Minimal Waste Travel

As someone who travels a fair amount, I really do try to be mindful of the trash I produce while exploring the world. But. Reducing waste while traveling is HARD. Between all the trash created during long haul flights, hotel toiletries, quick meals out in a new city… it’s easy to create a significant mound of trash during a week-long trip. So… what do we do? Nope — we don’t need to be perfect. My primary reason for traveling is to explore. And if exploring leads to a bit of waste… it’s okay. However, I am mindful to not create too much unnecessary waste. Here are my tips for reducing even a tiny bit of “travel trash”.

Bring a travel water bottle. I use a Que bottle that compresses down to a fairly small size and doesn’t have a risk of shattering. Flight attendants have had no problem filling my bottle for me on flights and I continue to refill the bottle at airports, hotels, restaurants, etc. to completely avoid having to buy water bottles or getting the plastic cups of water on the plane.

Avoid plane snacks (i.e. the peanuts, pretzels etc.) on short flights and bring your own. For long-haul flights, I haven’t gone as far as contacting the airline to not have a meal for me on the flight but this may be an option if you are really looking to cut down. (My understanding is that if you just refuse a meal on the flight, the meal just goes to waste. Anyone know anything more about this? Any other ideas?)

Save your recycling. I find it odd that most hotel rooms don’t have a recycling bin. Anyways, I tend to save whatever can be recycled throughout my trip and then find a recycle bin on the street to empty everything in to.

Eat at restaurants (instead of getting take out) as much as possible. Even if I’m super tired, I try to eat at the restaurant as much as possible while traveling instead of getting something “to go” to avoid creating the inevitable waste that comes along with pre-packaged or take out food.

Ignore the hotel toiletries. Unless the hotel has toiletries in large refillable bottles, I avoid using the travel sized toiletries. I bring my own soap (bar), shampoo (bar), lotion (de-potted), etc. (It’s probably better for your skin anyways to use consistent products!).

Save your transit cards. I’ve had the same Oyster card to use in London for the past 10 years and I have no plans to toss it any time soon! Saving this card has helped me avoid getting a new card at least 8 times now.

Pack a reusable grocery bag. This takes up almost zero space (I fold mine in my purse) and helps avoid gathering shopping bags while out shopping in a new city. And on that note…

Avoid purchasing knick-knacks. Listen. I love picking up unusual things on my travels. However, let’s be mindful to not get things that’ll ultimately end up at Goodwill. Some favorite (and useful) purchases on my travels include skincare and personal care finds from local pharmacies (preferably in recyclable glass bottles or, at the very least, #1 or #2 plastic), biscuits and loose leaf teas in cardboard or aluminum tins, and thoughtful coffee table books from a local bookstore.

Zero Waste Doggos

Meet our dogs, Scout and Sydney. Sydney is our 14 year old golden and Scout is our 1 year old golden.

Aren’t they cute?

Now. Dogs sure do produce a lot of waste. They eat a lot. Poop a lot. Destroy things a lot. BUT it is possible to reduce the amount of dog related things that go to the landfill. Here’s what we do for the most commonly used/needed items.

Food: Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find bulk dog food — especially for the brand you might want. We do a combination of canned food (which we recycle) and Holistic Select dog food. Holistic Select is part of the Wellness Pet Food brand that has a TerraCycle program to recycle the bags. For treats, we have found bulk treats at local dog bakeries. In addition, our dogs love frozen yogurt treats (just stick yogurt in silicone molds and freeze) and frozen bananas (compost the peels).

Poop: When at home, we flush the poop straight down the toilet, as recommended by the EPA (I swear it is not as disgusting as it sounds). On the off chance our dogs poop while out, we bag the poop and throw it away (dog owners — never leave poop outside on the sidewalk or even in the grass as it can pollute waterways!). While I do buy those biodegradable/made from recycled material bags, I don’t think they are truly effective since once those bags are in the landfill, they don’t get the light or oxygen necessary to break down.

Toys: Our dogs play almost exclusively with West Paw toys (the Zogoflex toys). They are incredibly durable for our mouthy retrievers and look brand new years later. In addition, West Paw recycles any old or broken Zogoflex toys into new toys!

Beds and Crates: First off — buy quality. We’ve had our 2 beds for over 10 years. When one’s filling has worn out, I’ve stuffed it with old towels or sheets and it’s ready to go again. We have one crate and one pen that we also plan on using indefinitely — so far no issues with either. Also — it’s incredibly easy to find crates and pens on Craigslist so look there first!

Collars and Leashes: Again, buy for quality. Hopefully your collars and leashes will last you the life of your dog (and maybe even future dogs!). Our leashes are all made from upcycled rock climbing ropes so I feel good about utilizing some thing that would otherwise end up in the landfill. They’ve also been incredibly durable.

Our pup, Scout, with her favorite West Paw toy.   

Common Recycling Questions

Last week, I volunteered with my city at a recycling education table at a local elementary school’s eco fair. I had a ton of fun playing the “sorting game” with lots of youngins (and some of their parents) where participants are asked to sort items in to either a trash or recycling pile. It was interesting to see which items threw people off the most… so here they are. Common — “can I recycle this?” questions answered.

