camping gear can generally be found at a thrift store near you or an online thrift store.
Craigslist, local Buy/Sell/Swap Facebook groups, and Facebook Marketplace may also help you find exactly what you need at a fraction of the cost.
Reusing is the most important zero waste travel tip to keep in mind throughout all of your adventures (see tip # 10!).
Also keep zero waste travel minimalism principles front of mind too by not packing or procuring more than you need. Start with a small suitcase because the bigger your bag, the more you’ll feel the need to fill it.
2. Consider Your Mode Of Transportation
So much of the waste generated in life and travel (tangible or otherwise) is not seen.
And there is no more insidious form of unseen waste than carbon emissions, the dreaded greenhouse gasses that are quite literally fueling climate change more than paper plane tickets ever could.
When planning your low waste travel experience, keep this in mind as you pick your mode of transportation—not all forms are equally carbon conscious.
While a single-passenger car has more direct CO2 emissions (171g) than either domestic or long-haul flights (133g and 102g, respectively), the “secondary effects of high-altitude, non-CO2 emissions” put flights soaring ahead in overall impact—with added 121g and 92g of emissions.
Far better than driving solo or booking a flight, however, is to go via car-sharing, rail, or coach, each with significantly lower associated emissions.
Book that Eurostar ticket!
If traveling, say, in America, where public transportation options outside major metropolitan areas severely limit your ability to choose more eco friendly travel options, see if you have friends who’d like to combine their road trips with your own.
If you’re renting a car and there are hybrid options at your disposal, opt for those. They’ll not only reduce oil consumption but will consequently save you some major money at the pump.
3. Offsetting Carbon Emissions
No matter how much you try to minimize them, however, carbon emissions are unavoidable—unless you’re going Wild and planning to thru-hike the PCT—so this next zero waste travel hack is a Boeing to be a big one.
Set aside a little from your trip budget tos contribute to carbon offset programs.
These programs fund climate positive initiatives to counteract CO2 generation, such as renewable energy projects, reforestation, or sustainable infrastructure development.
Airlines sometimes work with these programs.For a few dollars, you can add an offset to your flight seamlessly as you checkout.
If you want to go a step further and calculate/offset your own carbon footprint for your entire trip, look at Carbon Footprint, Atmosfair, and CarboTax. There are one-off, monthly, or yearly subscription options available.
There are even tools to help you calculate roughly how many emissions your trip will generate so you can offset accordingly.
4. Digital Transactions
Let technology be your zero waste travel guide.
It’s simpler than ever to avoid paper waste thanks to the devices to which we’re (literally) attached at the hip. Going digital with all transactional receipts is already something we’d all like to do and it’s one of the easiest waste free travel hacks out.
While airplane tickets make for fun souvenirs or scrapbook decorations, if this isn’t a hobby of yours, opt instead for an emailed digital ticket or e-ticket.
One less thing falling out of your backpack as you rush from Terminal A to Terminal F.
This goes for any tickets, from museums to movie theaters. It’ll save time, trees, and trouble with printers (which never work when you need them to).
5. Bring Your Own Snacks
There will be a number of scenarios where you find zero waste travel next to impossible to maintain, but snacks don’t have to be a part of that.
We all know that you have to toss out drinks before going through security at an airport, but as long as your food items don’t contain liquid, you can take them all the way through to the plane.
This is especially important if zero waste vegan travel is non-negotiable, as vegan options may be limited in some locations.
Plus, that saves you money from buying ridiculously overpriced airport food.
Aim to pack items in airtight, reusable containers or else bring protein bars from sustainable food brands. Hang on to the wrappers, because, for brands like GoMacro, you can recycle them via Terracycle once your trip is over.
Just note that perishable items like fruits or cheeses will generally need to be eaten before passing through customs if you’re traveling internationally.
If you’re taking a road trip, however, there are plenty of zero waste travel tips to cut down on the waste associated with food:
- Avoid unhealthy foods at gas stations that typically come with a heap of collateral packaging.
- Make a meal-prep list ahead of time and go to bulk food stores in towns where possible.
- Go for long-lasting foods that don’t necessarily need to be refrigerated—like nuts and dried fruit.
6. Reduce Food Packaging
An extension of minimizing snacking waste is cutting down food packaging, but in a different context.
Tasting local food is one of the best things about travel, but if you’re ordering to-go or have leftovers, it’ll come in styrofoam or plastic, with plastic cutlery, in a plastic bag.
So. Much. Excess.
To ensure food on the run can be consumed in the most earth-friendly way, we suggest these zero waste travel tricks:
- Pack reusable cutlery and a plastic free food storage container for leftovers.
- Bring your own reusable tote.
- Use a handkerchief instead of a single-use paper napkin.
- Carry your own eco friendly water bottle to cut down on single-use plastic bottles. If you’re traveling outside of North America and Europe, consider integrating it with a way to purify water, such as a Lifestraw.
7. Zero Waste Toiletries
Zero waste minimalist travel is a mindset to making sure every item in your pack is essential and ideally multi-purpose.
Toiletries and their associated plastic—especially for travel sized containers that only hold enough liquid for a few uses—can get out of hand quickly as well as take up alot of space and weight.
Eco friendly toiletries aren’t just crucial for zero waste travel, but they can eliminate major TSA checkpoint related headaches.
When picking zero waste travel toiletries, look for either no or compostable packaging or packaging that can be refilled (i.e. aluminum or glass).
Seek out reusable products that are compostable like bamboo toothbrushes and zero waste floss.
8. Laundry Options On The Road
If you’re aiming for truly zero waste minimalist travel, you’ll likely be packing a minimalist wardrobe—which means you may find yourself doing laundry once or twice.
Low waste travel options for laundry are plentiful and will keep you (and your bag) smelling fresh.
While powder and liquid eco-solutions exist, we recommend bringing laundry detergent sheets, pods, bars, or soap nuts if you’re planning on traveling by plane to avoid getting stopped.
But what about if you don’t have access to a washing machine?
One of the best zero waste travel ideas you can implement is to do spot washes on your clothes with a zero waste laundry detergent bar, which leads to less frequent washing (and less microplastic pollution).
9. Rechargeable & Eco Friendly Electronics
Last year, 63 million tons of e-waste made its way to landfill—which is said to be heavier than the entirety of the Great Wall of China!
The best way to make sure your electronics are zero waste for travel?
Always use the tech you already own, buy refurbished if you need additional items, and make sure any relevant items are rechargeable.
Normal batteries are single use and mostly end up as toxic bath salts in a landfill, whereas rechargeable batteries can be used 500-1000 times (depending on voltage and usage).
If you need something to charge your phone, tablet, laptop, smartwatch, sunset lamp, go-pro, drone, and fairy lights in your campervan, portable solar panels are the way to go.
To also limit having multiple, single country adapters (meaning more potential future waste), consider getting an all-in-one convert plug—and don’t forget to use it, or else risk shorting out your devices and having to replace their battery
10. The Five Rs
The five Rs are words to live by if you want to embody zero waste travel minimalism.
These can be implemented into any facet of everyday living—from clothes to food (or even when striving towards a zero waste office)—making them flexible and fun.
Where you can, always refuse waste. This could be the plastic straws in cocktails on a Thai beach or the receipt for your new Moroccan hat.
Be conscious of what makes its way into your bag (or your home), because it becomes your responsibility.
Excess production is a global problem, and the less we consume, the less will be produced. Think minimally when making purchases before and during your zero waste travels.
All products you buy for the road should be bought with the intention of quality and longevity. Use the equipment you have first and get containers you can refill.
When something is no longer fit for its original use, but still has life left to give, this is time to get creative. Tore your t-shirt trekking through the Costa Rican jungle?
Cut it up and make reusable napkins for the road.
This refers to composting all organic waste.
While tricky to achieve when traveling to most parts of the world, certain cities do have municipal composting programs you can utilize. If you’re traveling through rural locations, see if a local community garden or farmer would like your scraps.
In areas where composting is not an option, meal planning is key to avoid food waste and hang on to any compostable packaging until you find a solution, while on the road or at home.
This is always the last action to take because the vast majority of products never see a recycling facility.
If you do need to recycle something, make sure you place it in the correct designated bin (difficult while traveling, we know).
11. Sights Over Souvenirs
What is perhaps the most important of all zero waste travel hacks?
Remember why you’re traveling in the first place.
Hint: It’s likely to see and experience new things rather than stuff your suitcase with (often ingenuine) trinkets that don’t contain the real memories of your trip.
Tours and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are the things you’ll remember and you can cement them by taking photos—which are also nearly waste free in our digital age.
If you do want to buy a couple of souvenirs to bring home for yourself and loved ones, try to make sure they’re practical ones or really thoughtful crafts that will be treasured, not tossed in the next round of spring cleaning.
Also be sure you’re supporting genuine local craftsmen and artisans as opposed to the many impersonating trinket stands. If it says “Made in China” avoid—unless of course you’re in China!
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Why Does Zero Waste Travel Matter?
The United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism For Development.
International travel has exploded in the last few decades. In 1995 there were 527 million international tourist arrivals recorded. In 2016, that number doubled to 1.2 million.
The travel and tourism industry accounted for 10.3% ($7 trillion) of the global GDP in 2019 .
While the travel industry dipped significantly during the global health crisis in 2020, TSA checkpoint tallys show 2022 has already almost rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
But the environmental and socio-economic impact of travel also has consequences:
- Planes are a massive contributor to global carbon emissions, putting out an estimated 920 million tons of carbon each year—and passenger cars are not far behind.
- Plastic pollution makes up 90% of the waste in our oceans today, and many places around the world (like China) are refusing to import waste from other countries which is causing a recycling crisis for countries that don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with it.
- Local destinations, in reality, see very little benefit of the burgeoning tourism industry. As much as 90% of all the money put into the local economy can leak out and make its way back to the major hotel chain headquarters.
There is always hope, and people across the world are passionate and dedicated to fighting for actionable, measurable change.
Travel organizations and businesses are taking more responsibility for their carbon output and developing transparency policies. Eco accommodations are popping up in greater density. Carbon offsetting is now easily accessible.
The list goes on and by 2027, the eco-tourism market is projected to be a $333 billion industry.
The demand for change is increasing and you can help it along by practicing the zero waste philosophy while traveling.
Final Thoughts On How To Travel Zero Waste
Travel is truly the best form of education. It has the potential to create awareness and appreciation for foreign cultures and environments. It can break down prejudices and encourage empathy among fellow humans.
Zero waste travel is the way of the future so that all the beautiful sites we yearn to see will still be around for generations to come.
It’s not about doing it perfectly. It’s about starting and making the effort to do any of the above, imperfectly.
Our purchases—products, accommodations, flights, tours, etc—all make a difference.
We hope this gives you a few ideas on forming your own zero waste traveling habits.
Know a fellow traveler who wants to expand their own horizons, sustainable speaking?
Share this zero waste travel guide with them so they too can join the zero waste journey.