Five Tips to Minimize Waste While Traveling

Guest blog post by Lindsay Miles,

We all want to enjoy our travels without having a detrimental impact on the the environment and the people who live there. Keeping our waste to a minimum while traveling can be tricky, but it is possible.


Why Does It Matter?

When we throw stuff away it doesn’t disappear. There is no “away.” Rubbish gets burned, thrown into a hole in the ground, piled up on the edge of town or worse – dumped straight into the nearest river or ocean. Our trash has an impact on the planet. It produces methane and chokes wildlife. Plastic in particular is a huge issue, as it’s difficult to recycle and persists for decades in the environment.

Single-use plastic is the biggest problem of all – a material that lasts forever designed to be used for minutes. It’s estimated that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and only 10% of that has been recycled more than once. Even if a country has a great waste management system, that’s no excuse to create more garbage. The good news is, there are some simple things we can do to reduce the amount of waste we create.

1. Carry Reusables

The top 10 items found in beach clean-ups include coffee cups, plastic bags, food packaging, plastic cutlery, and straws – all single-use items that are easy to avoid with a little pre-planning. Need ideas? Check out this post on how to Eliminate Single-Use Plastics While Traveling by Bringing Reusables. Bringing along reusable items can hugely minimize our impact and won’t take up too much space or weigh down your bag.

Some reusable items that you can bring with you when traveling include: a utensil set, a water bottle, a lunchbox, and a cup.

A reusable water bottle is a must when traveling, starting at the airport. You can take your own water bottle on flights – it will pass through customs as long as it is empty. Many airports now have water refill stations so you can refill a bottle before getting on a flight; if not, the flight attendants will happily fill your bottle on the plane.

The big question is always whether the tap water is safe to drink at the destination. Do your research before you arrive. Check the official information provided by your government by all means, but remember that they can be a little over-zealous. Find out from people who have recently visited, or locals, and understand what the risks are. “Not tasting great” is very different from “contains giardia.”

Sometimes the water is safe to drink but is better once filtered with a basic water filter. Reusable bottles can be found that have a filter built in. You can also boil your water to kill off any bacteria.

If you have to buy water while traveling, opt for glass that can be recycled or the largest plastic container available that you can refill multiple times during your trip.


2. Rethink Takeaway

Before choosing an item to-go, consider whether it is possible to dine in instead and use real utensils and crockery. It adds to the experience of traveling as is far more pleasurable to sit down, enjoy our food and drink slowly – not to mention, everything tastes better not served in plastic.

If there is no dine-in option, opt for items that have the least packaging, and the least plastic. Find out if the vendor will fill a container that you brought. Ask questions – is it possible to wrap without plastic? What is the lowest waste item they offer? Some food products will come packaged in cardboard or paper, or even wrapped in banana leaves. If you don’t need the sauce packets or extra cutlery, don’t take them.

 ecoboxes reusable lunchboxes are a great way to cut back on single-use plastic items

Bring your reusables along (like this lunchbox) to take your leftovers back to your Airbnb/hotel.  


3. Fight Food Waste

The UN has estimated that if food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. Try not to waste food. If you tend to order more than you can eat, bring a reusable container to take your leftovers home.

Find out what the local composting options are. Some municipalities will collect food scraps from the curbside, and take them for composting. Villages might have their own composting systems, or cities might have community gardens with compost facilities. Depending where you’re staying, burying small amounts of food might be an option. Use your reusable container to keep your scraps while looking for an answer. It can be tricky to find solutions, but not impossible.


4. Recycle Right

Recycling doesn’t need to stop just because we are away from home. Do your best to find out what’s recyclable, and where to take it. The local municipality website might have resources, or ask the manager of the accommodation you’re staying in. Keep your eye out for recycling bins in the street and in shopping centers. Some villages have centralized drop-off points that are within walking distance. Most hotels have one bin, and it all goes in the trash, yet there will likely be options if we look a little further. Once you know what is recyclable and what isn’t, use this information to help inform your packaging choices when buying items.


recycling bins in Spain


5. Take Your Trash Home with You

When we go camping in wilderness areas, we are often asked to take all our trash home with us because it’s not possible to deal with it on site. The truth is, many of the places we visit also aren’t equipped to deal with our trash, and the lowest impact option can be to take our trash home with us. It isn’t always practical, but it is something to consider. It is easier on a road trip with a vehicle on hand, and harder on a plane with only carry-on luggage. But if we can’t take it home with us, and there’s no way to deal with it at the place we visit, we can consider whether we could avoid creating that piece of trash in the first place.


Traveling is a great way to see the world, and if we are to preserve these places and cultures for the next generation, we need to be mindful of our impact. Avoiding waste is a huge opportunity for us to think about our choices. Traveling light isn’t just about the weight of our pack, it’s just as much about what we leave behind.


Lindsay Miles writes about less waste and less stuff at Her new book ‘Less Stuff’ will be released in the USA on August 6th. Follow her on Instagram at @treadingmyownpath.