There’s no way to deny it: Tourism is a huge cause of waste. Especially destinations suffering from overtourism often struggle to dispose of the huge amounts of waste caused by large numbers of careless tourists. So how can it be possible to pursue zero waste travel?

Accommodation, transportation, activities, packing, and eating – it’s shocking how much litter these aspects produce. Yet, with the right zero waste travel hacks it is possible to actually reduce waste during traveling and hence make your adventure a little bit more sustainable.

What is zero waste travel?

A zero waste lifestyle has become a growing trend among eco-conscious people. While reaching literally zero (meaning null, nada, niente) waste stays a utopian idea that very few people achieve, many have managed to radically reduce the amount of waste they generate.

As in many aspects of everyday life, rethinking is needed when it comes to traveling as well.

With huge garbage carpets floating in the ocean, and dolphins drowning because they’re tangled in the trash, the alarm bells of countless scientists have gone off already years ago. And by now the undeniable truth has reached us all, as we find microplastics in the sea salt we add to our food and sea turtles eating plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish.

There’s no way around avoiding as much trash as possible in order to stay healthy, save many endangered species, and keep our beautiful planet. In this regard, a zero waste lifestyle is an attempt that can be pursued by each individual to do their bit in improving the situation.

And zero waste travel is the pursuit to cause as little waste as possible while traveling. It encourages people to recycle and reuse as much as possible, so no trash is sent to landfills.

Littered streets in Cambodia hurts our zero waste travel hearts / Vermüllte Straßen in Kambodscha schmerzt ganz schön wenn man zero waste auf Reisen bleiben möchte

Littered streets in Cambodia

Why is waste reduction important when traveling?

Especially, when traveling it’s way easier to get caught in the conveniences of single-use packaging, takeaway containers, and travel-size shampoos. Most of these items are only used once before being dumped. And this happens by hundreds of thousands of travelers each and every! single! day!

Sadly, after being thrown away, the trash ends up in a landfill, where it lasts for hundreds of years contaminating the surrounding environment or it reaches the ocean where it becomes deadly traps for marine animals and eventually breaks down to microplastics.

That’s why it’s important to think twice if you actually want to use this tiny shampoo in your next hotel where you’ll only use half of it before it gets thrown away by staff. Or if you need these cookies wrapped in three layers of plastic packaging that you’ll ditch in the next bin where there’s not even a possibility of waste separation.

Your rethinking is the first step towards zero waste travel. And every single step is extremely important if we still want to enjoy traveling and nature in a few years.

Tips for sustainable travel

Local markets are great to find unpackaged goods

Is zero waste travel even possible?

Reducing waste at home can already feel challenging. Stores are lined with disposable products. Aisle after aisle plastic-bottled shampoos and plastic-wrapped veggies stare at you.

So aspiring zero waste travel may seem like a virtually impossible challenge.

The importance is not to deem zero waste as an extreme, but rather as a goal. This means, trying to avoid as much trash as possible. With this mindset, a largely waste-free trip can be possible.

On many trips, I tried to research and sometimes unexpectantly found bulk stores (e.g. in Antigua in Guatemala – who would have thought that?) or markets where it’s much easier to find stuff without unnecessary packaging.

It also depends on where you are and how determined for zero waste travel you are. But with just a little engagement and a few switches, you can make quite an impact. And there are some easy zero waste travel tips that can help you a lot.

That way, little by little, we can avoid more and more waste during our travels and together strive towards a common zero waste goal.

Zero waste travel helps to keep beaches clean / Durch zero waste auf Reisen können Strände so schön sauber bleiben

We all want clean beaches, right?

14 zero waste travel tips

Zero waste packing

1. Pack zero waste travel toiletries

This is one of the most effective aspects where you can extremely reduce the amount of waste that you cause.

