How to rock zero waste travel in 7 easy steps

Zero waste travel can be difficult. Scratch that – living an average day zero waste can be difficult.

There’s a delicate balance to be struck between being aware of the waste you’re creating but also actually enjoying the trip you’re taking. I like to mitigate most of my worries by planning ahead. Traveling zero waste with a plan is an important way to reduce the waste you create while in an unfamiliar place.

I love this quote by Celia of Litterless:

…there are things I can easily do to stay zero waste while traveling. There are things, too, that I can’t easily do. The less guilt I feel over supposed failures, the more energy and motivation I have to keep doing zero waste long-term. And that, friends, is my goal, not reaching perfection on any given trip.

So think carefully about how you’re going to accomplish zero waste travel before you go, but don’t sweat the small stuff once you get there. Here are the seven easy steps to think about before you go:

1. decide how to travel

Our choice was purely motivated by price. It’ll be far cheaper to drive our very fuel efficient car than to fly or take slow, expensive buses. (I mean, the real answer is to not undertake any hobby travel at all, but… no.)

If you’d like to read a really interest, deep look into air vs. car travel, read this long but worthwhile article. After back-and-forth over whether numbers are being interpreted correctly, I felt a bit better reading this:

“If you are driving alone in a vehicle that gets 40 mpg or less – somewhat close to Professor Sivak’s average car trip in the U.S. including commuting, shopping, etc. – flying may be more efficient,” Rutherford and Kwan note. “If you have one or more additional passengers, driving is typically more efficient unless you are in a large vehicle.”

Our car hits over 40MPG on the highway and we’ll be traveling together. Whether or not there was ever really the option of flying, it seems as if driving may actually be the slightly better option.

In fact, a lot of times cars are the better option as long as you have more passengers: “A 1000 km trip alone in a big car could emit as much as 250 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), the researchers calculate, while a train trip or carpooling in a small car could emit as little as 50 kg of CO2 for each traveler” (source). So there’s hope for us drivers yet, assuming we can get a group road trip going!

Buses, trains, and other forms of public transport are an excellent option as well, particularly if you live in a country more civilized than the USA. I miss the days of living in Russia where public transit between cities was widely available and cheap. Up your game, States.


Zero waste travel - zero waste kit

2. edit your zero waste kit

As always, I’ll bring along a couple of items that will help me remain mostly waste-free while out of the house. You can see my full zero waste kit here, but I typically pick and choose based on needs and don’t necessarily bring all of it. For a longer trip away from home, my zero waste kit consists of:

  1. hot/cold water bottle
  2. Stojo collapsible mug
  3. bamboo utensils
  4. a large napkin
  5. plastic take-out container
  6. a few reusable bags

Since we’ll be eating out at least a few times, I’m planning to focus on food waste and eating out for my kit. A (light) container for takeout and a small mug is really all I want to be dragging around with me as we wander through an unknown city!

(And no, I didn’t immediately toss out all of my plastic items when going zero waste! I keep them and reuse them until they’re done!)

3. plan your menu

Food-wise I usually bring a few dry snacks (crackers, trail mix, pretzels, etc.), a dip that won’t spill too much (something thick like hummus or guacamole), and fruit that won’t bruise too easily.

Since we’ll be driving and staying in an AirBnb (kitchen access!) we’ll definitely be packing more food than we would otherwise. More snacks and possible even a few bulk items like rice and oatmeal we can cook up easily to avoid eating out every meal. (Toronto’s cheap, comparatively, but still…)

Think carefully about your storage containers:

  • if you need something light, reusable cloth bags, tupperware, or Stasher Bags. If you’ll be traveling carry-on only or bringing these items onto a plane, choose something light and flexible. I now use the Stasher Bags personally, and also got some to hand out with my homelessness kits and they seem very durable and incredibly useful. They may be a good idea if you have the money for an initial investment.
  • if you have more flexibility, glass jars or stainless steel tiffins. This is what we’ll bring, since we have a car. I find sturdy containers much easier to work with, so that’s my personal preference. I usually just bring a scarf and wrap the jars in it while transporting them. No casualties so far.


Zero waste travel - travel capsule wardrobe
Second-hand Flax items from eBay, a scarf, black jeans, and my Everlane cashmere sweater.
4. create your travel capsule wardrobe

Go in with the thought that at least 90% of people traveling over-pack. I went through Central America for 3 months with only an 18-liter bag* and I still packed items I didn’t use.

*A typical Jansport is 25L, so it’s tiny.

Less is more. (And go ahead and extrapolate that to your closet IRL while you’re at it. More on creating a sustainable capsule wardrobe here.)

