How to be a trash-less travel hero

how to create less waste when you travel

For the past few months there’s been a blog post brewing inside my head. It starts like this: “The more I travel, the more I realise two things. One: people are inherently good, and kind and compassionate. And two: we’ve totally fucked this planet up.”

I never got around to writing the post because it annoys me when writers gratuitously insert the word “fuck” into a sentence. And because it’s not a word I use very often. But you see, here’s the thing: I haven’t been able to find a better word to use. We haven’t “messed” up this planet. We haven’t “ruined” this planet. We haven’t “trashed” this planet. We’re doing a pretty good job of fucking it up.

I see it every time I fly. Hundreds of kilometres of concrete and steel and pollution and waste; skies swamped with smoke and fumes and grime. I see it on so many paths I walk: rivers and beaches that are being throttled and choked by plastic; by our greed, our consumerism, our desire for more.

It can be easy, as a traveller, to point fingers at the government or locals of the country we’re visiting – but the truth is, wherever we go, we contribute to the problem. Think about it.

The solution? Consume less when you travel – and doing that can be pretty simple. Here are seven tricks that work for us:

1/ Pack your own toiletries


I’ll admit: first thing I do when we get to a hotel is check out the bathroom amenities. I’m a sucker for great packaging and mini sizes… but using half a tiny bottle of shampoo or unwrapping soap and then leaving it to be thrown away is really wasteful. A few years back I bought good-quality travel-size plastic bottles (and couldn’t believe how much I was being charged for them); I decant from a bulk bottle and today still use the same small bottles for shampoo and conditioner (yes, that’s them in the pic above). I carry soap in a small tin that once held hand cream, and into which I’ve fitted the bottom of a pierced water bottle, which I’ve cut into a soap dish.

Be a hero:

  • Fill your bottles with organic toiletries.
  • Take your own toothbrush and toothpaste in your carry-on for a long-haul flight
  • Travel with your own shower cap, if you use one.

2/ Travel with your own coffee


Not a fan of the crappy instant coffee that so many hotels supply? Neither are we – and I feel guilty about all that waste that’s generated for one cup of coffee: a sachet of sugar, a sachet of coffee and a sachet of creamer. So before each trip Mark fills a Ziplock bag (he’s been using the same one for months) with a mix of coffee and sugar, in the proportion that’s best for us both.

The bonus:

We’re not restricted to the one-cup-each-per-day allocation of the hotel.

Too much effort?

Travel with a stash of three-in-one coffee sachets – at least that way you’re only leaving behind one piece of trash.

3/ Use your own coffee mug

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 10.19.39 AM

There’s been a lot of talk lately about disposable coffee cups not being as eco-friendly as you might think. Easy way to get around that: travel with your own coffee mug.

Get more out of your mug:

Travel mugs can be multifunctional. Apart from being essential coffee carriers, here’s how we use ours:

  • To store and protect small bits and pieces in my kitbag.
  • As a breakfast bowl on camping trips.
  • Mark drops his tiny portable speaker into his mug and turns it into a boombox (which is needed when we’re driving with the windows down and the Steve Miller Band on full volume).

4/ Feed yourself


I’ve started to travel with a stash of almonds in my carry-on bag – perfect to snack on when I’m peckish as they’re more healthy than most snacks you buy in an airport or roadside convenience store. I bought a huge bag of raw almonds a while back, and refill my Ziplock (or coffee mug) from that.

How you’ll save the world:

Nutritious food will keep you feeling fuller for longer – so you won’t need to fill your body with processed sugars and chemicals, which means you’ll buy fewer convenience foods, which equals less trash.

5/ Travel with your own shopping bag

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 11.44.09 AM

Pic credit:

This one’s easy. You’re already carrying a bag for your camera/phone/sarong, right? So put your shopping in it, and keep a light reusable bag in there too, for when you need extra carrying space.

Forgot to pack one?

If you’re travelling with an old T-shirt, take a look at this post, which shows how to turn a shirt into a shopping bag.

6/ Say no to plastic straws

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 10.18.52 AM

We clean our beach regularly and the most common plastic item washed up on the sand is straws. It seems a default setting for most bars and restaurants to serve a cold drink with a straw, so you need to be quick and tell the bar staff that you don’t want one with your drink. Or just stop them when they reach for one. Simple.

Take it further:

Don’t want to drink without one? Then travel with a reusable straw.

7/ Pack a water bottle

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 10.20.35 AM

Travelling with your own water bottle should (hopefully) be pretty standard by now – but it can be a mission to find places to refill it without having to buy another bottle of water first. Get around that by buying the biggest bottle of water that’s appropriate for your trip, and decant into your reusable bottle for day trips. If you’re staying somewhere for a week, buy a gallon bottle – in Bali it will cost US$4,50 when you buy the first gallon, and $1 every time you refill it.

Make it count:

Mark and I don’t drink as much water as we should – so we usually fill one of our screw-top bottles with gin, wrap it in our waterproof bag and stash that in a check-in kitbag.


Duct tape is a useful thing to travel with… Mark keeps some wrapped around his water bottle (which, as you can see, he’s had for almost 20 years).

8/ Pick it up

trashon beach in Bali

Disappointed by the trash on your holiday beach? Pick it up. Whether it’s one piece of plastic or you collect an entire bag, picking up rubbish can be a great way to give back to the area you’re visiting. And besides, maybe someone else will see what you’re doing and will join in. Ripple effect.

I know, I know – you’re looking at this photo and thinking that burning rubbish isn’t a great way to deal with the problem… but out in west Bali, where this photo was taken, we don’t have another option.

Trash is a big problem on Bali’s beaches. Fact. Mark was snorkelling on the east coast of the island recently and came across a South African guy who, instead of simply complaining, decided to spend some time every day of his holiday collecting the rubbish that the high tide brought in. The morning Mark was there the guy collected four full rubbish bags; Mark collected some rubbish too, then two Argentinians joined in. One decided to video the impromptu clean-up. “We have the same problem at home and people moan but don’t do anything about it,” he said. “We want to show our friends someone who actively made a decision to tackle the problem.” Before long, a Balinese woman was picking up plastic, too.

Think one person won’t make a difference? I think you’re wrong.

Interested in finding ways to save the world? Take a look at these posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *