Zero Waste Travel

I have mixed feelings about travel and tourism. I left the country for the first time shortly after graduating college. As a college student, I was ashamed of the fact that I had never left the country. I could feel pity/judgment from my peers when I admitted I had never left the U.S. While traveling may turn you into a better version of yourself, being well-traveled does not make you better than other people. 

The tourism industry provide a great source of GDP for countries, but it can also turn into a system that glorifies poverty and exploits people so that white Westerners can see the “real” [insert developing country here]. I plan to travel abroad again someday, but when I do I want it to be as ethical and environmentally friendly as possible.

Whether you’re traveling within your home country or traveling internationally, here are some ways to make your trip less harmful for the planet.

What to Pack

I haven’t visited home since my zero-waste journey started, but when I fly to California I’ll be bringing along my zero waste essentials. Brining essentials like package-free deodorant, solid shampoo, and bar soap will keep you from using hotel products (and as an added bonus you won’t have to pack as many liquids that could require you to check a bag). I’ll also bring my reusable water bottle and coffee mug, cutlery, and napkins to make snacking on the road zero-waste. You could take it a step further and pack your own meal for the plane if you are traveling internationally. I also plan to politely refuse the peanuts and soda that come complimentary on my flights to California. I can survive the  2-hour flight without stale snacks.

When I traveled to Indonesia, I, unfortunately, went through a TON of bottled water (because the tap water is generally not safe to drink). Looking back, I wish I’d thought to bring a water bottle with a built-in filter because it may have enabled me to skip the plastic bottles (but do some research to see if that’s safe for your travels).

If you have the budget, I’d also recommend investing in higher quality luggage. I’ve purchased cheap luggage when I’m in a bind only to have the bag fall apart within a year. Purchasing a sturdier suitcase will save you money in the long-run and result in less garbage in the trash. If you use the paper name tags for your luggage, opt for one that is reusable and use an electronic boarding pass instead of printing one (way more convenient and green).

Accommodations & Travel

There is no green way to fly, but when you do fly, opt for economy class. First class and business class seats reduce the number of people that can fly in a plane. That extra leg room may be nice, but it also means you are directly responsible for more carbon emissions. Needless to say, private jets are probably one of the worst things that have been created from an environmental standpoint.

As for accommodations, look for somewhere that is close to the places you plan to explore and/or public transit. I’d also recommend staying somewhere that benefits the inhabitants of the city you are visiting, whether it is a locally owned hotel or something like Airbnb that puts money in the hands of people that live in the country.

Homestays are a great way to interact with people that live where you are traveling and support the local economy. Do your research though. In one of my college courses, we read about a homestay village where the people that lived there were not allowed to put glass windows in their homes or buy televisions because tourists wanted a “gritty” experience. Traveling in a developing country should not be a way to play poor or glorify poverty so that you can “get away from it all.”


Buying souvenirs is almost a given when it comes to travel. I painstakingly picked out gifts for my family, friends, and myself so I could remember my time abroad. Unfortunately, I picked things out that I’ve never really enjoyed after my trip. I brought home batik dresses with the intention of altering them into shirts or skirts (ignoring the fact that I cannot sew) and only recently parted with them. I do however cherish a piece of batik fabric that I purchased directly from the artist that reminds me of one of my favorite days of the trip.

If you have to buy things, look for things that are made by locals, meant to last, and not throwaway tchotchkes. If I were to do it all over again, I would also look for a favorite book published in the country (like the Indonesian version of Harry Potter). I already love decorating with books so it would not stick out from the other decorations in my home and it would be a subtle reminder of my trip.

While these dresses were fun, they definitely were not a necessary purchase. Side note: the humidity did not agree with my curly hair.

Also, you probably don’t need to buy as many souvenirs as you think. I bought more bracelets from a local artist than I needed. Now, they just sit in a drawer because I can’t bear to throw them out but I also never wear them.

Research local recycling policies

You will probably generate more waste when traveling due to the fact that it will be harder to buy in bulk or keep a well-stocked pantry for zero-waste needs that may arise. If you are traveling somewhere that doesn’t recycle, consider bringing your recyclables home with you so that you can dispose of them there. If you keep in mind the overall 5 R’s of zero waste, you will produce less trash (even when traveling) and may not even encounter this problem.

Carbon Credits?

Carbon credits used to get a lot of attention as the best way address global warming. I remember learning bout Cap N’ Trade and thinking it was the golden ticket for preventing climate change. However, as I’ve been reading This Changes EverythingI have my doubts. Carbon credits operate in the same consumerist system that is making climate change a problem. It also shirks responsibilities and usually places the responsibility of preventing climate change on the people that haven’t contributed to it as much (i.e. people in developing countries). Instead of purchasing a carbon credit that is really just a publicity move for the airline, make a donation of the same amount to an environmental nonprofit that is proactively addressing climate change and is not tied to the fossil fuel industry.

As long as we rely on fossil fuels, travel will never be environmentally friendly, but if you are itching to see the world please make sure to do so in a way that is kind to the planet and the people whose home you are visiting. If you can afford the luxury of travel, you can probably afford to put some serious thought into doing it well.

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