Can travel ever be fully sustainable? Our expert on family travel shares top tips for World Environment day that will help minimise your impact as a traveller

Zero waste/low waste travel

Can travel ever be fully sustainable? Most trips will create carbon emissions, especially overseas or long-distance travel. There are ways to minimise your emissions, including travelling overland where possible, using public transportation like buses and trains, travelling more slowly and offsetting what you do create from long-haul flights.

My family does all of those things, and yet I feel they are not enough to counter the environmental impact of our wanderings. I think that another important way to minimise the impact of your travel is to create less waste.

Travel can be full of single-use plastic so easily, with airline food, hotel toiletries, bottled water, plastic bags and packaged snacks often accepted as just part of a holiday experience. But with a bit of planning and a different mindset, it doesn’t have to be that way. Following are all of the ways we avoid waste as much as we can while travelling.

BYO water bottle

It’s an absolute must: you’re going to need water every day, and it’s either your own or a bought one. There are many ways to be responsible for your own water rather than buying it. We travelled overseas with an insulated, leak-proof water bottle for each person in our family, plus one large filter bottle that cleaned the water as it passed through the valve. We would fill that bottle with tap water and then filter it into our insulated bottles so it would last us all day.

The filter bottles themselves are a great option if you just want one item to carry, or you can get a Lifestraw and use it to drink within a glass or bottle. The old hiking favourite, water purification tablets are also still around, and you can get very small hand pumps which extract and filter water as you go, too.

In many cities in the world, quality water refills are very accessible now. We took a more expensive filter to Cambodia with us, but we didn’t need to use it once! They have an excellent program called Refill Not Landfill, which was easy to access in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh. Most businesses provide it for free as well, or may charge a minimal cost to refill your water bottles.

But even if those options are not available, you can still minimise your plastic waste with purchased water. Buying a large cask or the biggest bottle you can find and using it to refill your own water bottles creates less rubbish than buying water in individual bottles. And you can say ‘no’ to free water bottles that are included on your tour if you already have your own.

When we travelled in a van within our home country Australia, we took along a large portable water filter which could be filled with tap water wherever we stopped. But when it suddenly got too clogged up to work properly, we had to buy some water while waiting for our replacement filter cartridges. So we bought ten litre casks of water and refilled our bottles each day, which was the best we could do to minimise our rubbish at that point.

Zero waste/low waste travel bring your own water bottle small child filling a reusable water bottle with a water filtering water bottle

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO foldable shopping bags and produce bags

This is such an easy thing to do, which avoids the need for plastic bags and is very handy too! Always pack some lightweight but strong foldable shopping bags in your daypack or handbag. I constantly have ours with me whether at home or while travelling, and I am very used to saying ‘I have my own bags’ wherever I am.

Our bags also came in handy to do laundry in South East Asia. We could load them up with our washing to take to the laundromat, and when we used local vendors instead, we requested that our clothing be returned to us packed back into our bags rather than wrapped in plastic. It was an easy thing to ask for, but was obviously not a common request for the couple of vendors we used.

And another use we got from my shopping bags was as an occasional seat covering. Sometimes when our kids just had to sit down but there was nowhere except the gutter or a filthy chair, we could cover it with an empty shopping bag for them. We are actually not germophobes though! That only happened twice in all of our travels, and it was a good option to fall back on at those times.

child sitting on bench next to resuable shopping bags

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO toiletries

Many hotels are going greener now and offer liquid soap and hair products in refillable containers to guests. But still most will have plastic-wrapped toothbrushes, tiny toothpastes, individually-wrapped sanitary items and plastic bags to put them in.

Remembering your own basic toiletries goes a long way, and it’s not hard to include a small bar of soap if you’re not sure what to expect when you arrive. Shampoo and conditioner bars are also a great option to avoid carrying small bottles for your hair or relying on the hotel ones.

And ladies, a reusable menstrual option is one of the best investments you can make for reducing your waste at home and while travelling. There are many options to choose from now, including washable pads, sea sponges, menstrual cups and period-proof underwear. Each option will need some sort of little bag or carry case, and I recommend getting used to your selection/s in the comfort of home so you know what to do while you’re away.

I personally find menstrual underwear the easiest and most comfortable option for travel, and I’m so glad they’re available now! I haven’t used anything disposable for my period for years now, and they meant I never had to try and find tampons or pads in another country.

waste bins aluminium paper geral waste general waste zero waste

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO straws

Reusable or plastic-free straws are quite readily available now as the problems they have caused are widely known. Straws aren’t actually an essential item of life for most people, but they still seem to be used a lot anyway. Kids do enjoy them, and if you buy take-away beverages they are hard to drink without one.

So if you or your family needs to use straws, take some stainless steel ones with you if you want ones that will never break. You can get small pouches or containers for them that also hold a cleaning brush. If you don’t remember to take them along, you might be able to access some locally, and try alternatives like bamboo, grass or pasta straws!

You can also just say no to drinks that need straws. They are often non-recyclable plastic cups anyway, and at a restaurant you don’t really need a straw in your glass. Or, if smoothies and other beverages are not negotiable as you travel, you can take along a large reusable travel cup with its own straw included.

orange purple yellow and white smoothies with metal straws zero waste

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO coffee cup

On a similar note, if you love a hot drink and will be purchasing them rather than making your own as you travel, a reusable mug is a must. Disposable coffee cups are a huge polluter as they are also not recyclable and used so briefly, yet by millions each day. Reusable mugs are lightweight and quite small so they won’t be a burden in your bag.

