Zero Waste Travel, Made Simpler

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

It’s likely many of us are traveling later this week for the holiday. We’re road-tripping to Indiana on Wednesday and back up to Madison on Sunday. I’ve been away from home more often than usual in the past few months, and will be even more in the upcoming ones. In that spirit, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to simplify my travel routines: not leaving packing until the night before, bringing fewer items of clothing, and, a big one, bringing fewer items of zero waste gear.

My friend Kathryn joked in a post awhile back that “Zero waste doesn’t have to equal being a pack mule,” but it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? Especially a few years ago when I really took the “zero” in zero waste to heart, I would travel with way more gear than was feasible. I brought a tea strainer to Ireland in the hopes of avoiding single-use tea packets. That type of dedication may seem admirable to some, but from where I’m sitting several years later, it just looks foolish.

If you were truly hoping to stay zero waste while traveling, you might be tempted to bring more or less the whole contents of your kitchen with you. I’ve been there, done that. But what I’ve found is that regardless of preparation, travel makes trash. It just does. I can make Herculean efforts to avoid it, or I can save my Herculean efforts for something else.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

If, instead, you were hoping to stay low waste while traveling like I now am, well, you could lighten things up a little bit. Here’s what I bring with me, in my newly pared-down travel kit:

-A couple of handkerchiefs
-A cloth napkin
-Reusable utensils (or pare it down to just a reusable fork)
-Water bottle, or better yet combination water bottle / thermos
-Food storage tin for snacks and leftovers
-Produce bag or two for snacks and purchases
-Reusable shopping bag
-Tin of travel soap, to avoid plastic-wrapped bars at the hotel

That list still looks long enough, but many of the items do double duty beyond zero waste, as well. Not everything will squeeze back in your suitcase as you’re leaving? Reusable bag to the rescue. Mopping up a spill in the car? Cloth napkin comes in handy. Found a compost drop-off spot near where you’re staying? You can save those food scraps in the food storage tin you brought for leftovers. Free apple at the hotel? Throw that baby in a produce bag and eat it on the plane.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

Pictured above are two oranges wrapped up in a cloth napkin, furoshiki-style, in Boston a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find a compost bin for the peels, purchasing a snack in its own packaging rather than in plastic felt like a small victory. (Though you better believe I had to buy some plastic-packaged snacks, too).

When traveling, maybe we can bring the things that are the most versatile and lightweight and useful. We can arm ourselves for the most likely scenarios and then make a little trash when there’s a paper-wrapped teabag at the Airbnb. We can let things go, and come home renewed and excited to keep on keepin’ on at zero waste. We can focus on our families at the holidays, not on attaining some gold standard of zero waste perfection.

Who’s with me? Safe travels this week to you and yours.

More notes on doing zero waste imperfectly, here.

Imperfect Zero Waste Travel

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

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 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.

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

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.

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

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.

Nothing New: Just Replacements

Going zero waste on a budget | Litterless

It's human nature (or maybe just my nature) to latch on to a change and want to make it happen all at once. New Years' resolutions, exercise plans, travel itches: good intentions can turn into mad dashes to the finish line can turn to burning-out. When I talk to folks wondering how to dip their toes into the waters of zero waste, I often talk about choosing just a few small things to change at once. To give ourselves time to let each habit sink in and stick before slowly layering the next one on top of it.

The bad news is, this method lacks the instant gratification of seeing your trash bag shrink from full to empty in a week's time. The good news? It gives you time to consider thoughtfully which changes you think are the most doable, which you'd like to tackle first in your home. And, too, it means that you don't need to rush out to buy a bunch of gear to turn your home zero waste at the snap of a finger. It means you can replace things as you use them up instead of all at once, lightening the strain on both your to-do list and your wallet.

How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

So, for this installment of Nothing New, the series where we ransack our homes to find the zero waste-friendly gear we might already own, a bit of a cheat: today I'm talking about purchasing new items, but things you'd have to purchase anyway.

Hear me out; I think choosing to replace only the things you run out of, one at a time, is a pretty good strategy for transitioning to a zero waste home. In practice, this is how it goes down for almost all beginning zero wasters. Rare is the person, I imagine, who doesn't have a small stack of plastic toothbrushes in the bathroom, a load of paper towels in the basement, all sorts of things to use up before replacing them with zero waste alternatives. For me, this stage lasted for several years as I worked through everything from razor cartridges to lotion bottles to plastic-wrapped DIY ingredients. (And of course there are still many things around my home left over from pre-zero-waste days that have packaging I wouldn't necessarily choose to buy now).

