Zero Waste Souvenirs

How to shop for zero waste souvenirs | Litterless

You've probably heard the mantra: Choose experiences over stuff. The intent is to help us be mindful of moving away from rampant consumerism to a more thoughtful approach, one where activities done with those we love are prioritized over the small rush you get when buying something new. I'm on board with that. And yet experiences won't hold your groceries or blow your nose - only tote bags and handkerchiefs can. (Pictured above are a tote bag and handkerchief I bought in San Fransisco last month).

As in all things, of course, there's a balance to be struck. I find that trying to adhere to zero-tolerance rules like "Experiences are always better than stuff" rubs me the wrong way and never ends up being a change that I can implement long-term. 

And that's why I'm writing in defense of souvenirs. Souvenirs get a bad rap - they're often associated with useless, trinket-y crap, and rightly so. But that doesn't mean that all souvenirs have to be useless or trinkets. I mainly follow two unofficial guidelines for souvenirs: I don't buy things I wouldn't normally buy (there! all trinkets are officially excluded), and I apply the same criteria to souvenirs that I would to purchases at home. Here are a few more detailed looks into how I approach it:

-Save purchases for trips. The fact that I rarely buy things when I'm not traveling is probably the root of 75% of my souvenir purchases, and part of the reason why I fall staunchly on Team Souvenir. I keep a running mental list of things that I need, but I rarely feel compelled to purchase them when I'm at home: I get busy, I don't often shop, the need isn't pressing, etc. But when I'm on vacation and spy the perfect item to check something off my list, I instantly feel no guilt about bringing it home. Items that I've bought this way include a wool blanket in Ireland, linen napkins in Seattle, a birthday gift for a friend in Death Valley, a tea strainer in Milwaukee. The birthday gift excepted, these things fill gaps in my home and remind me of the trip each time I pull them out. So much nicer to think of the foggy day we spent on Bainbridge Island when I hang my napkins up to dry than to think of a Target in Chicago.

-Buy useful things. If the intent of a souvenir is to recall warm memories of a trip, what better than something you'll actually put to use, day in and day out? Tote bags, handkerchiefs, kitchen towels, wooden spoons. My parents have a habit of picking up kitchen items on their trips: anything from a mundane spatula to something special, like a beautiful porcelain serving bowl. A couple of years ago when we were engaged in a round of drawer decluttering at my parents' house, I tried to give away an old garlic press; my dad snatched it back, saying, "I bought that in Poland twenty years ago!" That's proof: useful souvenirs have staying power.

-Buy consumables. I've mentioned before that I always love swinging by a local bulk food aisle to check out the selection and perhaps bring a few things home to cook with (what my friend Elizabeth calls "grocery store tourism"). But, this doesn't have to just be food - it can be anything that you periodically need to replace. I've bought compostable wooden dish brushes in Ireland, Bee's Wrap for a hostess gift in San Fransisco, bulk tea and spices in Oakland. You could also choose a few bars of package-free bar soap, a bamboo toothbrush, anything you'll use up or wear out. Since you'd need to buy these items eventually anyway, getting them as a souvenir isn't an issue.

-Choose a local specialty. For coffee drinkers, planning to buy coffee to take home in a jar brought for that purpose or compostable packaging makes sense. A spicy rub from a barbecue-heavy city, local honey from a rural area, tea from the United Kingdom will remind you of your trip and prove useful in your kitchen. Often, things like these are sold in pretty jars or tins that you can reuse for years, too.

-Do some secondhand browsing. I'm deeply choosy when it comes to secondhand shopping, so I can't remember actually purchasing a secondhand item to bring home with me - but I have happy memories of browsing in a Seattle thrift shop with my friend Susan, a New York City one with my closest friend from college, and popping into a favorite Philadelphia store when I was there last.

-Plan ahead. The thing about shopping for package-free items is that, well, you're gonna need to provide the packaging yourself. If you're able to tuck a few empty jars, produce bags, and a tote bag in your suitcase, you won't be stuck later on having to purchase said items in a rush or having to sadly say no to buying bulk ramen noodle bricks or whatever else you fancy.

Do you purchase a few trip mementos like me, or have you kicked the habit entirely? What do you typically gravitate to?

Previously in Travel: How to stay zero waste on a long flight, and a trip to Rainbow Grocery.