They are also versatile, as you can use them for a drinking glass to save room if necessary, and even a small container for food or rubbish in your bag. And another bonus is: having a lid on children’s drinks saves many spills! We love BYO mugs for kids!

reusable coffee mug with lid clear glass and white lid and cozy zero waste

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO food wraps, containers and cutlery

These items will depend on your type of travel and food preferences. If you often buy foods like sandwiches, wraps, sushi and rolls, taking a washable wrap can save a lot of cling-film being used and discarded. Or if you buy meals more like curry, pasta or rice dishes to eat out, asking for them to be put into your own leakproof containers can save a lot of single-use plastic and styrofoam containers. These are also great for leftovers, as are beeswax wraps for covering bowls in your holiday kitchen.

If you tend to buy food for picnics or eating on-the-go, a lightweight cutlery set is an easy addition to your bag. You can get entire sets from plastic or metal, and some include chopsticks as well as Western implements. Bamboo cutlery is also readily available in many countries, often accompanied by a fabric wrapping.

Through our van travels, we took our own wraps, containers and Tritan sporks as we cooked for ourselves but also purchased food for picnics sometimes. It worked well and most places we asked at were happy to use our containers rather than their single-use ones.

While we backpacked in Asia we didn’t take those items though, as we ate-in at cafes or hotels almost all of the time. We tried not to over-order and thus have leftovers or food waste, and did buy some bamboo straws while we were there.

using reusable food wraps at a picnic with children zero waste

Photo: Emma Walmsley

BYO snack packs/pouches

I see this as separate to the last point, because snacking is part of nearly every traveller’s life! And snacks are so easily bought as a single-use item, but they don’t have to be. Changing that mindset is important and easy to do, even if you are a solo-traveller. And it will save you some money too, so it’s a win-win situation!

Like buying larger containers of water, you can buy larger packets of snack foods and transfer what you need for an outing into your snack pack. This still creates some plastic waste but it is less than individual snacks, or worse, a large packet with smaller plastic packets inside.

We did take our snack packs with us to Asia, and I loaded them with nuts, seeds and dried fruit for all of our outings and for on the plane or bus. Sometimes we found bulk bins with snack foods which was awesome, as I could fill our reusable produce bags with them and distribute them amongst our snack packs.

And of course, if you have the facilities you can make your own snacks and use your pouches to carry them in. Or you have the option to buy directly from a vendor without needing to use their disposable wrapper.

reusable cutlery and food storage containers zero waste

Photo: Emma Walmsley

Disposing of waste responsibly

Despite doing all of this, we still created some waste as we travelled. It is very hard to avoid it completely and be 100% zero waste, but that doesn’t mean our efforts were in vain. We reduced in many ways and avoided a lot of rubbish being created, which is important everywhere, but is especially important in places that do not have strong waste management services.

So what did we do with our rubbish? We held onto it until we could find a proper disposal unit. Even in areas where trash is literally everywhere, we did not add to it. And it usually wasn’t very hard to find a recycling bin when we went looking.

However, during our van travels last year through Central Australia, there actually weren’t any recycling facilities for paper, cardboard or plastic. Most of the areas we drove through have a refund scheme for cans and bottles, so they are all that is collected for recycling. We had some room in our van and really didn’t want to send recyclable materials to landfill if we could help it, so we held onto it all until we got home.

It was a bit of a pain, but I think it was worth it. It made us even more conscious of what we were buying, and it turned out to be a great indicator of how much rubbish we actually create per month. It was confronting too, but also motivating and educational for our kids.

Also I need to say here: if you are a smoker, please please please be responsible for your cigarette butts! They are the number one polluter on beaches and just one butt contaminates more than seven litres of water. Carry a little portable bin with you, or hold on to the butt until you can dispose of it in a trash bin.

trash bins general waste paper bottles and cans

Photo: Emma Walmsley

Seeking better solutions

Over the past few years there has been a lot of focus in the environmental movement about our waste issues, as they have become such a big problem. It is great that many of us are becoming more aware of what we’re doing, and so many innovators are creating sustainable solutions to our currently unsustainable habits.

Much of it is returning to traditional knowledge and natural resources, which makes so much sense and leaves me wondering why we turned away from them in the first place. It is so great to see solutions like banana-leaf wrapped food in supermarkets, bamboo straws, coconut shell bowls, rice husk coffee cups, and edible water containers made from seaweed extracts.

During our trek to see elephants in the forest of Northern Thailand, our guides used machetes to carve cooking pots, serving dishes and mugs from fresh bamboo, and we ate with a side of rice that had been pre-cooked and transported in palm leaves. It was a beautiful example of how a meal can be prepared and served in a way that is both zero-waste and single-use. Also, it demonstrated clearly to me just how much knowledge people have, that is often overlooked in favour of products that are marketed as easier and cheaper.

Another solution that is not considered enough is to choose fully recycled products instead of things that use virgin materials. Post-consumer waste that can be recycled is great, but only if something useful is done with it. We have to close that loop by utilising things that used to be something else, and there is now a huge array of products made from recycled materials, which are all of a very high quality.

I love our bread bag, my day-pack and our produce bags which are all made from recycled plastic water bottles. My kids love some beach toys they have which are made from recycled milk bottles. And we all love our huge outdoor setting and our camping mat that are also made from fully-recycled plastic.

So I hope that leaves you with tips for World Environment Day for reducing waste as you travel, and for using different products in your life, wherever you are! It’s not difficult to reduce waste, even though it may seem like a lot to think about. Just remember to take a few things from home that you will definitely use, seek bulk buys and proper disposal units, and know that you’re making a difference every time you avoid some rubbish being created.

camper with small table and family eating a sustainable meal

Photo: Emma Walmsley

Check out some other travel tips for World Environment Day here:

Most Inspiring Spots Around the World to Explore on Foot

6 Tips on How to Beat The Heatwave Naturally

Practical & Easy Ways to Transition to a Zero Waste Lifestyle