I first heard about zero waste life style a few years ago. The article I read was about a girl who just stopped producing waste. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to it though. No matter how inspiring the story was, I just imagined her whole life to be just about not producing waste. In my mind, it was too much of a commitment to make.
That was until I saw my sister doing it. She didn’t go zero waste but she started using bamboo toothbrushes, she stopped using conventional toothpaste, she never bought a T-shirt from a clothes chain ever again. It didn't give her more work to do, it didn't make her life more complicated and she was suddenly heading in a direction of eco-friendly lifestyle in use.
I don’t live zero waste and really, I am very far from the famous mason jar worth of rubbish. But with some very easy steps, I was able to reduce some of my waste even during long term travelling.
Challenges do come up though. For most of the past year, I have lived in countries without separate waste system and without many zero waste alternatives.
My year in China was probably a year when I produced the most waste in my whole life.
I had to come up with a plan and when I set off to Nepal, I was prepared. Before having a look at how I am reducing my travel waste, let’s speak about why it is so important. Hint: It is probably even more important than reducing your waste when you are not travelling.
Why you should reduce your travel waste
The first obvious reason is the most common zero waste argument. The less waste you produce, the less waste there is for the Earth to handle. While waste disposal management might be better in certain countries, there isn't an ideal way to dispose non-recyclable waste anywhere. No waste, no problem.
However, there are certainly countries handling their waste in a worse way than the others. In many (and I really think it is the most of) countries, there is no recycling system at all and their disposal of waste is worrying to say the least.
When I came to Nepal a few weeks ago, I was horrified to see piles of rubbish being burnt in the streets (not just in little provincial towns but in the centre of Kathmandu) or chucked out behind villages in no-so-pristine Himalayan landscape.
That’s when I realised that no matter what rubbish bin I throw my rubbish into, it will end up being burnt (causing city pollution not even speaking about greenhouse gas emissions), disposed on a "landfill" (being dispersed by wind or causing digestion problems or death to animals who accidentally eat it) or in a river (and eventually ending up in the sea causing even more problems there).
Even if you travel in countries with a recycling system you never know if your plastic bottle ended up actually being recycled. Each country also collects a bit different materials (for example cans aren't widely collected in the Czech Republic) so you never know what you actually can throw in a recycling bin. And if you are on holiday, I bet you don't want to spend time looking for recycling bins in the new place anyway.
Honestly, when it comes to travelling, only no waste is a good waste. Let’s have a look how you can reduce it.
Embrace drinking bottle
It took me two years since my first trip to Asia (a.k.a. since my first trip to a country where I can’t drink tap water) to get a water bottle. What did I think? That people in countries like Vietnam or China drink from plastic bottles all the time? Absolutely not.
It might be the right choice of countries or just a coincidence, but I haven't been to a country yet where it would be difficult to find safe water to refill.
There were water dispensers with filtered water everywhere in Malaysia (even on tiny islands), hotels and hostels in Nepal always seem to have a big dispenser of filtered water too, sometimes free of charge. In China, it is a combination of filtered water dispensers and boiling kettle. You can completely get used to drinking hot water, don't worry (and it’s supposed to be really good for you too).
If you are still worried about water safety or go to a remote area which you doubt would have filtered water, consider buying iodine tablets or a water bottle with a filter, I’ve never done either of this but check this post which sums up your options pretty well.
You travel to a country where you can drink tap water? Sorted. I survived two week hitchhiking trip in France, two road trips in Scotland and one road trip in Slovenia on water refilled in pubs, restaurants and at petrol station toilets.
The only complication might be the short automatic tap with hot water only. Even if that happens, try to ask one of members of staff around as they usually have another tap with cold water hidden somewhere else. If you ask nicely enough, I am sure they will help you.
My water bottle is nothing fancy. It’s from China and I bought it for about $3. I’ve been using it every day for the past six months and I am actually surprised it’s lasted for so long (and very happy, really, as it’s made of plastic).
Food wrapped in plastic
It sometimes really is difficult to avoid plastic wraps etc. Even if you wouldn't buy wrapped pastry or snacks normally, you are much more likely to do it on long journeys or in places with poor hygiene, or if you want to taste street food which is often served in a plastic bag or a takeaway box.
While travelling, you have several options. You can avoid plastic eating fruit which is traditionally sold at local markets in developing countries or at “farmers markets” in developed countries. It is the same thing. Aim at local seasonal fruit and veg which is usually the cheapest and prefer fruit with a peel if you don’t have facilities to wash it with clean water.
Another option to avoid food wrapping is simply eating out. This might be especially easy when travelling in Asia where food in restaurants and local eateries is dirty cheap. Eat at busy places where you see a lot of locals as this means customers return (= good hygiene standards) stick with heat-processed food and you will be fine.
Also, try to only eat freshly prepared food. While this might be super easy in Vietnam or China for example, in Philippine or Indian style eateries food sits around for a whole day as it’s prepared in big amounts in advance. Again, I try to stick to places which look reasonably busy and hope for the best.
When in Europe, try patisseries, pastelarias, pekárny or whatever form of bakery there might be in that particular country. It is much easier to avoid food wrapping and usually much tastier too.
Refuse plastic bags
If you think that Europe was too much when it comes to using plastic bags, I can assure you that Asia is just insane. You get at least one for everything. Every single time.
