Travel

Having a zero-waste holiday is easier than you think

It’s a misconception that living the sustainable life is hard when you’re away. With a little bit of preparation and thought, having a zero-waste getaway is not only possible, but simple. Here’s how. 

The Boy Scout motto and the zero-waste motto are one in the same: “Be prepared!” 

But it can be difficult to be prepared when you have no idea where the open road will take you. I am not the kind of person to plan out every single step of a vacation. I like to see where the vacation takes me.

I want to prevent waste, but I also don’t want to carry a whole bunch of stuff with me “just in case,” because that could get really heavy. What follows is a list of what my husband Justin and I pack in our suitcases – depending on the day or what we’re doing we might take some of it with us or just leave it in the hotel room. 

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What to put in your zero-waste travel kit

Two Insulated Water Bottles

We always have insulated water bottles on us, so we never have to worry about getting thirsty and needing to buy a plastic one. Since they’re insulated, we can also grab a hot coffee if we’re in a rush, but typically on vacation, we sip it in the café and enjoy our time together. Depending on our plans for the day, we might only bring one and share. Neither of us likes to be bogged down with a lot of stuff when we travel.

Eco friendly water bottles and coffee cups
Go plastic free with an insulated water bottle

Four Cloth Napkins

I tend to pack two cloth napkins for each of us. They’re small and take up very little room. They’re also super handy to have around. A cloth napkin is great for drying your hands in a public restroom, blowing your nose, or tying up on-the-go treats like donuts or pastries. Just not in that order …

The only downside is that if a cloth napkin gets too soiled, it’s not super convenient to wash it. You can always use the hotel sink, though; just make sure you have time for it to dry.

Two Bamboo Cutlery Sets

Justin and I each have a bamboo cutlery set. We don’t use them too often, but it’s nice to throw in your bag if you think you’re going to encounter plastic silverware. Using bamboo won’t alert TSA if you’re flying, and they’re light enough to not make too much of a difference to the weight of your luggage.

Two Tiffins

Justin and I each have a tiffin. I find traveling with two tiffins makes life much easier. I have a nesting set of tiffins that’s very convenient to travel with. When we’re travelling, we don’t always have time to prep food beforehavnd. If we each have our own tiffin, we can get sandwiches or donuts placed in our own containers. When we went on our honeymoon, we got sandwiches to go in our tiffins at the airport, so we didn’t have to rely on packaged snacks. However, we tend to only carry one tiffin with us, for leftovers at restaurants or snacks when we arrive at our destination.

Woman on holiday
Have you tried having a zero-waste holiday? It’s easier than you think.

One Reusable Bag

I typically only bring one reusable bag that folds up really small. We don’t shop much on vacation, but I carry it just in case. I might throw in some reusable produce bags if I know we’ll be staying for a while and cooking meals in a kitchen.

Dish Soap

Make sure to bring a small bottle of dish soap. This way you can wash your reusable containers in the hotel. I like to travel with Dr. Bronner’s because it can be used for everything! Need to wash some socks or soiled napkins? Dr. B. Need to wash your body? Dr. B. Need to wash your dishes? Dr. B. It’s a great multi-tasking item to bring.

How to go zero-waste at the airport

Flying and zero-waste in the same sentence is kind of an oxymoron. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take strides to make it less wasteful. Several airlines are working to cut emissions by using biofuels. In fact, the Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered air- craft, successfully flew from Nagoya, Japan to Hawaii in April of 2016.

Changes are happening, but they’re happening slowly. For now, we should try to limit our emissions and reduce the amount we fly, because telling people to stop traveling or visiting their family is just not viable. Traveling and getting outside of your normal routine is really important for developing a well-rounded personality. It’s important to experience other cultures to grow your worldview. Instead of skipping travel, let’s focus on doing it less and traveling better. 

worst uk airport delays
Sometimes not even the world on your phone can alleviate airport boredom

Travel Less

Opt for fewer trips for longer periods of time instead of frequent shorter trips. Depending on the distance and the number of people traveling, you may create fewer emissions if you drive.

Five-Hour Rule: The sweet spot for flying while considering how to lower your emissions expense is around four to five hours. Emissions increase on longer flights due to the weight of the additional fuel the plane must carry. On shorter flights, a higher proportion of the fuel is used taking off and taxiing.

