What To Bring Around the World

What to bring around the world to stay zero waste while traveling | Litterless

Next week, my partner and I are leaving Madison to travel for a few months. It’s something we’ve been planning for a long time, and we’re excited. While we’re gone, I’m taking a hiatus from Litterless, both here and on social media; I’ll miss this space, especially when I encounter a new bulk grocery store (you know those are my jam), but I’m very much looking forward to everything else we’ll be doing while we’re away.

So: what do you bring around the world to stay zero waste?

The most important thing to bring, I think, is the knowledge that a big trip probably (certainly) won’t be zero waste. I don’t imagine that we will never buy a piece of packaged food, that we will always happen upon a bulk aisle when we need one, that we’ll find a compost bin in every locale.

What we’ll do is our best: to walk, to use public transportation, to minimize the number of flights we take, to seek out recycling bins and to brush up on local recycling rules, to carry our water bottles and refill them with tap water wherever possible.

And, of course, to bring a few pieces of zero waste gear.

What do you bring around the world to stay low-waste, then? I’ve been pondering the question for months now. The answer, for me, is very little. I haven’t tried to prepare for every possibility under the sun. I’m not carrying a tea strainer, a glass jar, a fountain pen, a safety razor, a coffee thermos, my usual two Nalgenes, a stainless steel straw.

What to bring around the world to stay zero waste while traveling | Litterless

Instead, I’m bringing what feels like the bare essentials to me: a water bottle, a cloth napkin, a utensil kit, a stainless steel food storage container, two produce bags, a bamboo toothbrush, a menstrual cup, a tin of bar soap, a plastic-free stain stick, a few handkerchiefs. I’ll try to keep my habits as sustainable as possible while I’m away and to let go of guilt or frustration when I can’t.

The process of winnowing down my entire stash of zero waste supplies into only what I’ll bring has been an exercise in remembering that there are many things I can do to reduce my waste and impact without buying or owning a specific object. Just like at home, we’ll try to only buy food that we’ll eat and to give away what we can’t, to bring a reusable container with us to restaurants to cart home leftovers, to order coffee and tea in a mug to stay, to hang laundry to dry rather than use a machine, to buy very little.

In some ways, I feel strange and slightly sad (wistful?) about stepping away from this beloved space for a bit, but mostly I’m excited to have a chance to rest and be present and think deeply about what’s next. I’ll be back to posting here in about six months (if I don’t get an itch to come back even sooner). You can sign up here to get an email when that first post after the break is up. Thank you so much for your readership over the years and for the thoughtful comments, emails, and exchanges. See you in August!

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Sustainability Podcasts for Holiday Travel

Sustainability podcasts for holiday travel | Litterless

What are you listening to these days? Tomorrow I’m headed away with my family for the holidays, and I’ve been stocking up my podcast queue, hoarding new episodes of old favorites and looking for new ones, too. In case you’re traveling, here are a few of the sustainability-themed podcasts I’ve loved this year:

-Live Planted: Alyssa is such a good interviewer, warm and wise and interested in going deep on topics related to veganism and living sustainably; listening to the show feels like chatting with a new friend. Recent faves of mine include a chat about cooking techniques that minimize food waste and a zero-waste Q&A. I spoke with Alyssa on the podcast a few weeks ago about environmentalism and joy and trash jars and more, which you can listen to here if you’d like.

-A Sustainable Mind: Sometimes I need help remembering that there’s a big environmental movement out there beyond zero waste. A Sustainable Mind’s host Marjorie Alexander talks to people working toward a sustainable world in so many ways, from farming to industrial design to corporate sustainability efforts. When I have some extra time, I’m looking forward to tuning in to this recent episode about climate adaptation.

Sustainability podcasts for holiday travel | Litterless

-Mothers of Invention: Mothers of Invention showcases female-driven solutions to climate change. (“Climate change is a man-made problem—with a feminist solution!”). Smart and funny Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins talk to women around the world who are leading the fight for a stable climate. A place for finding new heroes, like Yvette Abrahams and Sarra Tekola.