While explaining you don't want a plastic bag in your own language is challenging enough, I surprisingly never had the slightest problem telling people in a language I don’t speak. Use a firm voice, hand gesture or learn a basic phrase. I can for example say “bu yao zhe ge” in my Tarzan Chinese or “chaina yo” in my Tarzan Nepali.
You sometimes get funny looks but honestly…who cares?
Essentials I wouldn’t manage it without? My tote bag and a reusable linen bag. Again, it’s very basic. I bought my tote bag at one of London clothes markets for about $6. It’s great as a day bag and I often keep it folded in my little backpack and use it for my shopping or even instead of plastic bag for fruit and veg.
I bought my reusable linen bag in Prague’s first zero waste shop Bezobalu. It’s sturdy, big enough for a proper pastry/fruit/sweets shopping but takes no space at all when it’s folded in my big bag.
Get more waste-free cosmetics
While I am not from zero waste folk, I’ve been improving. I’m using solid Trichomania shampoo from Lush which came in paper wrapping. And I’ve been using the same chunk for almost a year now. I keep it in a plastic box together with a chunk of solid soap I cut off a big soap cube while at home.
While solid cosmetics might be slightly less convenient to use, you will be grateful for it everytime you go through an airport security if you only travel with a carry on. Once I run out of my shampoo, I am going to buy Lush shampoo and soap again, this time into my own box skipping paper wrapping altogether.
My conditioner is Lush American Cream which comes in a bottle from 100% recycled plastic, the lid is recyclable. I wanted to try something new and also liked how small the bottle is. Perfect for travelling. However, next time I will return to slightly bulkier but fully recyclable Retread conditioner of the same brand as I prefer it for my hair type anyway.
Other personal hygiene items
I quit tissues. And it’s a big step for a person who had chronic colds for 9 years straight, you know. Just before I set off for Nepal, I got a neat pack of tartan handkerchiefs from my mum. I have four of them which is enough to keep them turning between washes and they still take less space than 3-4 tissue packs I always used to carry with me.
A bit over a year ago, I also quit tampons, bought a menstrual cup and never looked back. For me, it’s a combination of saving space, money and time I would spend looking for “my” brand of tampons in a foreign country, as well as significantly reducing my waste. Read this post which sums it up pretty well.
Get good-quality travel gear
I don’t even have to mention this, do I? Good quality gear is an investment which saves you money, time and waste. And my travel equipment is one of the things I really don’t save money at.
My first ever investment of this kind was buying Merrel sandals. I bought them over three years ago and they've been on all my Asian adventures, in Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines (including canyoneering and climbing up a volcano), Singapore, Hong Kong (including climbing up Victoria’s peak) and China (I taught in those sandals every day for about 6 months of hot weather we got there).
They have broken twice but what’s more important, they could always be repaired. I hope to keep using them for years to come. They have already lasted about three times as long as any other sandals I had before!
I also purchased a pair of Timberland boots for cold weather and I want to test them as hiking shoes later on this year. Again, the price was pretty steep but I expect not to buy any new shoes for a long time.
The same applies for for my two backpacks. I bought my Alpine Pro three years ago and literally used it for every single trip until last month. There are absolutely no signs of it being worn out.
Just before leaving for Nepal, I decided to buy another backpack big enough for travelling to cold countries or long trips. I went for Osprey Ariel 65l and love it so much! Although it is very new and so I haven’t tested it much yet, I am very positive it will last for a long time.
6 steps to get even better
1. safety razor
Zero waste idols swear by it and promise you won't cut yourself more than you would with a usual plastic shaver. It's body and changeable tops are both from stainless steel and as such, they are fully recyclable. This post from Going Zero Waste says it all. It might be difficult to get this delivered while you are travelling but I am definitely getting one as soon as I have an address the razor could be sent to!
UPDATE JANUARY 2017
I managed to buy a safety razor in India! It is just like I expected to be. Slightly rougher than classic plastic shavers but it is definitely worth it. Similarly to menstruation cup, it is a pain to buy good quality razors in certain countries and so having just one single safety razor saves a lot of hassle. Just don't forget to stock up on razor blades if you are travelling for a while.
2. Filter water bottle
My old Chinese water bottle has been doing great but my next destination being India, I am slightly worried about getting a trustworthy source of water for refills there. Hearing a lot of great stuff about Lifestraw water bottle, I am very much decided to get it. Wait for a report on how it goes!
3. Lunch box
I've been really missing it here! It would be perfect for snacks, lunch for long journeys or as a substitute to takeaway boxes including street food. For my next trip, I am going to steal one of the Tupperware lunch boxes from my mum's kitchen. They are very light, sturdy and practically unbreakable (from my experience, they last 10+ years). As a thing which has been already bought but not currently used, it's a complete win-win!
4. better quality clothes
I'm not a shopping fan by any means and I have a very limited amount of clothes. What I plan on doing in a long term though is to gradually swap to high-quality, long-lasting and natural material wardrobe. No more H&M T-shirts!
5. unwrapped body soap
This might be slightly inconvenient. It's not easy to get unwrapped soap everywhere in the world and so you need to stock up before long journeys. Soap usually lasts for ages though so it isn't a massive thing to carry. And again, having a solid soap is super useful at airport security checks.
6. Stay determined
The world is against you a lot of the time. It keeps giving you plastic bags, wraps all your food, makes it difficult to get drinking water for refills. Stay determined and keep thinking that what you are doing makes a difference.
Do you have your own way of reducing travel-related waste? Have you found it difficult?