Zero Waste Travel Tips

Guest post by Brighde Reed

Zero Waste Travel Tips

Last summer, some friends and I were taking a train back from Inverlochy, Scotland having just finished the West Highland Way -- a 7-day walk through the Scottish Highlands.

We knew there would not be any good vegan food options on the train, so we ran into the local supermarket next to the train station and grabbed a prepared quinoa salad, some potato chips, some blueberries, and some other goodies.

We got on the train, ate our lunch, and then we were left with a mountain of plastic. So much plastic, it would not even fit in the trash can on the train. We were pretty dismayed about this, because we've recently been trying to minimize the amount of waste we produce.

While zero waste is an ideal to shoot for and is probably not completely attainable, we definitely want to live a low waste lifestyle.

Going zero waste was so much easier when we were in a routine at home, but zero waste living was way more difficult when traveling. How could we live a zero waste lifestyle when we were traveling for weeks on end?

As we shared our frustration about zero waste challenges on the road, we got to thinking about what products we might carry with us when traveling to help reduce the waste we create.

Here's what we came up with. Below is a list of items you might like to carry with you on your next adventures so you can cut down on waste.

What to Pack in Your Zero Waste Travel Kit

Zero Waste Travel Accessories

Reusable Water Bottle

how to go zero waste

Carry a reusable water bottle, and sterilize local tap water when necessary.

Okay, this is a no-brainer, and so many people are really getting into the habit of having their water bottle with them. However, getting water in those bottles can often be a challenge.

In countries where the water is potable and easily available, filling up a water bottle should be easy. But perhaps you're reluctant to ask the server to fill up your bottle as you're leaving a café, or you feel a little grossed out about using the water from the bathroom sink. We promise it gets easier with time. Just try it.

Another tip: if you are traveling in a group, then at the start of the trip suggest that you help remind each other before leaving a place that everyone needs to have their water bottle filled up. Or, offer to fill up everyone else’s bottles when you yourself remember to do so.

But what do you do in countries where the water is not potable? There are a few techniques you can use to avoid the scourge of the plastic water bottle.

If you are eating at a restaurant or a hotel, there will usually be drinking water out the back that they will use for food prepr, and also for the staff to drink. We like to keep pictures of the big drinkable water barrels on our phones to show people what we mean when we ask for some.

Using Google Translate will also help you offer to pay some money for the privilege. Sadly, selling bottled water is a source of revenue for a restaurant, so offering to pay a little for a refill will be a kind gesture. Most people will decline your offer. No one in Asia would ever give you non-potable water.

Water Purification Tablets

A really good back up plan if you are stuck and need drinking water is good old-fashioned iodine water purification tablets. These are light, easy to pack and very reasonably priced. 

Fill up your water bottle from the tap (a 1-liter sized water bottle is best for this) and add 1 tablet. Thirty minutes later you have clean water! There is a slight taste to the water, but it is something you get used to pretty quickly, especially when thirsty!

A Steripen

This is a small pen-like electronic device that emits an ultraviolet light and purifies either half a liter or one full liter of water at a time, killing the DNA of harmful microbes and bacteria.

It gets power from a USB port and the charge lasts for weeks! Simply fill up your liter or half liter water bottle (a wide-mouthed one works very well), turn on the Steripen and swirl it inside the water bottle for 90 seconds with that UV light and you have clean water!

Use this in front of people and watch them gasp with disbelief that this can’t possibly work. Then explain that this is the same device that people who are traveling on remote expeditions use to get clean water.

While we have not tried it, we have heard some great things about the Life Straw too!

Reusable Straws

plastic straws - zero waste lifetstyle tips

When traveling with friends, remind each other to say "no straws, please"!

Straws are becoming quite the no-no, and restaurants and bars all over the world are changing their policies regarding plastic straws. However, you do need to be on high alert! Adding straws is still automatic in some places, so you might want to employ some strategies to make sure your drink does not come with a straw:

●          Suggest that everyone in your group says ‘No straws please!’ and ask your travel companions to remind you whenever a drink is ordered.

●          Show the server the reusable straw, so they actually see it.

●          Learn how to say "no straws please" in the local language, or show the phrase written down.

●          Explain why you don’t want a straw. Keep some pictures in your phone to show the possible impacts of straws.

●          If you have a reusable straw, try not to use it (unless you need to for that thick smoothie)! This might sound strange, but if someone cleans away the table and your straw is taken away, it might be hard to get it back. Also, dirty straws are a little annoying to manage.

Drinking Cup

A small lightweight cup is very handy to keep in your zero waste kit when traveling. I happen to have a collapsible silicone cup that is perfect for plane and train rides and picnics.

If you don’t want to use silicone (and I would not buy silicone if I could rewind time), consider an enamel or a lightweight metal cup. Having your own cup is perfect for a long haul flight where they give out so many plastic cups every time you have a meal, or for when you want a glass of wine from the buffet car on a French train.

