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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

Zero Waste Travel

Eliminating, substituting, and/or reducing the waste from our around-the-world gallivanting

Train station travel

I've been afflicted by wanderlust since childhood and therefore travel is a huge part of my life. The first question I usually get from friends when we contact each other is: "Where in the world are you now?"

Being constantly on the move does have some negative side effects, particularly in the amount of waste one can generate, especially when traveling in developing countries where recycling is an alien concept and throwing trash outside the car window is perfectly normal.

Still, all is not lost. There are plenty of ways to minimise your waste while traveling in an ethical and conscientious way as a guest in somebody else’s home country.

Itineraries & Tickets

Keep it digital, don’t print

In a time when smartphones are all but glued to our hands 24/7, the need to have printed copies of itineraries and flight tickets are long gone (although why airport counters insist on continuing to do so is a puzzle to me). On our side, at least, we can simply download the details in digital form to our phones and present our phone screens for scanning.

digital ticket on your phone

Digital tickets. Who needs paper?

Print on used paper / recycled paper

If traveling with an airline or transportation company that doesn’t believe in going digital and still requires you to present a printed copy of tickets or proof of purchase, do your printing with used or recycled paper.


If you find yourself still caught with paper tickets and itineraries and unsolicited brochures during a trip, do dispose of them into the right recycling bins. If the country you’re traveling in has yet to discover the necessity of recycling, consider keeping the bits of paper until you return home, where you are able to recycle them.


Minimize toiletries

This is an echo of a previous post on Zero Waste Personal Hygiene & Beauty, as the same principles apply: as much as possible, cut down on the amount of products you need to keep clean and beautiful.

At the most basic, you really only need a toothbrush, toothpaste, body soap and shampoo (you can even combine the last two with an all-body soap that can be used from head to toe). Some of us may need an extra boost in the form of hair conditioners, hair gel, perfume, shaving kit, etc, while some of us may be able to forego those when traveling on short trips.

minimal toiletry kit

A minimal zero waste travel kit

Whichever the case, keep it simple. Having less to bring will not only generate less waste, it will also lighten your luggage!

Use naked products

After deciding on your minimal list of toiletry necessities, purchase them ‘naked’ (ie without packaging) or in reusable containers if you’re not already doing so on a normal basis. Rather than buying tiny travel-versions of everything, use up what you already have sitting at home: cut up a small piece from a bar of soap, or fill up reusable bottles with products you already own.


When you’ve used up your toiletries that come in packaging and need to dispose of them, check if they are recyclable, and if yes, dispose them into the right bin. If the country you’re traveling in has yet to discover the necessity of recycling, consider keeping the containers until you return home, where you are able to recycle them.

If they’re not recyclable, consider finding a second use for them. Throwing them away is the last resort, but not before giving yourself a mental note to find a better, waste-free alternative for future trips!


Eat-in as much as possible

When traveling, there’s usually little choice but to obtain your food from outside sources, and the main waste that gets generated here is packaging waste: the take-out boxes, the plastic cutleries, the tissue paper, the packets of condiments, etc.

To avoid that, choose to eat in the restaurant instead of doing take-outs. After all, part of the point of traveling is eating the food in a local ambience, rather than scurrying back to eat in your sterile hotel room. Eating in means you’re eating with proper plates and cutlery in a place equipped to wash and reuse them, and maybe even a place equipped with composting organic waste from unfinished food.

dining at a restaurant

Sit down, have a bite, people-watch for a while.

(The exception to this is fast food restaurants, which not only puts a lot of garbage out into the world whether you eat in or take away food, but also puts garbage in your body too!)

Bring your own container and/or cutlery

Sometimes, however, the food in question is street food (and boy, am I a big lover of street food!), which makes disposable containers and cutlery almost impossible to avoid.

Make a habit of carrying your own cutlery and containers (see Zero Waste Shopping & Dining Out for tips on this) and handkerchief. Don’t be shy to refuse the disposables offered to you. Simply tell the staff you don’t need the flimsy plastic spoon and fork, nor the ten bajillion tissue papers they like to include because you’ve got that covered.

Bring your own utensils

And if, at the end of it all, you still find yourself holding a mound of disposable things, it’s okay. Enjoy the food, dispose responsibly and try again next time!

Grocery shop at farmer’s markets using reusable bags

In the instances where you are able to prepare your own food while traveling (especially for slow travelers who rent apartments instead of flitting from one hotel to another), you will likely be visiting grocery stores rather than restaurants.

In that case, opt to visit a local farmer’s market instead, where the produce come straight from the growers and are usually not suffocated in plastic wrappings. Bring your own reusable produce bags (see Zero Waste Shopping & Dining Out for tips on this) and shop away.

farmers' market

Farmer's markets are so aesthetically-pleasing - definitely a place to sightsee!

Compost food scraps

If cooking on your own, check with the apartment or facility owner regarding composting options. In countries that mandate trash separation and collect organic waste (typically Europe and parts of North America), ask for instructions on how to handle organic waste. In countries that don’t, check to see if the owner would mind if you dug a hole in the backyard to bury your organic waste. If they don’t know anything about composting, educate them! (See Make Compost, Not Waste for more information)


Buy secondhand

One the joys of traveling is checking out fun and unique stores that cannot be found in your home country. Sure, you can go check out the usual same ol’ brands that are found in literally EVERY city, EVERY airport and EVERY mall, but why do that when you can go check out local treasures??

secondhand shop

Secondhand shops are always an adventure in and of themselves. Source.

Secondhand stores are my favourite, partly because they keep things from being thrown away, but also because they reflect the local community in which the stores are located (the items in there did come from the community after all) and are guaranteed to hold delightful and unexpected surprises.

While you can absolutely shop wherever you want and buy whatever you want, consider buying secondhand and giving things a second chance at life - they also serve as great mementos from the trip!

Minimize packaging

Aside from refusing plastic bags and using your own reusable bags, always opt for items or products with minimal packaging. This is especially difficult in countries like Japan, where more layers of wrapping paper indicates more respect, which typically means guests and traveler are recipients of gifts or purchases swaddled in packaging - nevertheless, try your best!

Opt for naked products where possible, refuse unnecessary packaging and share your reasons behind it if asked. It is very likely that you will inspire others to do the same.

The Bad News

Airline tags & stickers

One by-product of traveling that cannot be recycled, sadly, are your airline luggage tags and stickers. Stickers are made from vinyl, which is recyclable plastic. Unfortunately, the sticky backs of stickers are not (with the exception of Post-it notes, whose sticky backs are made from glue that dissolves during recycling).

Unless you have access to a vinyl recycling company that accepts stickers, or a recycling collection company that accepts stickers, and until airline companies switch to better and recyclable material to make these tags from, there is no choice but to trash them.

What you can do, however, is write a letter to your airline of choice (or all the airlines whose service you use) about this issue and urge them to look for ways to remove this as a waste product. Air Asia, for example, allows you to print your luggage tag on paper, and slip it into a provided protective plastic tag. After the flight, the paper can be recycled, and the plastic tag can be reused again for your next flight!

reusable bag tag sleeves

Good job, Air Asia!



Achievement Award: Minimize packaging in your toiletries, souvenirs and food purchases, shop second-hand and write to your favourite airline about those pesky unrecyclable luggage tags!

Points For Effort: Recycle the waste you generate, refuse disposables and carry your own reusable stuff!

Um, Maybe Not: Traveling is enough of a headache without having to worry about your waste? That’s okay, continue as you do, and find some other waste to eliminate! Check out other recommendations here.

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