To avoid waste from single-use plastics, bring eco-friendly alternatives instead. So instead of disposable products like plastic straws, bottled shampoos, single-use makeup wipes grab the following alternatives next time:

  • Shampoo bars
    No matter if we’re talking about shampoo, soap or deodorant – you’re always better off with solid bars. They’re usually packed without plastic or even with no packaging at all. Also, they last longer than liquid ones and you can take them in your hand luggage without any problems.
  • Liquids
    In case you can’t or don’t want to forgo certain liquid products, at least don’t buy the travel-sized ones. Also, don’t use the small shampoos and soaps in your accommodation. Rather get reusable small bottles and fill them at home with your favorite products.
  • Bamboo or wooden toothbrush
    Toothbrushes made from bamboo and wood are often compostable. Just make sure to always let them dry in the air. Speaking of dental care, instead of toothpaste you can get toothpaste tablets which will also save you some weight in your zero waste travel luggage.
  • Washable makeup wipes
    Instead of wet wipes that you throw away after one use or plastic-bottled makeup remover, bring some washable makeup wipes. They can remove your makeup simply with water, and they last forever.
  • Menstrual cup
    As a waste-free alternative to tampons, menstrual cups are getting more and more popular. Bring them for zero waste travel and you can clean them and reuse them again and again.

2. Bring reusable items

As most of the trash you cause on a trip is related to groceries and eating out, you should create a zero waste kit. This helps to enjoy the ocean instead of polluting it. So bring reusable items such as:

  • A (self-purifying) water bottle
    Single-use plastic bottles are probably the worst plastic waste out there. A study by Travelers Against Plastic found out that every adventure tour operator uses almost 30.000 single-use plastic bottles for water each year.
    So bring your own reusable water bottle. Many don’t know that you can easily get them through a security check when they’re empty and just refill it again afterward. And even better is a self-purifying water bottle with which you can filter water anywhere you go and make it drinkable.

A water filter bottle is great for zero waste travel / Eine Filterflasche hilft enorm bei zero waste auf Reisen

A water filter bottle is one of the most important items for zero waste travel

  • Your own tote bag
    No matter if you’re in a supermarket, grab some take-away food, or buy souvenirs – almost all vendors give you a plastic bag without even asking.
    In order to avoid plastic bags when shopping for groceries or other stuff, bring a reusable bag, e.g. a tote bag and a mesh vegetable net on your trip. These help you to do all the shopping on markets without unnecessary plastic trash and they don’t even take up space or weight in your backpack.
  • A silicone zip lock bag
    Packing the right way can be a lifesaver on your zero waste travel adventure. Did you ever notice that these plastic zip bags used for liquids in carry-on luggage get ripped apart so fast? So when flying, put the few liquids you have in a reusable silicone zip lock bag instead. It will last extremely long.
    A silicone zip bag helps a lot for zero waste travel / Ein Silikon-Zipbeutel kann bei Zero Waste auf Reisen enorm helfen
  • Packing cubes and bags for laundry
    For your underwear, use cotton bags or packing cubes instead of plastic bags. These will also help you keep your luggage organized. I also never go on a trip without my smell-proof laundry bag.
  • Reusable containers, cutlery, and straw
    Having a reusable container is always helpful when you want to carry snacks or leftover food. And cutlery (e.g. a „spork“) and straws can be found in all kinds of material – from bamboo to stainless steel.
    This way, you can easily bring your own food instead of buying something at the airport or on a plane. Also, when you’re on the road you can ask restaurants or street food stalls to fill the yummy stuff into your lunch box.
    And dear coffee junkies, don’t forget your reusable cup!
  • Food wrap
    Besides containers, I always like to bring beeswax wipes and a cotton food wrap cloth (that I can wash) for snacks or fruit. This way, I`m always prepared for spontaneous to-go meals.