  • Things that threw off parents:
    • Wire hangers. NO. Take these to the dry cleaners!
    • Aluminum foil. Nope. Trash.
    • Styrofoam cups (even with the #6 at the bottom). Very, very few cities actually take styrofoam so the answer is usually no.
  • Things that threw off (young) kids:
    • Tissues, paper towels, napkins. While, yes, this is a paper product… Nope. Compost or trash these.
    • Magazines. The colored paper seemed to throw off some kids so I had to explain that while colorful, magazines are still paper and can be recycled.
    • Cardboard! This one was interesting. The brown color seemed to make some kids associate cardboard with wood (and therefore not recyclable). I had to explain that it was just a really thick paper product.
  • Things that threw off everyone:
    • Plastic/disposable cutlery. A lot of these are actually made out of #6 plastic. HOWEVER, many cities won’t take these (or ultimately wont recycle these) because it’s not cost effective to do so. So this usually falls into the trash pile. Moral: use reusable or compostable cutlery!

How to Recycle Better

Disclaimer: I am basing this information off of what I learned while touring our local recycling facility. Your facility may be different with different recycling rules and procedures. The best way to find out is by contacting your local facility, going on a tour, or reaching out to your city’s green/recycling/zero waste initiative divisions.

Visiting our local recycling facility was one of the most educational opportunities I’ve had in a long time. It was fascinating how high tech the facility was but also how much we don’t know as a community on best recycling practices. So. I’m hoping to share out a few small things I’ve learned. First off, make the time to check out this video. This is the facility that I got to visit and it was absolutely fascinating to see how materials are sorted in a single stream recycling system.

And here’s what I learned — broken down by different types of materials.

  • Plastics
    • #1, #2, #5 — These recycled plastics have a good market in our area so I don’t feel too terrible about using them (i.e. if I do choose to use plastic for something, I try and make sure it’s one of these numbers). Check with your city to see which plastics are in the most demand in your area.
    • #3, #4 — Not as good of a market as the plastics above so I tend to avoid as much as possible. However, yes, these are still recycled.
    • #6 aka styrofoam — These are not taken by my city. We were told that even IF they are taken for recycling, the market is very low for #6 plastics. I avoid these as much as possible.
    • #7 aka mixed use plastics — Not a lot of curbside recycling programs take this number but ours does. However, this is done mainly to make the recycling process easier for the community — but, these products are not truly recycled. I find that a lot of skin and body care products use #7 packaging. I have been saving these to take to Origins but have also considered getting a TerraCycle Beauty Product Box just so I know the packaging is getting recycled in some way.
    • Other Plastic Recycling Tips
      • Black plastics (like the ones found with frozen meals) can be difficult to recycle because the conveyor belt that handles all the recycling materials is also black, making it difficult for the sensors to pick them out.
      • Certain facilities take plastic shopping bags/bread bags/dry cleaning bags/ziplock bags/air cushions (all bagged in to another plastic bag). If not, these can be dropped off at store plastic bag drop offs.
      • Plastics should be clean, empty, and dry when put in the recycling bin!
    • Glass
      • Broken glass cannot be recycled in my city. Some cities may take broken glass if contained in a paper bag or box.
      • Metal or plastic (all-non glass) lids attached to a glass container must be removed for separate recycling since the recycling machine is unable to separate out a non-glass lid from a glass container (see more on this below).
    • Metal/Aluminum
      • The best item to recycle! There’s a strong market and products are not “downcycled” in to less desirable items. The process is also incredibly fast.
      • Small pieces of metal (anything smaller than a size of a sticky note such as bottle caps or even can lids) are too small to go through the recycling system on its own as the pieces will fall through the machine (and ultimately get thrown away). I get around this by collecting all my small pieces of metal and storing them in an old can. Once full, I hammer the can shut (so the little pieces don’t fall out) and recycle as usual.
      • Aluminum foil can not be recycled.
      • Again — items should be clean, empty, and dry!
    • Paper
      • Small pieces of paper and shredded paper need to be corralled together so that the small pieces don’t fall through the cracks (literally). I collect all my small pieces of paper in a large brown paper bag and recycle when full.
      • Our recycling facility does take milk and juice cartons — even though they have that plastic coating inside + a plastic spout. They have a very cool system that separates out all the plastic from the paper carton.
      • Metallic paper (such as some gift wraps) can not be recycled.
    • Items That Cannot Be Recycled
      • Here are the items that the facility frequently finds in the system (even though they can NOT be recycled): diapers, dog poop, grass clippings, hoses, and hangers (this can really mess up the machinery, by the way! take your old hangers to the dry cleaners or donate them!).

The Mega Guide to Reducing Waste

Everyone has their own journey to reduce waste. It’s not about being perfect but about making small changes over time that ultimately leads to less stuff going out the door. For me, this looks like reducing landfill trash and recyclable plastics (since plastics tend to get downcycled). To do this, I first created a monster spreadsheet (that my husband laughed about but totally got on board with) that analyzed all our trash and recycled items. I organized these items by biodegradable/reusable/package free + aluminum + paper + glass + recyclable plastic + landfill. The ultimate goal for me is to move as many items from the landfill and recyclable plastic columns over to the other ones. For each item, I thought of the best possible alternative that reduced waste. Of course, there are also items that I am calling “luxury items” — items that we love that aren’t particularly zero waste (certain makeup, hair care products). And you know what? That’s okay! This is not about being perfect and depriving yourself. It’s just about doing the best you can. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll share more on composting, DIY-ing, and zero waste resources I’ve stumbled across. But for now… here it is. My monster list. I hope it gives you some ideas for alternatives to commonly used items. Or at least gets you thinking about your own trash production. I would love to hear your ideas on alternatives as well!

THE MONSTER ZERO WASTE LIST. (yes, it needed it’s own page.*)

*Note: I will keep this list updated as I learn more.