Sit In Economy

Flying in business class results in three times more emissions per person.

An Empty Water Bottle

Empty is the very key word here. DO NOT bring a bottle full of water through security. You will get stopped. You will be unable to pour your water down a drain. You will have to choose between chugging it or throwing the water in a trash can.

Sticking to your zero-waste principles, you’ll obviously have to chug it. Then you’ll have to go through security again. Worst- case scenario, TSA will tease you. You will be late for your flight. This will result in a middle seat, and you will have to pee the whole way.

All of this can be avoided if you just bring an empty water bottle. After you’re through security, you can fill your empty water. After you’re through security, you can fill your empty water bottle. There should be water fountains by the bathrooms. If not, just pop into a café and they can fill it up at their soda fountain.  

Be smart and pack well

Bring a Snack or Three

You can bring your own food to an airport. I don’t know what is it about flying, but it makes me hungry. I can go three hours without a snack on a normal day. But, for some reason, when I’m on a plane, I need my snacks. 

So, pack your own snack based on the amount time you’ll be gone and your hunger level. I bring a small mason jar full of dried blueberries and nuts. I keep the blueberries and nuts in separate mason jars, in case someone on my flight has a nut allergy (passengers with serious allergies will often alert the flight crew who will make an announcement to alert the other passengers). I wouldn’t want to put anyone in danger.

Quart-Sized Liquid Bags

You can buy an approved reusable, quart-sized, clear bag with a zipper. They’re sold online and in most stores with a pharmacy section. They typically come with three or four three-ounce bottles. Fill these with the products you already have. No need to buy travel-sized bottles! I have had my approved bag-and- bottle set since I was in high school. If you take good care of it, it should last you for many years to come.

Entertainment

I try to hit the library to grab a new book before I go on a trip. Checking a book out from the library is a great way to utilize the sharing economy. Most libraries have digital collections, too, so you can check out e-books and load them onto your phone or e-reader. 

Buying Carbon Offsets

We can’t talk about traveling without mentioning carbon offsets. You can purchase carbon offsets online to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that you make during travel, heating your home, driving your car, flying in a plane, etc. Offsets are a great way to go the extra mile. There are several organizations that offer carbon offsetting. For a small fee, they will plant trees, create sustainable-waste management plants, and install clean energy in developing countries. I recommend you calculate your carbon footprint yearly and buy offsets accordingly.

My carbon footprint last year was around 6,000 pounds. I calculate this with footprintcalculator.org and then offset my foot-print with terrapass.com or plant trees through the Forest Service Plant- A-Tree Program. My yearly offset cost was less than $40, so this is a fairly inexpensive option. 

How to have a zero-waste vacation on the ground

We’ve talked a lot about flying, but what about other aspects of vacations, like where to stay and what to do? 

Beach or pool? Pool or beach?

Hotels are surprisingly high in carbon emissions. They’re responsible for 60 million tons each year! Now, I’m not saying you should never stay in another hotel again, but I am suggesting that you think a little bit outside of the box.

Eco-hotels are becoming more and more popular. There are several certifications you can look for when researching hotels to help you make a good decision. The most popular certifications to look for are EarthCheck, Green Globe, and Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certificate. If you’re in the US, you can also check on whether or not your potential hotel is a LEED building or take a look at its Energy Star Rating. There are many other certifications depending on what part of the world you live in, but some of the things you might look for include:

  • Energy reduction
  • Land stewardship
  • Composting
  • Solar panels
  • Supporting the local community
  • Giving back
  • Conservation education
  • Building materials
  • Bike share 
travel irregular periods


Ecotourism has been on the rise in recent years. A lot of areas aren’t prepared to receive an influx of tourism, which can threaten local ecosystems and cultures.. Ecotourism is focused on creating a positive impact. Its aim is to sustain the livelihood of and conserve the environment. If you visit Belize, you can go to a Community Baboon Sanctuary where citizens have preserved their land to support the endangered monkey. Your tourist dollars go to supporting not only an endangered species but also healthy forests and the ability of locals to more easily look after the land. 

Some other ecotourism ideas include a trip to help remove non-native plant species, or to volunteer at a local farm to learn about the local climate. You can also always visit a homestead, or pitch a tent and go off grid.

101 Ways To Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg (Countryman Press, £9.99) is out now. 

Images: Unsplash

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