How To Be a Zero Waste Traveller

If you love to explore far-flung places but hate creating a trail of waste, fret no more. You can be a zero waste traveller. Gaia Discovery asked a few environmentalists for their views so that, step by step, we can help protect the earth from pollution. By Mallika Naguran

SINGAPORE, 26 July 2019. Have you ever ordered food and drinks in a restaurant or as takeaways only to realize that they were served to you in plastic or polystyrene (foam) materials? By then it might have been too late to say, “But I wanted them in proper plates and cups!” It might also help if you spoke the language of the country you’re holidaying in, but what if you didn’t?

I know just how frustrating it is to travel with the intention of being an eco-traveller while constantly battling with the sheer amount of plastic and packaging in nearly everything we come across.

Plastics that do not get disposed off properly clog up drains, pollute land, rivers and seas. They take around 100 years to break down.  Plus they use a lot of oil to produce.  The UN reckons that as much as 17 million barrels of oil are used for plastic production yearly. Think about the carbon emissions! Around 360 million tonnes of plastic are produced a year and this is set to double by 2030 if businesses and consumers do not rethink their ways. Now, that’s a lot of plastic for animals and humans to deal with!

While plastic bottles and bags are printed with recyclable labels, remember this fact: Only 9% of plastics are recycled with the rest being either incinerated (12%) or end up in the landfills or somewhere else damaging the environment (79%). So we should not presume that plastics in trash or recycling bins end up in a safe waste treatment plant or recycled.

And what about the plastic straws? They are everywhere! There were times when I had notified the waiter in advance that I did not want a straw with my juice but still the straw appeared together with the drink. How on earth did the straw suck up its way into the F&B world? A matter of habit, perhaps? Let’s break it.

Zero waste travel: Packing fruit in your own reusable container cannot be any fresher. Courtesy: Sofie Hostyn of Bali’s Zero Waste community group on Facebook.

Zero waste travel: Packing fruit in your own reusable container cannot be any fresher. Courtesy: Sofie Hostyn of Bali’s Zero Waste community group on Facebook.

With consumerism on the rise and disposables becoming an accepted part of modern living, would it be possible to travel with minimal or zero waste? Well, depending on where and how you travel, it could be difficult to get by without creating any waste at all. However, it is still possible to drastically cut down on solid waste as long as you are armed with two things: a strong will and a cunning plan.

Plan for no waste

Planning is important, and that’s all to it. Since we need to plan ahead to book up where to stay and what to do, so why not plan ahead on how we wish to travel with minimal impacts? Plan not to print out airport and hotel confirmation documents. Store them on your phone instead.  Plan to say no to receipts or useless freebies. Nearly half of consumer plastic is single use.

Check out the location of shops that do not display foods in plastic. You can do this by joining Zero Waste community Facebook pages of that country (there’s one in Bali, Singapore, Tasmania… just surf the web! ). Once you’ve joined, ask a question and you’ll get up-to-date help and information.

Plan ahead not to drink water out of plastic bottles from hotel rooms or convenience stores. Instead, boil water in the rooms and drink that instead. Or use refillable water stations dotted around the city by downloading the incredible RefillMyBottle app (see below). Sometimes, if there’s no kettle in the room, I just ask the hotel’s kitchen or café staff to refill my bottle with water, and most of the time, they do. Great time for a bit of a chat too to find out what’s life like for them.

It helps as well to find out if the water from the tap is safe to drink. Tap water in some countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan are treated water, which is perfect for quenching your thirst directly. Most resorts and high-end hotels in many countries also have water treatment facilities, which means waster from the tap is potable (safe to drink). When in doubt, ask the locals or hotel staff, and they’ll tell you how to get clean water.

Plan not to buy heavily packaged items even when shopping for gifts. Plan not to add fresh fruit wrapped in shrink-wrap or plastic in your basket. Visit a grocer, wet market or farmers’ market instead for not just plastic free option but for variety, freshness and a chat with the locals.

Sufiyo Rubyn, a volunteer cook with Source, a vegan and ethical food cooperative of Tasmania, offered her point of view when it comes to planning. “When travelling, I research the local customs and food, choose to dine in especially slow food, and say no to straws or polystyrene takeaways.”

It helps a great deal if you, as a hotel guest, do not help yourself to those amenities provided in the rooms, for instance, the tiny bottles containing bath gels, shampoo and hair conditioner. Sometimes, the little soap bars come wrapped in plastic. Most often, these used amenities, along with the soap bars, are discarded as common trash, adding to the mountain of landfill.

“I go prepared with my own cleaning soaps and shampoo bars,” adds Rubyn. 

Wise move. Here’s why. Many hotels do not reuse or recycle the little shampoo bottles after being used. A few hotels top these up but most do not. Even if the hotels placed the used plastic bottles in recycling bins, it is not a sure thing that the bottles will be recycled as it depends on whether there are commercial plastic recyclers in that area.

Transporting rubbish (including recyclable waste) to the landfill of the same country, and worse, another country has become a common thing, but many countries that previously received rubbish are fighting back. This leaves us with the ethical question: can we be ultimately responsible for our own waste?

Also be mindful of the impact of soaps and shampoos on the environment. Better to opt for those without the nasties: parabens, sulphates and anti-bacterial components. Also many sunblocks harm corals. Think earth-friendly soaps instead.

