Ways to Reduce Waste While Traveling // Sustainable Travel

Updated: May 18, 2020

I'm going to start off by saying, yes, I understand how wasteful flying is. It is one of the worst things we can do as individuals for the environment. But here's the hard truth (for me and probably for others to hear): I can't avoid it. And I'm not quite sure I'd want to.

See, I live on a tiny island 800km off the southernmost tip of mainland Japan. I can't just exactly drive myself back to the US to visit family or to mainland to see the rest of Japan. Not only do I have to fly, but I chose to. I think traveling is very valuable. I try not to fly often if I can help it, but I don't want to give it up. You can read my full post about this here, but I'll give you a quick synopsis:

The beauty of what the earth had to offer is what inspired me to reduce my waste to begin with. I have always dreamt of traveling as much as possible and for me, that means flying. I know many will disagree with that, but that is where I stand. Perhaps I'd change my mind if I lived on a bigger landmass with better access to places and public transportation.

If you'd like to check out my low-waste travel essentials that help me reduce waste when traveling, be sure to read it here.

All this to say, avoid flying when possible, but I'm not going to tell you to give it up because I'm not giving it up. Life is meant for experiences, meeting new people, trying new things, taking in the beauty that this earth has to offer. And sometimes, that means getting on a plane. We will talk more about this later.

So, for now, I want to give you some other tips, besides cutting out flying, that can help you to travel more sustainably. And don't worry, the tips aren't just for flying if you chose not to fly; there are tips for flying, driving, and all-around great tips when you are out exploring the world.

Tips for flying:

1. Pack light

Now, this also might be more convenient when taking a bus, train, or a road trip, but it is especially important when flying. Planes need to use more fuel the heavier the plane is. It has even been calculated that magazines play a role in the overall fuel consumption. So, do what you can to pack light and compact in things like a carry-on suitcase, book bag, or duffle bag. If you want more tips on packing light, be sure to check out my video here.

2. Bring your own food

This is important for all forms of travel, but something you might not know about flying is that you can take snacks through security. You can even use your own containers! TSA allows food through security as long as its not a liquid (so no soup or chili). This also allows you to have vegan options, healthy options, gluten-free options, low-waste options. You get to control what you eat and probably save some money along the way too.

3. Refuse single-use items on board

When they pass out plastic utensils, tiny cups for one sip of water, or anything like that, just simply say "no, thanks!" You don't have to take these things just because they are passed out. Speaking of...

4. Bring your reusables

Things like reusable water bottles, coffee cups, mason jars, utensils, bags, and more can prevent so much waste when traveling. Bring your containers empty through security and find a water fountain or a restaurant and ask for some water. This way you can prevent single-use plastic on the aircraft and other single-use items along your whole trip.

5. Don't print your boarding passes

Opt for an electronic option instead. You can do this vis email or most airlines have an app. I have even had my boarding passes sent to my iPhone "wallet" where I could view all of them at once instead of shuffling through emails. This also is a great way to prevent from losing them.

6. Use reusable luggage tags

Most airline counters have disposable paper tags that just don't last. And most can't even be recycled since they are coated in plastic. Instead, try to find a sustainably made luggage tag that can be reused over and over again and won't easily get damaged like the paper ones.

7. Use Google translate abroad

You're probably wondering how this can help you reduce waste. Well, you can use Google translate to help you ask for no bad, no straw, and things like that. For key Japanese phrases for travelers, click here! I have used Google translate in Japan and in Thailand and it accurate probably 95-99% of the time. I have little issues using it and understanding the translations.

8. Donate to carbon offset programs

This is one way you can "offset" the emissions you created by flying. Sure, it's not the best, but it is definitely better than nothing. These programs often plant trees or do other things that bring about good to our world and try to help reduce the amount of toxins in our air.

Tips for road trips:

9. Carpool when possible

If your entire family is headed somewhere for a family outing, see how few cars you can take. Instead of everyone driving separately, carpool instead! The fewer cars on the road, the fewer emissions in the air and the less amount of gas that needs to be used.

10. Chose fuel-efficient cars

This can be when renting a car or choosing which vehicle to take on a road trip. This does all depend on who is coming with you, but if possible, chose hybrids or smaller cars as opposed to vans and trucks which are least fuel-efficient. If you can't help traveling with a large amount of people, just try to opt for the most eco-friendly large car.

11. Set cruise control to get better gas mileage

Staying at a steady speed allows your car to consume less gas as opposed to constantly accelerating and decelerating. Of course, make sure you are safe about using it. Don't use it in the rain or snow or in heavy traffic!

Tips for traveling in general:

12. Eat before you go

Whether you are taking a plane, train, car, or bus, eat before you go. Not only will this save you money and keep you from going hungry mid-commute, it'll save a lot of waste as well. Food served on airlines is often over-packaged and wasteful, options are limited, and even snacks and "meals" at convenience stores are heavily packaged. If you have to go, your container, utensils, and bag will all be non-recycled plastic. So, eat before you go and...

13. Bring your own snacks and even meals

This is great if you have dietary restrictions as well. Make sure you bring them in reusable containers to reduce the max amount of waste. On top of just snacks, bring your own meals too. Here are some options for snacks and easy meals for flying or road trips:

- fruit and veggies

- wraps or sandwiches

- chips, pretzels, crackers

- granola bars or energy bites

- dry oatmeal and fill it up past security

- and so much more!

14. Take public transport when possible

Once you arrive at your destination, opt for trains, bikes, buses, or even just walking to get around. Public transportation can save so many emissions from entering the air. Of course, it isn't great everywhere, so do this when possible. You can learn more about the importance of public transportation in this video.

15. Get transportation passes

While opting for that public transportation, avoid getting tickets. Instead, most railways, subways, and even bus systems have passes or cards you can get. In Japan, our card is good for subways, trains, buses, taxis, and even convenience stores. This allows us to freely use public transportation by scanning this card. All we have to do is load it up with money every now and then. And the best part? No single-use tickets.

16. Put up the "do not disturb" sign at hotels

Did you know most hotels will wash your linens and/or towels every 1-2 days? They do that for the entire hotel. Crazy. Instead, you can put up your "do not disturb" sign. This means they will not come into your room and will allow you to use your towels and linens for more than just one day before washing them. Imagine how much water could be saved if everyone did this?!

17. Stay at smaller accommodations

Things like Airbnbs, hostels, dormitories, and things like that are much more eco-friendly. hotels generate waste from their food, excess electricity and water consumption, and other things that you can avoid by staying at smaller places. At these places, they are often shared, don't use as much energy, are not as wasteful, and you're supporting the direct economy versus multi-million dollar companies who surely aren't doing much good for the world.

18. Bring your own toiletries

Especially when staying at big chain hotels. They give you mini options that only have about 1-2 uses in them and then you have to get more. Not to mention, they likely throw away these products after your stay, used or not. Some smaller hotel chains as well as places listed above will often use large, refillable options, though. But, you can play it safe by bringing your own toiletries, either travel-sized in a carry-on or large-sized in a checked bag. Once you're done with your travel-sized one...

19. Refill your travel-sized toiletries

It's quite simple. Take your empty bottles and tubes home and refill them with your larger ones at home so you don't have to keep buying more and more travel-sized toiletries. This works great with soap, shampoo, conditioner, contact solution, lotion, and more. I have even managed to do it with toothpaste! You can check out my video version of this list here to see how I did it.

20. Take your recycling home to properly dispose of them

Unless you are confident that your hotel, Airbnb, or the like recycles. Sure, you might not have enough room in your bag, so do this if possible. Don't jam your bag because of some recycling. Do what you can.

21. Bring digital entertainment (or things you already have)

Avoid the entertainment section of the airport. If you know you're going to need a book, earbuds, a blanket, magazine, or whatever, bring one from home. This isn't the most wasteful thing, but avoid it if you can. Or, you can opt for digital entertainment. Things like eBooks, podcasts, Netflix, and more, You can download all this stuff and still access them while your device is on airplane mode and have waste-free entertainment.

22. Dine-in vs take out

Whether you're staying in a city or just passing through on your road-trip, take a moment to eat in the restaurant, even if it is just fast food. This prevents wasted bags and cup carriers and things like that. Especially if you are eating at an establishment that provides reusable plats and utensils, definitely opt for this when possible.

23. Eat locally

Try to find restaurants that serve fresh, local food. If not, eat at smaller restaurants and not chains. Try to find places that provide reusable plates, utensils, and cups instead of single-use. Ask locals for the best places to eat!

24. Avoid souvenirs and their stores

This is a tourist trap, especially for people who seem to have no self-control. I have to admit, we do buy magnets as our memento from our trip. Other than that, our only souvenirs are ticket stubs and photos (well and sometimes rocks and our hiking sticks from