“Zero waste travel? That sounds … joyless,” my friend teases as we pick at a pile of nachos.
“It really does, doesn’t it?” I laugh. When I first started thinking about my carbon footprint and how much waste I produce while traveling I pictured myself eating lentils out of a mason jar, while waiting for the subway.
Not relaxing, not lovely, not very, uh, vacation-y.
But as I started to tweak and test and I discovered that – counter-intuitive and unlikely as it sounds – I actually enjoyed my trips more when I did these things.
I got through security at the airport faster, I had more conversations with locals + more picnics in the park, and I was less likely to spill coffee or leftovers all over my bag. (A surprisingly and frustratingly common occurrence.)
9 Zero Waste Travel Tips That Won’t Suck The Joy Out Of Your Trip
A giant asterisk: None of us are perfect and most things we do have SOME impact on the environment. I don’t want your trip to be a hard, boring slog of eating sandwiches while walking in the rain and denying yourself any joy or convenience.
Try one or two of these things! Do what’s easiest for you. And if you try something and it sucks the joy right out of your trip, don’t do it again. Try something else. Eat the fish and spit out the bones. (Ya know, like metaphorically.)
1. Experiment with road tripping + train travel
If you’re traveling for the sake of traveling (like, an ‘I just need to get out of a town’ vacation), consider a destination you can reach in some manner that doesn’t involve a plane. I was horrified to learn that taking one round-trip flight between New York and California generates about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that a car emits over an entire year.
I’m not suggesting we give up flying completely – that’s simply not an option for a lot of people. But when we’re thinking about travel in general (rather than a trip to a specific place, for a specific reason), what if we at least considered a road trip? What if we at least opened the Amtrak tab and scrolled around for five minutes?
As a side note, I like road trips a million times better than air travel. I like being able to pull over whenever I want, explore anything I see, and take the scenic route.
Also: road trips down require me to take off my shoes, belt, scarf, and jewelry while a stranger pats me down.
2. Take a longer vacation
In case you needed it: here’ s your official permission to make your vacation longer. If we’re going to use up all that jet fuel getting some place, we might as well make it worth our while!
So tack some extra days onto that business trip or really, actually use all your vacation days this year. 52% of Americans don’t use all their vacation time! If you’ve got paid vacation time, uuuuuuuse iiiiiiiit. Taking time off literally makes you a better worker!
3. Book the direct flight
Jets burn the most fuel during take off, so here’s your excuse to buy the direct flight – one fewer flight > one fewer take-off > fewer emissions.
Also, you might want to stick with coach. Because there are more seats in coach, that means more people per tank of fuel, which means a smaller environmental impact. In fact, the emissions associated with flying business class are three times (!!!) that of flying coach. (Don’t worry, you can still get that exit row upgrade in coach!)
If you’d like to buy carbon offsets you can, but most airlines now have them baked into your flight cost! If you want to buy them anyway, you can do that here.
4. Skip baggage claim
Packing carry-on only means lighter luggage, which means better gas mileage for your road trip and an easier take off for that jet you’re on.
Also, let’s be real. Trundling down the baggage claim and waiting for 15 minutes isn’t fun.
Here’s how I packed in a carry-on for a six-week, multi-country, multi-climate trip. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I promise!
5. See the city on bike, foot, or bus
Some of my favorite travel memories involve public transport in other countries – watching people climb on top of the buses in southern Nepal, sharing snacks with my train-car mates in India, making conversation in my terrible Spanish on the bus in Costa Rica.
Public transport gives you insights into ‘real life’ at your travel destination. It also happens to be cheaper and better for the environment than taking taxis everywhere.
Most major western cities have bike sharing programs and it wouldn’t be a visit to the Netherlands if you didn’t take part in their bike culture.
And, of course, walking creates zero emissions, is good exercise, and allows you to explore a city slowly enough that you discover hidden gems. When I was in Costa Rica a few weeks ago, my friend and I stumbled across this cemetery as we were poking around San Jose. It’s one of my favorite memories of the whole trip!
6. Stay in an Airbnb or a vacation rental
Airbnb and vacation rentals aren’t perfect – nothing is. But from an environmental impact standpoint, they’re a jillion times better than hotels. Think of all those empty hotel rooms being heated and cooled, those hallways with the lights on all night, and the constant washing of sheets and towels, often after one use.
Besides, you get more for your tourism dollar in a vacation rental, it’s easier to stay in a ‘real’ neighborhood, and you often have a kitchen so you can make a few meals in-house and save $$$. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s $40 towards your first booking!
7. Try a new restaurant
Bad news: milk, cheese, and meat aren’t particularly great for the planet. Good news: your trip can be an opportunity to try an amazing vegetarian or vegan restaurant in your destination city!
This site will help you find vegan and vegetarian restaurants in any zip code. Or just use this trip as an excuse to eat more avocados, more peanut butter, and more bread than ever!
8. BYO… most things
We can dramatically reduce the amount of waste we create while traveling with a tiiiny bit of planning. We can bring our travel coffee mugs and water bottles, a set of silverware, a tiffin for restaurant leftover or impromptu picnics, and a reusable bag.
And if you’re thinking, “That sure seems like an annoying hassle, Sarah,” I get it!
You know what I hate more than the hassle of packing this extra stuff? I hate carrying my delicious restaurant leftovers in my hands for an hour because the Styrofoam clamshell they gave me isn’t watertight, so if I put it in my bag it’ll leak pasta all over.
I don’t like drinking coffee out of little paper cups that burn my hand and don’t keep my coffee warm. I hate eating takeout with a tiny plastic fork that breaks when I use it on a piece of apple.
So, yes, bringing these things is better for the environment but, selfishly, they’re better for me. They keep my coffee warm longer. They let me put my leftovers in my bag and forget about them. They make my picnic nicer and my trip to the picturesque street market more enjoyable.
9. Forget about that dang 3 ounce rule!
Three ounces of shampoo and conditioner is not going to get you through your two week trip. Shampoo and conditioner bars create less waste, last much longer than their liquid counterparts, and don’t count towards that three-once rule. More space in your one-gallon ziplock for other awesome, liquid things!
I want to hear from you! Share your best environmentally-friendly travel tips in the comments so we can learn from you!