‘Zero waste’ is one of the biggest lifestyle shifts of the 21st century, aiming to combat the human impact on our planet by reducing consumption, minimising waste and maximising recycling. But with travelling anywhere (other than on foot or by bike) generating a carbon footprint, is zero-waste travel a realistic – and achievable – goal?

‘Zero-waste travel is all about effort, not perfection,’ says Anita Vandyke, Australian zero-waste expert and author of A Zero Waste Life in Thirty Days, who also shares zero-waste travel hacks via her Instagram handle @rocket_science. ‘As a former aerospace engineer, I have a unique insight into the environmental impact of air travel, but until a sensible, sustainable switch is available, there are plenty of other ways we can help to mitigate our impact while exploring our incredible planet,’ she adds. Here’s how.

Planning and booking

‘Visiting destinations committed to reducing waste certainly makes it easier for consumers to follow suit,’ says Vandyke. Several countries (and many more cities, from Delhi to San Francisco), and even this Italian island, for example, have now banned plastic bags, while the European Union voted to phase out single-use plastics by 2021. Vandyke recommends taking the same approach with booking accommodation. ‘Self-catering options are ideal, as it means you can shop at markets and cook your own food, eliminating takeaway and restaurant waste,’ she says.

Aerial view of a residential city area, with road descending a hillside with eight hairpin turns.
Cities like San Francisco – seen here from above – have banned plastic bags © Mint Images / Getty Images

Your choice of airline can also impact your zero-waste goals. ‘While airline waste is still a big problem, many carriers have taken steps to reduce the volume that goes to landfill,’ says Vandyke. Indeed, the world’s first single-use plastic-free flight operated by Portuguese carrier Hi Fly took to the skies in December 2018, and in February 2019 Qantas committed to removing 100 million single-use plastic items on flights by the end of 2021.

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When you’re ready to book flights, resist upgrading to business (which leaves a larger carbon footprint) and don’t forget to carbon-offset, says Vandyke. 'Strict regulations in Australia mean airline offset programs are pretty reputable, but there are plenty of other programs available online that might suit you better,' she says. Swiss not-for-profit My Climate, for example, allows you to choose between a range of climate protection projects based on the carbon footprint of your next flight, cruise, road trip and more.

Looking to book a tour? Seek out companies committed to minimising their impact. Intrepid Travel offers drinking water for guests to fill their own reusable bottles where possible on all of its itineraries, and in July 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures raised the bar by operating the world’s first zero-waste tour, with all waste generated on the Yellowstone country trip (aside from personal hygiene products) designed to fit in a single jar.

Refilling a reusable tin water bottle at a water fountain
Progressive tour operators offer customers drinking water to fill reusable water bottles during a trip, reducing their reliance on single-use plastic bottles © Clsgraphics / Getty Images

Packing for your trip

If you don’t already have one, Vandyke advises making a zero-waste kit and keeping it in your hand luggage for easy access. 'At the very least, your zero-waste kit should contain alternatives to the big four plastics: bottles, coffee cups, bags and straws,' says Vandyke. 'I also carry a reusable spork, which is a great lightweight alternative to plastic cutlery, and a handkerchief, which comes in handy for wrapping up leftover food or scraps to compost.' Packing your own headphones, eye-mask and blanket for flights can also help to minimise in-flight waste, while a water filtration device will be an asset in destinations without potable water.

An orange spork in a pan of macaroni and powdered cheese sitting on some grass
Packing a multi-functional spork means you don't have to use disposable cutlery © Jono Winnel / Getty Images

Next, assess the rest of your gear. 'Chances are, there are zero-waste alternatives to most of your essentials,' says Vandyke. Head torches (lamps), for example, are now available in USB rechargeable models (try Petzl), eliminating the need for batteries, and a growing number of beauty brands (including Lush) sell plastic-free toiletries and make-up in reusable containers. Better yet, consider making your own toiletries – recipes for everything from deodorant to dry shampoo can easily be found online. And resist the convenience of wet wipes, which have wreaked havoc on waterways worldwide. 'A handkerchief dipped in water works just as well,' says Vandyke.

Replacing your synthetic travel wardrobe with natural fibres is another great zero-waste goal, but in the interim, Vandyke recommends packing a washbag that traps plastic microfibres (try the Guppyfriend) so you can dispose of them responsibly.

Hiker lying in grass, taking a break and listening music with headphones
Going digital when it comes to entertainment – preferring podcasts and e-books instead of printed products – helps to shrink your luggage © Westend61 / Getty Images

Reducing waste in transit

Ask yourself if you really need to check your bag. 'Not only does travelling with carry-on luggage reduce your carbon footprint, it also saves you time in your destination,' says Vandyke, who recommends downloading your boarding passes instead of printing them out, and bringing a listening device or e-reader loaded with podcasts and e-books instead of purchasing magazines and books at the airport.

'While it’s easy to save waste on domestic flights by refusing airline snacks, full-service international flights require a bit more forward planning,' says Vandyke. 'With customs regulations in many countries requiring airlines to throw out uneaten food, it’s best to email your airline beforehand to let them know you’re bringing your own food so they don’t have to cater to you,' she says.

Reducing waste in your destination

While tourism providers around the world have become more aware of the importance of reducing waste in recent years, it still pays to be assertive. 'Get in the habit of requesting upfront that your food, drinks or other purchases aren’t served with single-use plastic items so you don’t get caught out,' says Vandyke.

When self-catering, Vandyke suggests visiting farmers markets and bulk stores (try US zero-waste expert Bea Johnson’s Bulk Finder app). 'I also like using the ShareWaste app to locate places I can drop off food scraps,' says Vandyke.

Finally, don’t forget to be mindful of your water usage. 'Be sure to request that hotels don’t change your sheets and towels during short stays, and rather than having your clothes commercially laundered, consider washing them yourself with your own eco-friendly detergent,' says Vandyke.

Volunteers wearing high-vis vests cleaning up a white-sand beach on a sunny day
If you want to volunteer, do your research beforehand © Trevor Adeline / Getty Images

Go the extra mile and help clean up when you travel

'It’s important to remember that zero-waste travel isn’t just about reducing plastic,' says Vandyke, noting that time (not just yours) is just one other valuable commodity that people can avoid wasting on their travels. 'If you’re looking to sign up for volunteer work during a trip, for example, do the necessary research to ensure the project will be an effective use of your time as well as meet the needs of the local community,' Vandyke says. For example, you can kayak for free in European cities while cleaning rivers and lakes, or take part in a beach clean up

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This article was first published March 2019, last updated June 2020.

This article was first published Mar 21, 2019 and updated Jun 10, 2020.

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