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How to Decrease Your Travel Footprint

By Karin Murray-Bergquist

Planning your trip for zero-waste travel.

Travel-sized shampoo. Airplane snacks. Coffee to go. There are innumerable ways in which travellers can generate excess waste without meaning to—globally, airline travellers produced 5.7 million tonnes of waste in 2016 alone, according to the International Air Transport Association.

It’s also easy for people who are eco-conscious in everyday life to drop these habits while on holiday—either because they don't want to make a fuss, or for convenience. In a study performed at the University of Massachusetts in 2016, many participants noted reluctance to ask hotels about their eco policies, as well as being on “vacation mode,” as reasons for their habits to lapse.

But there are increasing numbers of people trying to avoid this trap, and between trip planning and the travel itself, they are using innovative and startlingly simple ways to do so.

Here’s how to start planning your own zero-waste holiday.

Avoid convenience items, without sacrificing convenience

Planning ahead and bringing your own coffee cup and snacks on a flight, or water bottle on a trek around a city, is an easy way to cut down on needless packaging. Companies including airlines must work at the top of the supply chain to reduce waste when packaging their products, but individuals can also contribute to positive change.

Straws have been garnering increasing attention from the media, but Jasmine Hare, a teacher who has been practicing a zero-waste lifestyle since 2018, says these are not the only issue. Focusing too intently on one item tends to be less than productive, leading travellers to overlook interconnected issues such as disposable cups and stir sticks.

“You definitely have to request no straw, no plastic cutlery, no bags."

For Hare, it’s a matter of transferring sustainable practices in everyday life to sustainable practices on the road. “Bring the supplies you use most in your own day-to-day life. If you get coffee in a to go cup every day, bring a reusable mug,” she says.

Similarly, cloth bags and reusable containers are easy to pack and don’t take up much room, making them useful on longer stays or shorter trips. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for other options, advises Hare. “You definitely have to request no straw, no plastic cutlery, no bags,” she says.

Remember that waste doesn’t just apply to plastic packaging

“One of the biggest challenges is actually compost,” says Hare. “Zero-waste goes beyond just plastics; it’s about making sure all waste is dealt with effectively.” A robust composting system turns food waste into productive soil, rather than combining it with non-compostable items which do not contribute to this process. Some cities have compost programs for their residents, but visitors generally must depend on the composting facilities available at their accommodation. In national parks, due to concerns about wildlife, the most effective way of dealing with compostable waste is often simply for hikers to pack it out with them.

Challenge invisible and incidental waste

Preparing for a trip, especially in remote outdoor areas, can be just as challenging when it comes to reducing waste. Gear—even travel items designed to reduce waste, Hare notes—are often over-packaged, leading to a less noticeable source of the same problem. Buying travel gear second-hand, or participating in gear swaps such as those hosted by Mountain Equipment Co-op, can be a convenient way to cut down on this kind of waste.

Adventure travel company Natural Habitat is addressing this in a way that group travel is specially equipped to do: critically examining the supply chain. Choosing suppliers who are committed to reducing waste led the company to complete their first zero-waste trip to Yellowstone National Park in July 2019, aiming to reduce trip waste by 99 per cent, either avoiding it entirely or dealing with it through recycling, upcycling and composting. Food waste turned out to be the biggest challenge, but in the end 50.9 pounds of waste were diverted from the landfill.

Court Whelan, director of sustainability and conservation with Natural Habitat, is hopeful that this trip will lead to progress in the travel industry, and allow companies to collaborate to develop waste-reduction methods—in much the same way that individuals can inspire each other. He notes that the idea is to create a culture of sustainability, something that is echoed by the trip’s destination (the first national park in the US). Through partnerships with hotels and restaurants, Nat Hab is encouraging long-term changes such as installing shampoo and conditioner dispensers, rather than individual toiletry packets. Asking slightly uncomfortable questions is key, and can lead to breakthroughs.

For the individual, this often means bringing their own toiletries and choosing places to stay and companies to travel with based on their environmental policy and record.

Redefine your experience

Time is a major factor in travel, and affects the production of waste as single-use items are offered as a convenience. Hare often chooses to sit and enjoy a drink at a café while travelling, thus reducing the need for a to-go cup and also taking a few minutes to relax. There isn’t always time to slow down if you’re running to catch a train, but taking those moments when they come can be a pleasant change of pace, and a practical choice for reducing waste.

The challenge that occurs when travelling in a group, says Hare, is travellers will try to make things convenient for each other, not wanting to hold up their friends as they refill containers or refuse single-use items. The solution for this is practice, and friends travelling together can remind each other to ask—to say no to straws or present a travel mug to be filled.

If you’re hosting travellers yourself, lending guests reusable items during their stay can make a big difference. Airbnb hosts who provide water bottles and mugs give their guests the opportunity to reduce waste even if they’ve forgotten to pack their own.

Usually, the best way to travel zero-waste is to make it part of your regular lifestyle. Hare notes that cities, as well as travellers and travel companies, have their role to play, observing that “until more stores are able to sell things with less packaging and more public infrastructure exists for appropriate sorting and disposal of materials, it will be tricky for travellers.”

But by keeping aware of the choices that you make, and asking for a less wasteful option when you can, it's possible to maintain the sustainable mindset even while travelling.

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