-Slow Home Podcast: Host Brooke McAlary isn’t interested in doing things other people’s way; good, because I’m not either. Listening to how her family has slowly downshifted to choose a life slower and richer and lighter on the planet leaves me encouraged and inspired. If you’re feeling frantic and looking for ideas for slowing your holidays—or regular days—start here. (Her Australian accent is a balm to the winter-bound, too).

-Forever 35: Everyone’s favorite podcast just spoke with Natalie Harris of The Tiny Closet (listen here) about sustainable fashion, shopping less, and affording ethically made clothing. So often I think conversations about smaller closets and ethical fashion sound the same, but Natalie’s perspective was unique in many ways, and so fascinating.

What else is on your list for listening? Very happy holidays to you and yours.

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.

Travel Tip: Plan Ahead for Shaving

Zero waste shaving while traveling by plane | Litterless

This past weekend, we visited Asheville for a close friend’s wedding. As part of our pre-wedding sprucing up, we both pulled out a plastic razor from our toiletry bags. At home, we shave with metal safety razors that are plastic-free and nearly endlessly reusable. When flying, though, the blades don’t make it through the security checkpoint - nor should they. After being reminded of this the hard way on a trip last month, this month we arrived in North Carolina with razors un-confiscated, but also un-zero waste.

Over the past few years of traveling with a mind to making less waste, I’ve found myself on both ends of the spectrum: safety razor packed and the blade confiscated at the airport, and safety razor not packed and a plastic razor purchased later while on vacation. In the spirit of finding solutions that are both simple and effective, I’ve been making more of an effort to accept the inevitable: yes, I wish I could just bring my safety razor and blade in my carry-on. No, that doesn’t work and neither does ignoring the issue entirely. Instead, I’m working on taking the time to plan a solution ahead of time instead of throwing up my hands and leaving shaving on vacation to the whims of fate.

Zero waste shaving while traveling by plane | Litterless

In case you’ve been in a similar boat (er, airplane), here are some ideas about how to shave in a more zero waste way while on vacation. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

-Check your safety razor through. If you’re checking a bag, the choice is easy. Safety razor blades can be included in your checked luggage. Pop your standard safety razor in your toiletry bag - carry the blade in a small, hard-shell case or box to avoid the risk of cutting yourself accidentally as you dig through your belongings - and stow it in your bag to check.

-Buy a blade at your destination. Safety razors themselves are fine to go through security; it’s the blades that pose an issue. You can bring a blade-less razor in your carry-on with a plan to buy a blade when you arrive. To save time, take your razor out of your bag at security so they can quickly check it to make sure it doesn’t have a blade; otherwise, they’ll have to search your bag, which takes longer. Places to search for safety razor blades include Whole Foods, local food co-ops, zero waste stores, barbershops, and corner shops. This method works best for longer trips where you’ll have time to shop and time to work your way, at least somewhat, through a package of blades. You can also plan to leave the extra blades with a friend or host, or to check them through on the way home to avoid wasting an open package.

-Purchase a Preserve razor. I’ll admit to being a general skeptic of Preserve products, slightly irritated that their recycled and recyclable toothbrushes and razors come in packaging that is, to my knowledge, neither. But they offer the best semi-sustainable plastic razor out there; it’s made of recycled plastic and you can send it back to them to be recycled as well. Plus, once you buy the handle, you can purchase replacement blades to cut down on waste a little bit further.

-Use an old plastic razor. When I bought my metal safety razor, I stashed away the rest of my unused plastic razors to use while traveling. Since I only shave a few times each trip - if that - the pile of razors has lasted years. When they finally, finally run out, I’ll choose an alternative. For now, making do with what we already own feels like the easiest route.

-Skip shaving. Of course, this is always an option, on vacation and off. As with all things grooming, shaving is a personal choice and your body is perfectly acceptable as it is. If you prefer not to shave, you’ll sidestep the issue entirely. But if you prefer to shave, make a plan.

Other tips for traveling and shaving with less waste? Tips for switching to a safety razor here.

Read more zero waste bath and beauty ideas here.

Nothing New: Plastic-Free Travel Toothbrush Cover


Until several recent spates of decluttering over the past few years, the bathroom I shared with my siblings in my childhood home was littered with all sorts of years-old items. Chief among them, several used and discarded plastic toothbrush holders, still slightly grubby and streaked white with spots of toothpaste. If you’ve ever had a plastic toothbrush cover of your own, I’m betting it looks somewhat the same.