How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

Rather than making this the de facto strategy, we might as well make it an intentional one. If the number of changes you'd like to make seems daunting or pricey, consider giving yourself the permission to make no changes and buy nothing new for zero waste except what you need to replace around the home. It's a way to ease yourself gently into your new habits, to take stock of what you have and use that up, to give yourself space to carefully think through your next addition. And, since you'd be purchasing a new version of the item anyway, the cost of the zero waste version might not feel like quite as much of a pinch.

Some things you might replace as they run out:

-Swapping soap in a plastic pump bottle for package-free bar soap.
-Purchasing a stainless steel safety razor once you run out of plastic ones.
-Using up the last of your paper napkins and choosing cloth alternatives.
-In your bathroom, replacing disposable cotton rounds that come in a plastic sleeve with washable cloth cotton rounds.
-Switching out your plastic dish brush for a compostable wooden one.
-Making your own cleaning spray with vinegar once your plastic bottle of all-purpose spray gets emptied.
-And you can find a list of more of my favorite replacements, here.

Slow changes can be agonizing when all you want to do is throw out all your plastics and start afresh. But there's value in it, too. Any replacements you're working on these days?

Previously in Nothing New: A use for glass bottles, and an introduction.

Plastic Containers in the Zero Waste Home

Is there a space for plastic containers in the zero waste home | Litterless

The picture above reveals the sordid underbelly of my zero waste habits. Just kidding, it's not sordid: but it is plastic. Most of the zero waste folks I know still use some plastic, and I do too. I don't usually talk about it, but I'm slowly getting over the idea that people won't think I'm a good enough zero waster if I share that I use plastic containers / don't brush my teeth with baking soda / insert other habit here. In fact, I'm slowly coming around to realizing the opposite: that revealing the unconventional ways I've made zero waste work for me could help you find ways - and, more crucially, permission - to bend the rules to make zero waste work for you, too.

And so: sharing a photograph of the plastic containers that are still in rotation over here. Before I talk about how and why I use these guys, I want to preface it with this: there are many, many good reasons to move away from plastic, most of which you probably already know. Plastic degrades in quality during the recycling process, so eventually it does become landfill trash at the end of its life. It leaches chemicals, many of them very harmful, into food and beauty products. And, of course, plastic pollution in waterways and oceans has been well documented and is at best demoralizing, at worst horrifying.

All that can be true and yet there still can be space for plastic containers in the lives of folks working toward zero waste. To wit: reducing your plastic consumption is a worthy goal. But what happens to plastic containers we already had before going zero waste, or plastic ones picked up at the grocery or a restaurant in a pinch? 

That's where my small collection of plastic containers come in. I keep most of my food, toiletries, and leftovers in glass and metal containers, many of which I've picked up secondhand and a few of which have been new purchases, carefully considered. Glass jars are inexpensive, but larger glass and metal containers are not. I've found that the ones I have take up a lot of space, don't stack very well, and are of course heavier if you're bringing them with you to the grocery or a restaurant.  Most of the time I don't mind that, and I reach for my glass and stainless steel containers first when putting food away. But sometimes, having a small stash of plastic back-ups does come in handy.

All of these plastic containers were picked up in the bulk aisle of the grocery, either at stores that don't let me bring my own containers or during times when I had to purchase a bulk food unexpectedly and didn't have a bag or jar with me. You've probably been in a situation like this before, too: You forgot your takeout container and, faced with leaving three-quarters of your soup behind or taking the plastic container, you've chosen the plastic container. At home, you have yet further choices: Do you give it away to a friend who could use it, or a thrift store? Keep using it as needed? Recycle it right off the bat and be done with it?

I've done all three of those, and I suspect you do some combination of them, too. I keep a mental note of friends who store food in plastic restaurant prep containers and always have room for one more in their collection. I've recycled some, too, and the ones pictured above are ones that I've kept around. They're useful for freezer storage when I don't want to tie up one of my favorite glass containers for months on end, for bulk grocery runs where I don't have the space to bring as many jars as I'd like, for sending friends home with leftovers or a sample of lotion that they wanted to try, or what have you. In the latter case, it's a relief not to have to chase down the whereabouts of a stainless steel container that cost $25 to begin with.

Here's what I think: trying to eliminate plastic completely is both a legitimate, worthwhile goal and sometimes crazy-making. You can go completely plastic-free or you can keep your plastics around until they're worn out and need replacement. Just wanted to say that I'm in the middle of it, and either way you choose to go is fine with me.

