I hope it’s clear that when I talk about zero waste I really mean “low waste.” “Zero waste ish.” “I’ve made some big lifestyle changes to reduce my reliance on disposable goods but I still make some trash of course, because I’m human and that’s life in our current system that prizes convenience over everything.” You know. That kinda thing.
For me, nowhere do I feel the challenge of striving for zero waste (read: low waste) more strongly than when I’m traveling. At home, I’ve spent years building routines that feel simple and doable. I know what to bring with me when I go to the grocery store. I know what to bring with me when I’m going out to eat. I know where to compost. I still make bits and pieces of trash: twist ties on bunches of kale, accidental plastic straws, the little detritus of life. I’m comfortable with where I’ve landed, somewhere in the sweet spot between making little trash and also living a very normal life through it all.
When traveling, though, boom, it’s all instantly upended. On my recent trip to London, as on most trips, I packed my bag with zero waste in mind, bringing a few of the items I use at home every day: cloth produce bags, handkerchiefs, a tea strainer for loose-leaf tea, a reusable thermos and water bottle, a stainless steel container for holding food. I was optimistic about my ability to mostly follow my normal zero waste routines, but found myself making more trash than I had anticipated.
This used to be the type of story I would keep to myself. It must be because I didn’t try hard enough to be zero waste on this trip, I’d think. Next time I’ll try harder.
But, truly, no. I really just think staying zero waste while traveling is itself hard, and all we can do is go into it with the best of intentions and kindness toward ourselves when we inevitably can’t do it as well as we’d like to.
I joked to my mom one day in London that I’m only vegan in the United States, meaning my butter and clotted cream consumption while in England received carte blanche. After all, the point of going somewhere new is to be truly there, to have the experiences that are worth the long journey. Zero waste isn’t necessarily enjoyment-inhibiting, but stressing about doing it perfectly, of course, is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m only zero waste in the United States, but the sentiment stands: when I’m not home, I can’t make as little waste as I can when I am home.
When traveling, especially abroad, I want to be able to pick up weird and delicious-looking foods at the grocery without worrying hugely about the packaging they’re in. When the bulk section at the grocery store I visit is mostly full of things that need cooking (oatmeal, lentils), I want to give myself permission not to spend time at the stove on my trip, but instead to search out snacks in recyclable packaging and be fine with it.
I want other things too, of course: to be able to find somewhere to deposit compostable materials. (Here’s how to find places to compost when you’re traveling). To avoid plastic water bottles and coffee cups by bringing my own. To remember my own travel soap in case the hotel’s soap is packaged in plastic.
Pictured above, what was underneath the sink at our Airbnb in London. A trash can, and nothing else. I made a small pile for recyclables, and another for compostables. I found a public recycling bin on the street for depositing the recycling, but the compost went in the trash as I wasn’t able to figure out a place to bring it.
Two years ago, having to place compostable items in the trash would have made me think things like, “But shouldn’t my trash fit in a jar?” (Answer: no). This year, having to throw them away made me think things like: “Shouldn’t London have a better answer for public composting?” (Answer: yes).
My point is: 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.
Thoughts on traveling? Is this philosophy horrifying to you? A relief?
PS. I’ve started a tag to corral thoughts like these on doing zero waste imperfectly. Find other posts in the series, here.