Reuse cups, food container, straws

There are those of us who have prevented bags of waste from just taking our own reusable bottle for water. But what about the other stuff?

“I bring tupperware, cutlery, chopsticks, straws, a thermos for food, a carry bag and some zip-lock bags with me,” says Sofie Hostyn, the founder of Bali Zero Waste Facebook site. “I will often bring homemade muesli as well. Then we will buy whatever fruit we can find without packaging and this, with the muesli, becomes a meal for us.”

Hostyn is an inspiring person who shares often on FB how she and her husband travel waste-free to China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and the US.

Packing your own lunch on a hike or dive trip out is a great idea even if lunch is provided for free by the travel operator, which could come in polluting, non-reusable materials. Courtesy: Sofie Hostyn

Packing your own lunch on a hike or dive trip out is a great idea even if lunch is provided for free by the travel operator, which could come in polluting, non-reusable materials. Courtesy: Sofie Hostyn

Taking the cue from Hostyn, how about travelling with a “waste-free travel kit”? Pack this smaller kit in your luggage, if you have weight allowance. This kit could then hold a reusable plate or tupperware, cup for tea or coffee, spoons, knives and forks or chopsticks, metal or bamboo straws for sipping juice. A small dishcloth, not disposable wipes, to wipe them clean after a rinse would be handy.

Some women take a menstrual cup with them instead of using disposable sanitary pads. Imagine the amount of waste saved just from switching ways?

I like having a handkerchief in my pocket – yup, the old fashioned way of wiping my brow while hiking. It saves me from buying tissue paper as well, which as we know, is made from trees – the earth’s lungs.

NUS lecturer N.Sivasothi aka Otterman, who runs several environmental programs in Singapore, uses reusable and rechargeable devices when he travels and avoid trash/recyclable disposal in areas with unknown solid waste management system. 

Still it can get tricky. “I need to be more alert when purchasing drinks or food, plastic gets slipped in when you aren't alert,” he says.

Locate refill bottle stations

Find refill stations near you using our map. One refill at a time, we can make a huge difference!

There’s a cool app called RefillMyBottle that allows the traveler to locate water refill stations and it is now available in as many as 45 countries. All you have to do is download this app on your smart phone before you set out for your dream holiday, and take note of the places that offer water refilling before you set out.

So curb that temptation of buying cold water that comes in plastic material. Remember, one million plastic bottles are being bought every minute (Source: UN)! Let’s not become part of that statistic.

Make a trip to the refill station, and tell other travelers about your effort. Share as much as you can about the very cool RefillMyBottle, which as a social enterprise, has made great strides since its launch in January 2018.

As you travel, do also suggest to the resorts, hotels, backpacker places, cafes and even beauty salons to become part of the RefillMyBottle network. In return, they’ll get grateful travelers visiting their joints and possibly receive a cool review for their thoughtfulness!

Take back your rubbish

My first experience in trying to be a waste-free traveler was a three-day camping trip to the breathtaking Maria Island on the east coast of Tasmania. There, a simple rule exists: take back your rubbish. Therefore, no rubbish bin is provided on the island for day visitors and campers to dump their trash, be it dry, food or reusable waste. With this rule in mind, my husband and I packed food accordingly, and this required some discussion and sourcing. 

Essentially we planned for and bought food items with little or no wrapping, and also compacted ones. Further we decided on taking food that once consumed would create no waste. For instance, we bought eggs in a paper carton. Once we went through the eggs, we threw the paper carton into the woodfire, while keeping the eggshells within our “rubbish bag”, which was initially a plastic wrapper storing corn cakes.

Here is how you can take your rubbish back, especially plastic water bottles, when you travel.

And we were pleased to leave the island with a small bag of rubbish in our backpack, of which a few were compostable, and a few recyclable. This bag of rubbish was then gotten rid off in the city where there’s proper waste management system. I felt enriched after my leave-behind-no-rubbish stay and it made me wonder, why don’t I do this as much as possible when I travel to sensitive places such as national parks, heritage areas or even places where there’s only landfills?

We can become not just eco-travellers, but also zero waste travellers. Remember – leave room in your luggage to take waste back! Once you have reached a city or town where there is a proper waste disposal system, you can then get rid of them.

 I once brought back more than 30 plastic bottles from Sarawak to Singapore after spending three days at the iconic Rainforest World Music festival, as there weren’t refillable water stations. This is something I am not proud of, but at that point in time, I could not help it. Watch my video on how I brought back my rubbish.

 Visit plastic free places

A few cities and towns have announced bans on single use plastic, so why not choose to visit these for holidays? It would make you feel good in minimizing impacts. Plus you’ll be supporting sustainable tourist destinations.

Gaia Discovery contributor and environmental writer Henrylito D.Tacio recounted his pleasant surprise when vacationing in Siargao, Surigao del Norte. “There, the government implemented a law of not using single use plastics when selling any goods in the market. When I bought some fruits — and lots of them — the cashier asked me if I brought a bag. As I didn’t, I ended up carrying the fruits out of the store wrapped in my shirt!”

 Tacio also enjoyed his experience in having soft drinks in the store, where he was not given any plastic straw. “Instead, you can buy a straw made out of bamboo,” he says.

 Now how good is that? Let’s all plan to be zero waste travellers. Gaia would love you for it. And feel free to add to these tips by leaving suggestions or comments below!

Key Reference:

UN’ Single Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability. Online: