How to travel Zero Waste
Flying as a Zero Waster is a nerve-wracking, traumatic experience. The amount of plastic that gets used and thrown away within MINUTES is truly revolting. BUT! There are ways around it!
When you fly the majority of waste comes from food and drinks on the actual plane, however airports are also filled with disposable, overpriced horrendities like travel-size toiletries, drinks in plastic bottles, and a myriad of useless, tacky souvenirs.
There are many strategies you can adopt in order to make flying more sustainable (the most obvious one being, not flying. But hey).
Since I understand this is not an every-day situation and it might feel very overwhelming, I have divided my suggestions into sub-categories that can be applied according to how much you’re willing to stretch it (which can also be seen as an excuse for me to make a list within a list).
Bring your own water bottle
This is really no excuse. You will find plenty of drinking fountains in any airport where you can refill for free (if not you can always refill from the restroom tap, you will not die). You get bonus points if you forget about security and have to down a litre of water all in one go - I personally am never as hydrated as I am when I travel! Seriously though, if you don’t have a reusable water bottle I’m gonna roll my eyes so hard you’ll be able to feel it from the other side of the world.
Bring your own coffee cup
On planes they constantly offer you water and refreshments, which always come in a plastic cup. Of course you can reuse the first cup they give you, but having your own KeepCup (or equivalent) is obviously better, as it will come in handy also once you reach your destination (you’ll still want to get coffee on holidays, am I right?).
Just bring whatever you would normally bring with you on a day-to-day basis
If you’re thinking about reducing your waste while travelling, chances are you’re already making an effort in your everyday life, so just apply the same principles to a different situation. It’s always good to have a tote bag and a food container and just to be prepared. And maybe be ready to refuse single-use items even if you don’t have an alternative - I promise you’ll be fine.
Bring your own cutlery
This might be something that’s already included in your everyday kit, but on planes make sure you have either plastic or bamboo utensils as I’m not sure a metal knife would pass security.
Only print tickets if necessary
Which is never. Nowadays you can get away with e-tickets and you’ll only need to print your boarding pass. (Since this was my first time travelling long distance by myself, I printed ALL my tickets out of panic, only to realise I could have happily avoided that. I guess I’ll know for next time.)
Avoid single-use toiletries
You might already be making your own toothpaste and deodorant, which is great for adjusting them to smaller, travel-friendly sizes that will fit in your carry-on.
Check out what I’ve packed for my most recent trip here.
Bring your own security plastic bag
Don’t be caught off guard and show up at security with all your liquids already in a snazzy see-through bag. A sandwich bag works perfectly, and you’re most likely to have one lying around your house somewhere. I’ve had one for - I kid you not - NINE YEARS until it literally fell apart and I had to replace it.
If you want to take it to the next level, you could also get yourself a proper see-though toiletry bag (something like this) which will last you for-freaking-ever (because plastic).
Bring your own headphones and sleep mask
Nobody leaves the house without headphones nowadays, but just in case, make sure you have a good pair so you don’t have to use those crappy, individually packaged earphones they give you on planes. Also, I’m personally not a fan of eye masks but if you are (and you need one to sleep on planes) that’s another thing you can bring.
Wear all the layers
It’s typically freezing cold on planes, and they do give you blankets for that, however they are always wrapped in a protective plastic layer. Make sure you are wearing as many layers as you can so you all nice and cosy and you can politely decline the airplane blanket.
Side note: On my first leg from Christchurch to Singapore I was freezing my ass off in spite of all the sweaters I was wearing. So I gave in and unwrapped the blanket. I then checked with the flight attendant who told me blankets get opened and washed after every flights anyway, BUT if you send it back the moment you get to your seat they’ll be able to reuse it. So much for the mysteries of health and safety. Also, this applies to Singapore Airlines, it might not be the same for other companies. So here’s another tip: always ask!
Refuse as much food as you can
Airplane food is mega tricky. You can of course try and contact your airline before flying and let them know you would like to avoid plastic as much as possible (something I have not done - I had so much going on before leaving that I even forgot to pre-order my meals, which resulted in a series of flights that felt much longer than they actually were).
If you don’t manage to contact the airline beforehand, the best strategy is to refuse all the individually packaged foods (crackers, peanuts, pretzels, snacks, single-serving water) the moment they are served to you, and only keep the hot food, which most likely will come in a reusable container covered with foil.
I tried to apply this strategy for the one meal I had (just because there happened to be an extra vegan meal on the plane), however the flight attendant told me that they would have to throw away anything that they were serving, either half-eaten or untouched. Again, the mysteries of health and safety. But it’s good to always ask as this might not apply to every airline.
Even though I hadn’t planned to do this, fasting is obviously the best way to avoid food waste altogether. My longest flight was 13 hours, which is (I’m hoping) longer than your typical flight, but even if you find yourself on a long, intercontinental flight, you can go without food for that many hours. Just make sure you drink plenty of water and juice (in your own KeepCup!), and you can always have food at the airport before and/or after your flight. Again, you can contact the airline in advance and notify them that you will not want any food on the plane, so that they won’t have to bring you a meal and then just throw it away.
If fasting doesn’t sound ideal, you can always consider bringing your own food - just make sure you are allowed to do so as some international flights might be a bit strict on what you bring on board and into the country you’re flying to.
Brush your teeth
Dental hygiene is as important while travelling as it is on a regular daily routine. Pack a small towel, a bamboo toothbrush and homemade toothpaste to make your teeth brushing 100% Zero Waste even on the go.
Don’t get frustrated
No matter how hard you try, sometimes things just won’t go your way - like when you hand the flight attendant your KeepCup and they blatantly ignore it, or when you (finally) fall asleep only to wake up to an array of individually-packaged snacks that you were not conscious enough to refuse.
As annoying as it gets, just remind yourself that you’r doing the best you can, and that even the smallest effort will have an impact. For example, every time I’ve used my KeepCup on a plane, the person sitting next to me told me that was great and they will try to remember to do the same on their next flight. How cool is that?
All of the above refer strictly to the act of travelling itself (as in, the “getting there” part), but of course having a bunch of reusable items with you will come in handy also while you’ve reached your destination and you’re out and about enjoying your holiday. You can do some research and find out if there are cafes and restaurants that welcome BYOs, or bulk stores you can shop at. In some country they will even give you a discount when you use your own containers.
Flying itself is the opposite of Zero Waste. The first half of my trip alone apparently produced 4.1 tonnes of CO2 (there are plenty of carbon footprint calculators out there that you can use to feel even worse about yourself). However, since I am not ready to give up flying, in the meantime I just do the best I can to make my trips as sustainable and waste-free as I can in the hope that one day teleporting will be a thing and that it will be fuelled by rainbows and flowers instead of naphtha kerosene.
Also remember that you get as many weird looks as you get gratifications. One flight attendant repeatedly thanked me (?) when I refused an individually-packaged sandwich in favour of an apple explaining that I’m trying to reduce plastic. She then came back to my seat more than once to tell me that she really admired me and respected what I do. This really made up for the frustration of not being able to eat anything but that apple.
I hope this will help you in your future peregrinations, and remember that even thinking about going waste-free while travelling already makes you a better person. Speak soon!