General tips for clothing:
  • don’t buy something new for the trip. Very rarely are we undertaking expeditions that require specialized clothing, no matter how much brands want us to believe. 9 times out of 10 you’ll already have something you need. These specialized items can also be difficult to source second-hand, meaning you’ll likely purchase new. For the issues around buying new products – even from sustainable fashion brands – check out these startling statistics.
  • choose items that don’t need frequent washing. Rather than carry around your own low-waste detergent, simply forgo washing clothes on shorter trips. Natural fiber fabrics can be aired out for second or third use except in the sweatiest of situations!
  • choose quick-drying options. If you do travel long enough to need to wash your clothes, make sure your items dry quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stuff a heavy shirt – still wet – into my backpack as I traveled through Armenia. Terrible. Make sure you’ll be able to wash your clothes easily without a washer or dryer.
  • bring complimentary items. Make sure all of your items work well together, and you have several layering options. You never know when you’ll walk into a freezing cold restaurant or a sweltering hotel room. Make sure your cardigan goes with everything, and not just one specific outfit.
  • Dress for the trip you’re taking. In terms of shoes and formal wear, bring only what actually makes sense. Don’t throw those heels and dress in just in case if you know you won’t be doing anything that requires looking nice.


5. pick & choose your toiletries

This is where I tend to wildly over-pack for some reason. Despite being a pretty lazy person in general, I somehow believe that when I travel I’m going to be inclined to take care of myself. Not true. Again, ruthlessly edit your packing; I guarantee you won’t need as much as you think.

  • Showering: I’ll be taking the Seed Phytonutrients shampoo and conditioner in empty essential oil bottles. Honestly, if it weren’t for the long car ride, I would hedge my bets and not bring any at all. Traveling, though, tends to make me feel gross and outweigh my once or twice weekly hair washing habits. I’ll also toss in bar soap.
  • Makeup: I’ll be bringing just a few items in my million-year-old makeup bag. A not zero-waste but lovely mascara by DabHerbMakeup, a gel eyeliner in a glass container (the label came off and I can’t remember the company!) with a brush, and a lipstick. I’ll be bringing a small glass of jojobal oil for makeup remove and moisturizing. Want to read my full zero waste makeup post? Check it out!
  • Teeth: I’ll be bringing a tooth powder I made from Going Zero Waste’s recipe, Dental Lace floss, and The Green Root’s toothbrush.
6. figure out what you want to do!

I’m not a huge planner when I travel. (See: buying a one-way ticket to Central America with the idea of ‘travel’ and a month-long visit to Armenia with the itinerary to ‘meet people and drive around’.)

Still, I like to have a few ideas of what I want to do before I go. Generally I’ll create a long list of ideas with a note-taking app on my phone (I use Bear). The items are either organized by theme or, more likely, by location so I can hit up spots in roughly the same area.

If you’re feeling really wild, you can create your own points of interest map using Google. Just go to Google Maps, click ‘My Places’ in the sidebar, toggle over to ‘Maps’, and click create map. You’ll have your own private map where you can add the places you want to visit. You can also share it with whoever you’re going with and make it available offline so you don’t need wifi to access it!


Zero Waste Road Trip

7. buy post-trip carbon offsets

You’ve all heard of carbon footprints, right? Basically, the idea that all the stuff we use/consume that’s made with fossil fuels has a certain carbon emission associated with it. The total of all those things is your carbon footprint.

To cancel out the negative effects of carbon emission, individuals and businesses can purchase carbon offsets. An organization calculates the cost of your carbon emission and you pay the monetary equivalent.

Read my whole post about carbon offsets here, but essentially you can back eco-projects to offset the carbon you emitted during travels. (The cost is shockingly low, too, so why not offset your whole month while you’re at it?)

Don’t let zero waste perfection get in the way of enjoying your trips,  but do keep it in the back of your mind as best you can. What zero waste travel tips can you offer for enjoying a trip and living your values?

There's a delicate balance to be struck between being aware of the waste you're creating but also actually enjoying the trip you're taking. I like to mitigate most of my worries by planning ahead. Traveling zero waste with a plan is an important way to reduce the waste you create while in an unfamiliar place. #zerowaste


  • Thanks for sharing! My thoughts too: No we shouldn’t stop to travel! Even if we fly sometimes. If it is good for your soul and mind it is important to travel. And it made me actually quit plastics because plastic pollution slammed into my face while traveling. But we can make less footprints while we travel!! And since trash is a huge problem all over the world, let’s start with that 🙂

Polly Barks Green Indy

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