Bamboo cutlery helps a lot for zero waste travel / Bambusbesteck kann bei Zero Waste auf Reisen enorm helfen

A cotton food wrap is great for zero waste travel / Ein Baumwolltuch ist top für zero waste auf Reisen

With a cotton food wrap you can pack your snacks

3. Choose chargeable electronic items

Did you consider electronic trash when thinking of waste? It’s probably not the first thing that comes to your mind, but it’s equally important. Rechargeable gadgets are way more sustainable than those needing batteries that you have to replace again and again.

Depending on your destination you may need certain electronic gadgets. For many travel items, such as headlamps, you can easily find a rechargeable zero waste alternative.

4. Less waste with the right equipment

It’s more about where you get your equipment from instead of what kind of equipment you use. Of course, supporting sustainable brands that pay attention to waste reduction in their production process, can already help a lot.

Even better is buying second-hand camping gear, clothes, and gadgets or renting them. Why buy something that you may only need for one trip that afterward becomes a worthless keepsake and will be thrown away a few years later?

If you don’t rent it, consider selling it second-hand once you’ve got no more use for it.

For zero waste travel you can rent hiking gear / Für zero waste auf Reisen kannst du Wanderausrüstung leihen

Renting hiking gear will save weight in your luggage as well

Zero waste travel on the road

5. Use digital tickets and documents

Have you noticed before that printing tickets and documents is hardly ever necessary nowadays? Even when a car rental company states that you need to have all documents printed, they never take a look at it. I’ve made the experience that they’re usually fine with seeing your booking confirmation on your phone. As long as you’ve got the right booking number, they can look up all your details in their system.

Besides, almost all transportation companies, such as airlines, trains, buses, and metro lines have apps where you can purchase mobile tickets. Skip the paper tickets!

Oh, and walking is not only an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint. It’ll also save any printed tickets.

Also, with Offline Maps by Google Maps, you can access all needed maps from anywhere and even use them for navigation. That way, you can waive paper maps.

Whenever you’re asked if you need a receipt, paper brochures, or anything like that, just say no. Why would you need it anyway?

Another pro tip for zero waste travel: Having a copy of your passport and vaccination certificate can be a lifesaver in case of loss. Just scan your important documents and save them in a cloud. I used to copy them and carry the paper copies around with me but the digital copies will be just as useful if you have to deal with authorities.

6. Entertainment – go paperless

We all need some kind of entertainment and mental stimulation during long bus rides or waiting times at the train station!

Instead of grabbing a printed magazine or buying a book, just read them digitally on a tablet or ebook reader. This way, bookworms like me, can take hundreds of books on a trip without any extra weight.

If you can’t resist the feeling of having a paper-copy book in your hands, opt for second-hand or borrow pre-loved books from the library.

Besides, you can listen to audiobooks or podcasts instead of printed entertainment. Especially for bumpy bus rides, they can be a lifesaver!

7. Bring your snacks & water

Homemade sandwiches, fruits, and energy bars are the best! Not only can you avoid packaging, but also save money on overpriced food at stations and you know exactly what’s inside. Perfect for your body and wallet! So always bring some snacks in your reusable containers.

Besides, check if you can drink the tap water wherever you are or if there are any water refill stations where you can get filtered water.

For example in the Greek island Paros they have an awesome network of refill stations and Bali has a zero waste app that shows you where you can refill your bottle free of charge. In both places, many restaurants take part in these projects in order to avoid trash from plastic bottles.

Also, many hotels are happy to refill your bottle with filtered water. If you ask them kindly, you usually get it for free or pay a small fee.

When you’re out exploring and fancy a drink, check out if the juice stall offers the drink in glasses instead of plastic cups. I’ve seen that for example in Marrakesh and in Guatemala. And it just tastes better drinking from a glass instead of a plastic cup!

Food on a hike with Wicho's & Charlies in a reusable container / Essen in wiederverwendbarer Tupperware für eine Wanderung

Yummy hiking snack in a reusable container

8. Flying with less waste

Well, first of all, we could have a talk about how bad flying is for the environment. Check out my post about flight shame, if you’re interested in diving deeper into this topic.

