The Surprise Benefits of Reducing Waste While Traveling

By Sarah Currie-Halpern

Traveling sometimes seems like a very wasteful endeavor but it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little bit of advance planning, waste incurred while traveling can at least be cut in half, If not more. You are planning ahead which outfit to bring, why not take an extra step to reduce waste as well?


On my recent trip to Spain, I added to my packing list “refillable water bottle”, and “set of utensils”. I forgot one important thing, to bring a few reusable cloth wipes to use in place of tissues along the way, I later regretted this when I had allergies on the trip! If you do nothing else though, it's amazing how just bringing along a refillable water bottle and a small set of utensils can cut out a tremendous amount of waste on a trip. I used my water bottle every day of my 8-day trip to Northern Spain and was able to refill it in freshwater fountains all over Spain. It's easy to look online on websites like tapsafe.org to find out if the tap water in the place you are going to visit is safe to drink. Recent studies have shown that bottled water contains a lot more micro plastics than tap water, just another great reason to drink tap water, if possible. I also found that on transit days when I was traveling to or from airports, my utensil kit came in handy when I needed a quick yogurt or another snack. I simply washed the utensils in soap and water at our next hotel room.

While in transit another great way to reduce waste is to use air hand dryers when they are available. Think Zero LLC, has reviewed numerous studies and confirmed that if you use air hand dryers correctly (wash your hands with soap and water and then dry your hands fully while using the air hand dryer) these machines are just as effective at drying hands and eliminating germs as using paper towels. Don’t be fooled into thinking that using paper is sustainable, production of paper towels causes the cutting down of

Air hand dryer cuts down on paper towel use
Air hand dryer in a Munich airport bathroom

important forests like Canada’s boreal forest which is critically important to keeping temperatures under 1.5 Celsius and averting the worst effects of climate change.


One of the best things we can do is reduce our use of paper in general, and when we do buy paper products, try to buy 100% recycled content paper whenever possible. Even FSC certified paper can be questionable, as forests are still cut down to make this paper and it's not always clear how much replanting and caring of trees is actually happening.

If you are traveling in Europe, Japan or a number of other countries around the world who sort waste streams, you will find many bins to separate out your different types of waste. In San Sebastian, Spain, for example, they separate out Plastic and Cans (yellow bin), Trash or what they call “Rejects” (what a great term for trash!, grey bin), Organic matter (brown bin), Glass (green bin), and Paper (blue bin). Most countries at least offer basic recycling so pay attention to signs and place your materials in the correct bins. Many places issue fines if waste is not sorted correctly.

Color coded waste bins San Sebastian, Spain
A sign in San Sebastian, Spain explaining their color-coded bin system

Another important thing to remember while on the road, especially if you are visiting a conference or event, is to just say NO to swag that is offered to you. 9 times out of 10 we don’t end up using it and it becomes trash. A polite “no thank you” will go a long way in cutting down on the crap that you receive from other people that you don’t really need or want, helping keep your bags lighter as well!

Finally, I try to look for beer, soda, kombucha and other drinks on tap when possible, rather than bottled drinks and to only order as much food as I can eat. These days most places are happy to email or text you a receipt instead of printing one, including hotels, which cuts down on a lot of paper.


Drink beer and other beverages on tap to reduce waste
Beer on tap in Spain

By the way, all this reduced waste has another benefit, cutting your personal GHG emissions. Each time you avoid creating some waste, you recycle, and/or compost you are avoiding some GHG emissions, and therefore doing your part to help slow the warming of our planet. Find out more about your Carbon Footprint and how you can reduce it here.


So in conclusion, cutting down on waste while you travel has some surprise benefits, not only are you helping the planet but doing so can help you make a healthier choice when it comes to tap water versus bottled water, in some cases you can avoid fines from sorting you waste materials correctly, and it will help cut down on clutter (and weight to lug around)!

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