There are some single-use plastic items that I miss since going zero waste, but plastic toothbrush holders are not one of them. They were hard to clean, hard to keep dry, and I rarely used each for more than a couple of trips before getting too grossed out to use it again.

Zero-waste, plastic-free travel toothbrush cover using just a handkerchief | Litterless

Instead, for the past several years I’ve wrapped my toothbrush in a clean handkerchief for a simple travel cover. The handkerchief keeps the head of the toothbrush clean, and I can lay the handkerchief flat once at the hotel so that I can rest the toothbrush and other items on a clean surface. Better still, after each trip the handkerchief goes into the wash and comes out perfectly clean. No toothpaste residue, no cracks and crevices to harbor bacteria or mold, no fussing about.

To wrap my toothbrush, I lay the handkerchief flat with the clean side facing up, place my toothbrush to one edge of the handkerchief, and double the handkerchief over it to enclose the portion with the bristles (most of the handle remains outside of the cloth). Then, I roll the handkerchief up around the toothbrush, and toss it in my toiletry bag. You could secure the roll with a rubber band, but I’ve never needed to; packed in a bag with lots of other things, the set-up seems to stay in place well enough without one.

Zero-waste, plastic-free travel toothbrush cover using just a handkerchief | Litterless

Sometimes a switch like this is so simple that I hesitate to write about it. But in preparation for a few upcoming trips, I’ve been reviewing my usual routines, and this one seemed like it might be helpful. I hope you find it so.

More resources:

-If you’d like a more traditional plastic-free alternative, Brush with Bamboo also makes a travel toothbrush case.

-How to make your own handkerchiefs.

-Another simple travel tip along these same lines.

Anyone else do this? Other simple zero waste travel ideas to share?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

A Plastic-Free Stain Stick, for Travel and Everyday

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

I’m not historically the most efficient packer out there, which perhaps is why I felt inordinately proud of myself this past Labor Day weekend. After I threw all my clothing in my favorite weekend bag to head to a lake house with friends, said bag remained a good one-third empty. I marveled at its lightness and the way the top of it squashed down, a far cry from my usual luggage, which is full to the hilt and more.

I’m learning to be better about choosing multipurpose items when I travel: instead of pajamas, leggings that work for yoga or lounging or sleeping. Instead of three handkerchiefs, a handkerchief and a cloth napkin and we’ll see how it goes. 

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

In my arsenal since earlier this summer, the soap stick from Meliora Cleaning Products. It’s intended to serve as a laundry stain remover, which it does with aplomb, but since I’ve been carrying it around with me, I’ve found it works for other things, too. It does dual duty as bar soap in a hotel bathroom where you’d rather not unwrap the plastic-packaged bar by the sink. Or, dare I say, the gas station bathroom that is somehow out of soap entirely.

Typical plastic stain removal pens not only aren’t recyclable, but they also can’t serve as hand wash in a pinch or make suds for sock washing in the sink. They’re full of junky and toxic chemicals that you probably wouldn’t want to wash your hands with, even if you could. Conversely, Meliora’s stick is just soap. Soap that’s been especially formulated to optimize stain removal – Kate and Mike, the founders, are both engineers and trust me when I say I’ve heard them get deep in the weeds on the science that makes their products so effective – but also soap that you could use as a body wash if you need to, or for rinsing out duds in the river on a camping trip, or for lathering up your kid’s hands in the park.

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

Or, say, the power went out at the lake house you and twenty other people had rented for Labor Day just at 7 pm when you were all trooping in from a day swimming in the lake. Since the running water for showering was out too, of course, you might want a biodegradable soap that you could jump right back in the lake with and lather up. Same applies to backpackers and camping enthusiasts. I’m glad to have a multi-use option that lets us lighten both our load and the planet’s. 

A few further details: the soap stick comes packaged in a cardboard box, which you can recycle or keep around for storing it. For traveling, it’s hard-wearing enough that it won’t crumble if you tote it around in a bandanna, napkin, washcloth, or small travel tin. I keep one with my travel toiletries, near our washing machine, and sometimes carry one in my tote bag, too. The soap stick is also palm oil-, cruelty-, and fragrance-free, and boasts the Made Safe certification. (Not to mention that Meliora is also B-Corp and pledges 1% for the Planet; you can learn more about their certifications here).  

