1. Carry to-go containers at all times.

Reusable water bottles

In the US alone, 29 billion water bottles are purchased every year. To create that many bottles, it takes about 17 million barrels of crude oil. Also, since only 23% of these bottled are recycled, the rest:

  • Goes in landfills, taking hundreds of years to break down.
  • Ends up in the oceans where it kills marine wildlife
  • Gets incinerated releasing toxic chemicals into the air

In short, it’s time you get yourself a solid reusable water bottle that you carry with you constantly. You just fill it from the tap and you’re good to go.

If you are going to an area where tap water is not drinkable, here are your options:

  • Get yourself a Lifestraw to use with your reusable water bottle or purchase a Lifestraw refillable water container. The filter contained in the straw removes bacteria and protozoa and makes contaminated water safe to drink.
  • Depending on where you are traveling and because filters may not remove all viruses, purchase iodine tablets that you can use in your reusable bottle before setting off.

Food/hot drinks containers

Say no to foil food containers! Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

I love street food, but I hate to eat it in plastic clam shells, Styrofoam containers, and other disposable packaging, so I bring my own food jar everywhere I go. I purchased a U.Konserve insulated container (also good for hot drinks) with a screw-on lid, so that if I’m not hungry any longer, I can just put the container with the leftovers in my backpack and have them later — you can’t do that with the leaky packaging you get from food trucks/street venders/restaurant/etc.
 

These sustainable options are not only good for when you reach your destination, they also work great for bringing food and water with you on the plane on your way over and back. I personally dislike airplane food (and all its plastic packaging), so I decline it and I make my own or buy something I like at the airport and store it in my container.

2. Make wise clothing choices.

Buying a sari when traveling in India, elephant pants in Thailand, or a fuzzy Chapka while in Russia is tempting, but think twice before making your purchase. Yes, they are cheap and beautiful, but they will weigh you down on your travels and clog your closet at home until you realize you never wear them and decide to give them to the Sally Ann a few years down the road.

Fast and cheap fashion is creating an environmental crisis. According to Grist, “Every year, Americans buy 20 billion new items of clothing and send 10 million tons of clothing to the dump” and none of will decompose — not even the “natural fibers”. Besides, the waste of resources used to create a textile is also devastating. Give the video below for more details about the terrible consequences of our fashion choices.

3. Simplify your toiletry kit.

This will not only get you closer to a zero-waste travel lifestyle, but, if like me, you try to travel only with a carry-on to save money and time, you’ll be happy to never have to think about liquids and gels again.

Trade shower gel and shampoo bottles for bars of soap and shampoo.

They last a lot longer and they can be bought at any healthy food store, package-free. If you buy Dr. Bronner’s castile soap bars, you can use them both for your skin and your hair. I store my soap/shampoo bars in a cloth bath mitt so they dry fast after usage and don’t make the rest of your kit all sticky.

Make your own toothpaste.

Use this super easy 3-ingredient recipe and store it in a glass jar or in a small container with a lid. I’ve been using this toothpaste for months and my teeth are as clean as when I use Sensodyne.

Get yourself a mineral stone deodorant.

One stick lasts around 5 years and can be found in any health food stores, package free.

Ditch the Q-tips.

They are bad for you and an environmental nightmare (like any other single-use item). Just wash your ears with soap and water while having a shower and mop your ears with your towel when you’re done — it works fine and no, it’s not gross.

Invest in a safety razor.

They are a lot sharper than the disposable kind and each blade lasts much longer, saving you money. The blades, being metal, are recyclable, so nothing ends up in the landfills and lathering regular soap replaces shaving cream just fine.

Forget tampons and disposable pads.

I bought a silicon menstrual cup for $40 in January 2011 and I still use it every month. They work very well, are extremely comfortable, and take a lot less space in your bag than boxes of tampons and pads.

Change your moisturizing habits.

Instead of buying 5 or more different moisturizers all in different containers (face cream, night cream, after-shave cream, body lotion, lip balm, etc.), go to the health food store and get some coconut oil in bulk. It is a perfect moisturizer and a little of it goes a very long way, so you can fill a small jar or old plastic container and have enough for weeks.

Dump the Ziploc bags.

Ziploc bags are practical when you carry liquids and gels because they prevent the rest of your stuff from getting wet/sticky in case of a leak, but they don’t last (often they get holes and /or the seal breaks) and they are not recyclable. I would suggest you spend a few dollars on a waterproof toiletry bag — they are super easy to find (your grandma may have one she does not use any longer) and will last for year… if not decades!

4. Visit markets rather than supermarkets.

Photo: Ahnssoni

Contrary to supermarkets, markets are the perfect places for travelers to check out when in a foreign country. You’ll learn about what grows in the area, what the people’s eating habits are, and it’s the ideal spot for you to practise your language skills with the vendors, meet some locals, and try out new stuff.

It’s also the place where you’ll find fresh, healthy food items that are not packaged (as well as street food stalls). All you’ll need is a couple of small cloth bags balled up in your backpack and your reusable food container and you’re good to go!

5. Learn to say no.

Say no to plastic beverage containers and straws! Photo: Atikh Bana

This is the easiest way to start a zero-waste traveling lifestyle and it starts in the airplane.

Although you can’t say no to a luggage tag and a boarding pass (those who own cell phones can), you can easily refuse plenty of overly-packaged items:

Blankets

They are usually wrapped in plastic so I never use them. Instead, I use my thin, but large woolen scarf.

Earbuds

I use my own. The ones offered in the airplane are contained in small individual plastic bags and, after use, the foam part that goes into your ear also gets thrown away

Food trays

As mentioned earlier, I don’t eat airplane foods or drink the beverages offered. Every single item is contained in foil or plastic and the beverages come in single-use Styrofoam or plastic cups, so I’d rather get my own that I keep in my go-to containers.

Care packages

I never touch these. I don’t need a new pair of socks, a lip balm, a new toothbrush, and an eye-mask, especially since they are all — surprise! — wrapped in plastic.

Paper napkins

I have cloth handkerchiefs with me at all time, so I don’t need single-use bleached paper napkins.

Once at your destination, don’t forget to turn dow:

Plastic cutlery

40 billion plastic utensils are used every year in the US and next to zero of them are recycled. I have a reusable cutlery set made of bamboo that I purchased at an outdoor shop. I don’t advise wannabe zero-waste travelers to purchase stainless steel as they may not be able to bring them in the airplane. Another very good option is chopsticks.

Straws

Did you know that every plastic straw ever made still exist today? Also, 500,000,000 straws are used every day in the US, so please, don’t forget to ask your waiter to not bring you a straw with your drink!

6. Don’t bring back gifts

I used to love bringing my family gifts from the places I travel — especially when they were handmade by locals — but I quickly realized that buying a gift just for the sake of bringing back something is a bad idea.

In the same way that you will very likely get rid of the funky clothes acquired during your travels, the gifts you bring back will cost you money, take up space in your pack, and surely end up cluttering the charity shop.

As an alternative, you can send postcards to those you would normally buy gifts for. Everyone loves getting mail and knowing that someone took the time to choose a special card and write it is thoughtful enough. Also, cards are recyclable, so their impact on the environment is lot lower than a fancy scarf or a piece of jewelry.

What I like to do is to bring back food items. I brought back black tea from Russia in a tin that my parents now reuse (and can recycle later), maple butter from Canada in a small glass jar that I now use for my homemade toothpaste, and some gigantic citrus from Corfu that everyone got crazy over and which got composted later on.