8 Simple Ways to Reduce Waste While Traveling

There is almost nothing more I love than traveling, but I struggle with the fact that my penchant for exploration, namely on far-off continents, comes with an environmental cost. Back in 2013, the New York Times published a story called "Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel"  and after returning from New Zealand, I can relate. Our flight from Seattle to the north island, (with a stopover in Hawaii) was a 14,000+ mile air journey. In carbon emission terms, we expanded our carbon footprint by 1.646 tons of CO2e.

In case you're curious about what a carbon footprint is..... 

Carbon footprint is defined as "the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to, directly and indirectly, support human activities, usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide. (timeforachange.org) " These gases are generated by our everyday actions including transportation, home energy use, diet choices, recycling practices, and waste production. In 2014, the average American's carbon footprint was 16.4 metric tons while the global average was about five tons per person in 2013 (New York Times).


Our first stop upon arriving in New Zealand was Abel Tasman National Park. During our first night of camping, we met No-Waste nomads Hannah and Liam.  The couple had recently left their home in Wellington to travel the south island in search of a new home, and host events along the way to talk about their zero waste lifestyle commitment. 

Even if you don’t have a goal of zero waste, everyone can do small things to reduce their waste footprint.
— Hannah Blumhardt

For three years, Hannah and Liam have been living without a trash can, buying food in bulk to forgo plastic, and creating their own personal care products from scratch. Lacking pretension but not passion, they talked about their concern for the environment, and offered up advice on how to move through the world without creating more waste. 

Our conversation had a strong impact on me and urged me to reflect on the choices I make out of habit and convenience.  As we backpacked our way through the country, I began to take notes of no-waste wins, losses and what we could improve on.

typical breakfast scene // Multi Compact Titanium Cook-set from Snow Peak + Hydro Flask Coffee Mug 

typical breakfast scene // Multi Compact Titanium Cook-set from Snow Peak + Hydro Flask Coffee Mug 

Here is a list of practices that are easy to adopt and can make an impact even if it's a small one. While I don't plan to ever stop traveling completely, I can commit to traveling better and more efficiently. This is just a starting point and I'm interested in learning more about further practice and habits I can implement.  If you have any suggestions, please share them with me in the comments below. 

8 Ways to Reduce Waste While Traveling 

  1. Bring Reusable Bags: Some countries and cities have a ban or fees on plastic bagsbut you can avoid wondering or worrying about it by bringing your own. This may be the most talked about habit to adopt, but it's also probably the easiest. Bags are lightweight, easy to pack, and don't take up much space. They are great for toting groceries, can be used as a beach bag, or as extra luggage on the way home. 
    - BAG IT UP  
  2. Use Bee's Wrap for Food: The natural alternative to plastic wrap for food storage, Bee’s Wrap is washable, reusable and compostable. The wrap is made with organic cotton, beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin, and helps to keep foods fresh. Instead of protecting a sandwich with a plastic bag, or throwing out fruits or veggies because there is no way to properly store them, wrap it all up in Bee's wrap! Wash it with cool water and gentle soap and it's ready to reuse. 
  3. Invest in a Set of Reusable Utensils, Coffee Mug, Water Bottle, etc: Do plastic water bottles irk anyone else as much as they irk me? I understand that water in a lot of countries is not safe to drink, but for developed nations who can drink safely from the tap I don't see the point? My Hydroflask water bottle and coffee mug accompany me on my travels and we use Snowpeak's Compact Cook Set while backpacking/camping.  
  4. Use Public Transportation When Available: This tip really depends on the type of travel you are doing. For example when we were in Europe last year, we relied solely on our feet and the train.  The infrastructure was there and it was simple and cost effective to utilize. In New Zealand, we rented a car because we were driving all the way from the north end to the south end of the island and the train didn't go 90% of our destinations. Wherever you're going, public transportation is worth checking out. It's better for the environment and typically better for your wallet too.
  5. Support Restaurants & Shops With Ethical Practices: There are a number of ways to seek out places that value our environment and the people it sustains. I recommend researching options before you go. Jared and I both really enjoy food so I created a spreadsheet of the places we might want to try out in the town we were visiting.  A short read through the restaurant's website lets me know if they source locally and what their sustainability standards are. Asking for a locals opinion is also a great option once you get to your destination. 
  6. Offset It - When you buy carbon offsets, you pay to take planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in exchange for the greenhouse gases you put in. Some airlines allow you to purchase offsets but it might not be during the booking process (some have separate sustainability pages you need to navigate too).  For example, you can put money toward replanting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I haven't done a ton of research on organizations that are working to offset costs, but below are a few with a larger online presence. 
  7. Learn About Local Recycling - I'm not the only one who has stood in front of a few multi-colored bins wondering how to sort out my rubbish right? The logistics of recycling can be really confusing, but it's our responsibility to figure out the proper bins for our various waste. Since each country or state is different, learn the waste management system before you get there. Even better, try and go for items that are compostable and use your reusable utensils and containers. 

  8. Go Digital - I admit I am very fond of all things print - I love magazines, books and newspapers, especially in other countries.  I've reconciled with this by sharing when I'm done with them - like leaving a read newspaper in a coffee shop for someone else to enjoy. Or giving a finished book to a flight attendant or host if they are interested in it. Otherwise, it's easy enough to keep things digital like flight tickets and entertainment in the form of e-books and podcasts. Oh and one thing I really regret doing is taking a bunch of tourist/visitor information pamphlets. Trust me, you won't want them once you're home!