Have you wrestled with keeping plastics around? Other scenarios where you find it comes particularly in handy?

Previously in Zero Waste: Snack ideas to make yourself, and how to make cloth napkins work for your regular life.

Sidestepping Zero Waste Guilt

Care packages

For about three years now, I've been pretty close to zero waste, and for the last two, I've probably been about as close to zero waste as I'll ever be able to get. But, I still have a mental list of times that I wasn't able to be as zero waste as I would have liked, and it goes like this:

A plastic plate at a company holiday party, a styrofoam tray at a restaurant in Philadelphia, granola bars on a camping trip, an old retainer case, a broken coffee mug. Etc., etc., etc. Seriously, ETC.

The thing is - in my head, I label each of these instances as a time when I slipped up. Yet with the exception of the granola bars, there's pretty much nothing I could have done better; the waste was all dictated by my circumstances. Though each of these was close to being fully unavoidable, each kind of bummed me out as I threw said item in the trash, thinking that I should be truly at zero and, well, I wasn't. Over the past year, though, I've learned to better shake that guilt, which wasn't doing me any good anyways.

Here's the thing I've realized: Generating a piece of trash when you're attempting to be "zero" waste isn't necessarily your failure - it's the broader failure of our consumption system that accepts disposable goods as normal. If someone gives you a straw when you asked for no straw, serves a meal on a plastic plate when you expected a non-disposable one, or puts your coffee in a paper cup when you asked for it in your own thermos, those aren't your fault. If you have to purchase medication in plastic packaging that isn't recyclable, or you can't find compostable floss near you, or you need to grab a packaged snack unexpectedly - these aren't your mistakes, but rather are part and parcel of living in our society which is set up in a way that makes being truly zero waste a challenge and, often, impossible.

The rule of thumb I use for myself is that I try to be as zero waste as possible while still living a happy, healthy life. I've put time into making sure my daily routines are set up to be produce as little trash as possible, but if an unexpected source of trash pops up, I try not to stress about it. In all things, I hope my daily mindset will be joyful, optimistic, and forgiving - and this applies to how I do zero waste, too. 

Hopefully zero waste will become easier and easier as more companies and cities devote resources to developing package-free shopping options and accessible compost options, so that true zero waste living becomes a reasonable option for everyone. Until that day - we'll do our best, won't we? I've written this before, but progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Learning not to feel guilty about small things has helped me stay resilient and committed to zero waste, rather than getting discouraged when I "fail." I don't reach absolute zero, but I get very close, and that's enough. And however close you've been able to get while remaining happy and healthy - that's enough, too.

My two brothers are currently through-hiking the Appalachian Trail - they're super cool - and I picked up some (packaged) foods to send to each of them, in reused mailers and sealed with some old plastic tape I'm still using up. Not perfectly zero waste, still okay.

Progress, Not Perfection


I wanted to share a few times recently that I haven’t been “zero waste:” I bought soba noodles in plastic packaging because I loooove them and can’t find them in bulk. I broke a ceramic mug whose pieces weren’t recyclable. I buy some supplements like B12 and probiotics, and their plastic safety seals have to go in the trash, though the bottles themselves are recyclable. My sunscreen and some skincare products I'm not willing to live without come in plastic, and some are recyclable and some aren't.

I say this not as a confessional, but to address how to approach sustainability realistically, flexibly. 

It’s true that I don’t make very much trash – maybe a little bag of trash each month and an armful of recycling. But I definitely don’t reach “zero” waste. I think for most of us who use the term, the word “zero” is an approximation or a goal, not the literal reality. I’m close to zero and always trying to get better, but I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get there. 

All I can do my best, and know that it’s good enough. I wanted to write this so that you know that yours is, too. Whether you take out the trash once a year or once a week, I really believe that what the world needs is people who care and act and try and fail and try again. What our environmental problems demand isn’t perfect sustainability from a few people, but general sustainability from all of us.

I worry that the label “zero” in “zero waste” is too intimidating and keeps people from believing that even a small reduction in the amount of disposable goods they use is worthwhile, even if they can’t make it anywhere close to zero.

If the label “zero” is intimidating to you, it’s perfectly fine to discard it. Instead, think about what changes you can feasibly make and start there. If you’ve started bringing your own coffee cup with you everywhere, amazing. If you compost but are still for the time being wedded to yogurt from the grocery store, who cares. I hope this comes as encouragement to work on what you can instead of feeling daunted.

Do what you can. Give yourself grace. Start somewhere. I’m cheering you on.

PS. More inspiration in the same vein, here.