Insulated To Go Cup

This is really handy if you enjoy warm beverages. This way, you can avoid using cups on the plane, and you can also use your cup to fill up your coffee before you leave the hotel breakfast. These days, the coffee served in hotel rooms is often in plastic-lined cups too.

Tea Towel

This doubles as a tablecloth and a napkin for when you are self-catering or eating in the park. We’re always so pleased we have one with us.

Collapsible Tupperware or Other Zero Waste Travel Containers

reusable containers - zero waste ideas

A drinking cup and food containers can be handy in many situations.

These are fantastic things to have in your zero waste kit. You can use these to buy pre-made salads from the deli counter, take away your leftovers, order takeaway food or carry around your leftover vegan deli or cheese slices.

Some people use a glass mason jar for this purpose, but I find glass containers to be inconvenient when traveling. They are heavy and can break easily. If you want to go totally plastic free, try a stainless steel container.

Ultimately, the material your containers are made of is not so important. Rather, the most important thing is to carry reusable containers so you can avoid single-use plastic packaging.

Produce Bags

These bags are great for when you buy produce, but they are also great for carrying all the components of a picnic. Produce bags are usually very lightweight, so they are easily rinsed out and dry quickly.

Sharp Knife

When self-catering, use this to cut up your vegetables and fruits so that you do not need to buy more heavily- packaged produce that’s already been cut up. This is also good for picnics and making sandwiches. Make sure you check it in when flying.

Utensils

Try to have a set of utensils that are lightweight and are easily accessible. Check your take away food before you leave the counter. Sometimes, some disposable cutlery finds its way in there despite our best efforts.

A Reusable Zero Waste Travel Bag or Two

tote bag - zero waste kit

A tote bag is an essential element of your zero waste travel kit.

A lightweight and compact tote bag is very helpful when traveling. Whether it is for carrying your picnic lunch, taking away your groceries for your self-catering holiday or even to sit on, it’s a very handy thing to have.

A Glove (and Another Reusable Bag)

Let’s keep it real. Despite our best efforts, it can be really hard to be completely zero waste when we are traveling. We all feel passionate about the state of the planet. We are surely going to be generating some plastic, but we can try to make sure that it is properly disposed of if we do create some.

However, there is plenty of plastic out there that is not properly disposed of, and it is making its way down drains and into the waterways. We carry an old tote bag and a gardening glove to go and get this plastic. I try to make it part of my routine to get a bag full of trash in the morning during my walk.

Something that many of us can do when we travel (and frankly, we can also do this when we’re not traveling!) is to spend some time collecting plastic that we might find in the streets, the river bank or on the beach, and make sure it is properly disposed of.

If we can offset the waste we generate with the waste we take out of the system, then we are certainly doing something very positive!

plastic on the beach - how to go zero waste

When we throw things "away", they never really go away.

Zero Waste Travel Toiletries

Bamboo Toothbrush

Bamboo is sustainable, biodegradable and non-toxic, so it makes a great alternative to plastic toothbrushes. Bamboo toothbrushes can even be composted, although you may need to remove the bristles first, as these are often made of nylon.

Bar Soap and/or Shampoo Bar

Bar soap is much easier to travel with than liquid body wash. Ever had that stuff leak inside your luggage? Trust me, it’s not fun! Bars also typically last longer than liquid soap, and you don’t have to worry about getting them through airport security.

You can even get a bar that does double duty as both a shampoo and a body wash. Chop two carrots with one knife, as a zero waste vegan would say.

Menstrual Cup

Ladies, if you’re still using pads or tampons, it’s time to switch to a reusable menstrual cup. Not only are they zero waste, they’re also comfortable and MUCH cheaper than disposable alternatives.

Electronic Tools for the Zero Waste Traveler

Google Translate App

Google translate is really handy when explaining what you want.  Downloading the dictionary for the language of your destination is helpful, so that you can use it even if you are offline. Having a few phrases starred on Google translate or having them on a piece of paper can be useful too.

Photos of the Why

We like to keep some photos on our phones showing pictures of wildlife caught up in plastic. Many vendors are really confused about why you don’t want to take straws. A few pictures on your phone helps them to know why you don’t want the extra plastic.

About the Author

Brighde Reed - author of zero waste travel tips

Brighde Reed

Brighde is the co-founder of World Vegan Travel, a travel company that takes their travelers on unforgettable vegan travel experiences in some spectacular countries, while of course making every effort to minimize waste. Find them on Facebook and Instagram


Brighde is really trying to incorporate more zero waste principles into her life. She is inspired by many people, but especially by her travel partner and amazing friend, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.

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About Wendy Werneth

Intrepid traveler, vegan foodie and animal lover. I uncover vegan treasures all around the world, so you can be vegan anywhere and spread compassion everywhere.

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