If you still decide to fly, there are lots of aspects that you can consider to safe waste:

  • Reusable zip lock bag
    As we’ve quickly discussed above, you can bring your liquids in a sustainable silicone zip lock bag instead of a thin plastic one that rips apart easily
  • Food on the flight
    To start with, it’s quite easy to avoid waste on domestic flights by simply bringing your own snack and refusing the packaged airplane food. On international flights, it can be a bit more tricky. Cutlery, cups, plates – they’re all made of single-use plastics on flights. And even if you’d refuse the airline’s food during the flight, they often have to throw away any leftover dishes due to customs regulations. So here it’s still a long way to go.
    The good news is that change is starting to happen, as more and more airlines are striving towards plastic-free flights.
  • Avoid other plastic-packed items on the flight
    The plastic problem on flights doesn’t end with the food. Blankets, pillows, earplugs, toothbrushes, and other items are packed in plastic as well. So you can simply bring your own and refrain from using the plastic-packed items.
  • Choose the right airline
    The effort put into waste reduction varies largely from one airline to another. The Portuguese airline HiFly had their first single-use plastic-free flight in 2018 and are constantly improving their efforts.
    Australian Qantas followed with the first zero waste flight in 2019.
  • Dispose of your flight waste the right way
    Not many airlines actually recycle their waste. With a heavy heart, we zero waste travelers watch stewardesses walking through the aisles collecting all kinds of trash in one huge plastic bag. Ask the airlines, if they separate and recycle waste before returning the trash you have. If they don’t, take your trash to the airport and ditch it in the waste-separation bins instead.
Should I stop flying completely to travel more sustainably?

Zero waste travel is also about flying less

Zero waste at your destination

9. Reduce waste with the right type of accommodation

With the right choice of accommodation, you can make a huge difference! Not any hotel causes the same amount of waste. Already when booking you can check, if they pay attention to sustainability, e.g. by avoiding separately packaged items for breakfast. Just check their pictures and you can find out easily.

In general, look for accommodation that tries to reduce trash and pays attention to waste separation. It doesn’t have to be an eco-lodge with a strict sustainable focus. Hostels and Airbnbs are great as well, as you can often cook your own food over there.

A good sign is also when hotels don’t change beddings and towels every day. So leave the „don’t disturb“ sign outside your door or actively inform the hotel that they shouldn’t change it, to waste less water and laundry detergent.

My favorite hotels are those providing small unpacked soap bars instead of plastic toiletry items.

Besides, you should avoid all-inclusive hotels and plan your own trip instead. Those huge hotels are designed for mass tourism which leaves no option for a sustainable approach. By avoiding these kinds of hotels, you can not only save tons of waste. You can also dive deeper into the culture and support local market stalls and restaurants because you don’t eat at the hotel.

Staying at an eco lodge is great for zero waste travel / Für zero waste auf Reisen sind Eco-Lodges die perfekte Unterkunft

Eco lodges are the perfect accommodation for zero waste travel

10. Zero waste dining & shopping tips

When you buy groceries at farmers’ markets, eco-stores, or bulk stores and cook your own food, you save single-use packagings that are caused in many restaurants.

Also, avoid fast-food chains and take away shops serving their food on nasty plastic or styrofoam packaging.

You already know about all the reusable containers, cups, and cutlery that help you a lot when it comes to take-away food and grocery shopping.

Besides, there are some great apps that can help you reduce waste, e.g.

  • Toogoodtogo with their app you can find places that offer left-over dishes
  • Zero Waste Home – to find shops and restaurants that operate package-free
  • ShareWaste App – to find places where you can turn in left-over food
  • Bulk App – to help you find local bulk stores
Tortillas wrapped in a cotton cloth / Tortillas in einem Baumwolltuch verpackt

Guatemalan Tortillas wrapped in a cotton cloth

11. Zero waste travel tours

On almost every holiday or trip you’re doing some kind of tour, right? No matter if it’s a guided hike, a walking tour through a city, or an ancient site. I love pumping local guides for all their juicy knowledge!