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

You can find the soap stick on their website right here, or browse their other products, like laundry detergent and an all-purpose cleaning spray that we’ve lately become entirely reliant upon for nightly kitchen straightening.

Orders placed on their website come packaged in a cardboard box with all-paper wrapping, including paper tape. And if you live in Chicago, where they’re based and do their manufacturing, you can find Meliora products locally at Dill Pickle Food Co-op, the Whole Foods at North and Clybourn, and at Sugar Beet Food Co-op, which also carries their laundry detergent in bulk.

(This post is sponsored by Meliora Cleaning Products, makers of cleaning products with the highest standards for safety and sustainability.)

Packing a Zero Waste Travel Kit

Packing for a zero waste trip with low-waste travel gear | Litterless

This post is sponsored by MATTER, makers of ethically produced clothing and accessories that are hand-printed and naturally-dyed.

A mental checklist of the things I bring with me when traveling or leaving the house often looks something like: Water bottle, cloth napkin, reusable fork, handkerchief, produce bag, compost container, menstrual cup. If staying zero waste while out and about means endlessly digging around in the bottom of my purse for the aforementioned items, I'm not sure I'm cut out for this. (Kidding. Though I do hate digging around in the bottom of my purse). But the fact that I do travel with more gear in tow now that I'm trying to reduce my reliance on disposable goods is ineluctable.

Packing for a zero waste trip with low-waste travel gear | Litterless

Thanks to MATTER, I've finally found one solution to keeping everything a bit neater. MATTER makes clothing and accessories with a focus on sustainability: both for their workers (they're transparent about their relationships with the folks in India who block-print and stitch their clothing) and for the environment (they use natural fibers like cotton and linen, emphasize printing and dyeing with natural or toxin-free dyes, and make classics that are designed to last). 

They sent me a set of their travel pouches to test out on my recent trip, and since getting these two zippered bags into my clutches, they've hardly left my side. I'm not saying you need a dedicated pouch for holding some of your travel essentials, but I am saying it's been helpful for me of late. Here's how I've thought about using mine to corral a few zero waste essentials - and just life essentials - for traveling:

Packing for a zero waste trip with low-waste travel gear | Litterless

In the larger of the two pouches, I put together a set of the items I typically use when I'm out and about. I laid out a small cotton towel for drying my hands after washing (in lieu of paper towels), my well-worn linen napkin with a metal fork plucked from my kitchen drawer tucked inside, a reusable silicone bag for holding any bits of pieces of compost made throughout the day, a produce bag for grabbing a croissant or an apple or a bagel, a handkerchief, and a mini tin of homemade lip balm.

These are pretty much my essentials - yours may look different, and certainly I could pare these down to a smaller selection. (But then I'd probably need the item I took out, and regret not bringing it). Together, they cover most of the situations I encounter. I used to throw all of these pell-mell into my bag, making for a cluttered mess at the bottom: a fork that often came unwrapped and got dirty, a napkin that collected the crumbs that inevitably sink to the bottom of a bag. With the help of this zippered pouch, it was nice to keep them all in one spot, clean, and intact. Plus, having them all tucked away together means I can easily throw this pouch in whatever bag I'm carrying that day, instead of having to painstakingly gather every item afresh. HELPFUL.

Packing for a zero waste trip with low-waste travel gear | Litterless

In the smaller of the two pouches, I pulled together a small kit of airplane essentials. Plane trips are similarly afflicted by the whole pawing-around-in-my-bag-looking-for-a-tiny-item thing, and having a dedicated space to keep headphones, a toothbrush and small pot of toothpaste, a glass jar of hand balm, a handkerchief, and an eye mask is a much more convenient solution.

Packing for a zero waste trip with low-waste travel gear | Litterless

You can find these pouches in a set of two or in a set of three. I chose the gold, but all of MATTER's block prints are striking and lovely.

What do you bring when you're traveling? Items I missed, or items I've left out? Are you already hip to the whole pouch-using system?

This post is sponsored by MATTER. Thank you for supporting Litterless.