When you decide on a guide or tour company, choose one with a sustainable focus. They usually provide food in tupperware instead of plastic packaging and reusable water bottles or filtered water so you can fill up your own bottle.

A great example is Wicho & Charlie’s in Guatemala organizing hiking tours up the famous Acatenango volcano with only plant-based food in tupperware and more than enough reusable water bottles for all hikers. Also, you can rent great gear over there, so you don’t have to buy certain equipment that you won’t need again after.

Hiking up Acatenango volcano with Wicho's & Charlie's eco tours / Acatenango Vulkantour mit WIcho's & Charlie's

A stunning volcano hike with an eco-tour

12. Take home joy instead of souvenirs

Well, don’t you think taking home cheesy souvenirs from your trip is a bit old-fashioned anyway?

No one really needs them or takes a look at them, catching dust on the shelf. Most of these souvenirs are mass-produced in other countries and packed in loads of plastic before being nicely draped at souvenir stalls.

There are so much nicer ways of sharing your travel memories with your friends and family. I, for example, love to take home some spices and cook something typical from my destination for my family.

That’s a waste-free way of reminiscing about your trip and you can combine it with showing all your pictures.

If you love something for your shelf, get it in a local handicraft shop through which you can support the local economy.

Sustainable travel food | Tipps für nachhaltiges Reisen

Rice served on a banana leaf in Malaysia

13. Join a beach clean-up

Who doesn’t love relaxing at an untouched, sandy beach in-between all the exciting adventures? But seeing some beaches covered in plastic can really take away the joy of it.

It all ends up in the ocean and has already made up five huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans. Just the Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers a surface that is three times bigger than France!

Fortunately, more and more locals see the problems as well – not just about the ruined beauty of the beaches but also the huge threat for marine life. So at more and more places, beach clean-ups are organized and anyone can join!

This way, you can not only prevent waste but also help with the removal of already existing trash.

A great example is Operation Rich Coast in Costa Rica. They arrange beach clean-ups all over Costa Rica on a regular basis.

Besides, when you help clean up rivers or the sea in cities like Hamburg or Kopenhagen, you can rent a kayak for free. Isn’t that a win-win?

14. Keep the zero waste mentality

Let’s face it: Avoiding trash doesn’t end with zero waste travel. In order to make a difference, you need to keep the zero waste mindest wherever you go, no matter if it’s during your trip or after.

An easy memory hook are the 6 „Rs“:

  • Refuse: Say no to packaging and single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and hotel toiletries.
  • Reduce: Try to shop less when traveling and to pack light (your back will thank you as well!).
  • Reuse: Bring your reusable items, such as water bottles, food containers, and bags. Also, you can borrow equipment.
  • Recycle: Use recycling bins wherever you see some and find out how to recycle in places where it’s not obvious.
  • Rot: If possible, find compost.
  • Repair: On a trip, it can always happen that something breaks, e.g. a zipper on your backpack or the sole of a shoe. Find someone that can repair it.

And in case it doesn’t work out as you’ve planned, just keep calm! No one’s perfect and even with the greatest determination, you probably won’t be able to avoid 100% of trash during your trip. And that’s okay!

I know the situations where you’re crazy hungry and can’t find anything else than a pack of cookies in a store. Or you’ve miscalculated and run out of your shampoo bar so you need to buy a bottle at 7eleven.

It’s important to keep trying and especially to spread the word. If more and more travelers refuse plastic bags from local vendors, they will get aware and start to rethink. These are the seemingly small situations that can make a difference in the long run.

Do you have another hack on zero waste travel or on how to reduce waste while you’re exploring the world? I’m curious about it, so leave a comment below!

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