When you hear the word ‘zero waste', it's pretty easy to get intimidated. But there's no need to be afraid. This is a lifestyle change that can make a big impact on the environment regardless of how small your actions may be. Leading a zero-waste life isn't about being perfect. It's about making a conscious effort to minimize the waste you produce.

I know the last thing you want to be thinking about as you travel is waste management. But this article won't be about imposing strict rules on your next adventure. It's more about remembering to respect the earth as you explore it. In more developed cities, there are waste systems in place that will help you make more environmentally friendly choices. Unfortunately, in third world countries, these systems won't always be in place so you will have to make more of an effort to help out.

Before You Even Leave

Here is something you can do before you step out the door. Minimize your clutter by going ‘paperless'. When you book your flights or make reservations online, all the info will be sent straight to your inbox. For domestic flights or flights to neighbouring countries, you may even have the option to have your boarding pass sent to your phone. Gone are the days when you would have to print every single page of your travel itinerary. I suggest making sure everything is backed up on your email and on your phone. It's important to make sure you download your boarding passes and screenshot your or Hotel information before you leave your house. While most places will have wifi, it's better to be safe than sorry. The same goes for when you are out and about. Almost all train or bus companies have their own apps making it super easy to go paperless. Now you won't be wasting ink or lugging unnecessary papers around.

Zero Waste Packing List: These easy switch-ups will not only lessen your re-purchases throughout your trip but they will also make life on the road a lot easier.

  • Solid Shampoo and Conditioner: Plastic is one of the biggest sources of waste with toiletry products being some of the biggest culprits. Switching out your bath products with solid alternatives is great because you can usually buy the bars naked or with minimal packaging. A plus is that you don't have to worry about liquids spilling into your suitcase anymore. Bar alternatives also last about 60 to 80 washes, much longer than your standard bottle of shampoo.

solid shampoo

  • Totes & Net Bags: These bags cost nothing and take up almost zero space so do yourself a favour and chuck one into your carry-on already. I'm sure you already have a tote laying around your house, probably from a gift or from the grocery store. When exploring a city, I usually don't like to carry much so I put my necessities in a tote and carry it about. It's really convenient because I can just throw in any purchases there. I also try to carry an extra one if I plan on going grocery shopping. Carrying spare totes has saved me on more than one occasion at the airport. When you accidentally go over the weight limit it helps to have a spare bag to transfer some of your items to. The airlines don't count tote bags as an extra piece of hand-carried luggage so it's a good failsafe. Now you won't have to part ways with any of your belongings or suffer the luggage surcharge.

tote bags

  • Reusable Cutlery & Container: Buying food and drinks, especially when backpacking, is a world full of single-use plastic. Most of the time, that plastic fork or plastic straw either ends up in a landfill or in the ocean. Neither of which are good options. Time to pack a good set of cutlery. A good option is bamboo ones because they are light and easy to clean. An even easier utensil to carry around is a metal straw. A large number of plastic straws, unfortunately, end up in the ocean where sea creatures and fishes can get entangled in or choke on. So make the smart choice and switch to a metal straw. They are affordable and come in bamboo or glass variants. For all your milk tea lovers, they even make extra large metal straws for all your bobby needs. Carrying a small container will also come in handy on your next trip, but more on that later. I recommend one of those lightweight metal ones with snug closures.
Sprof Spoon Fork and Knife combined

Carry one of these: Sprof – Spoon Fork and Knife combined

Eating Out

One of the best ways to experience a new culture is through their food. Whether you're eating your way through a street food market or checking out the hippest cafe on the block it's super easy to minimize your waste. Remember the third bullet in our packing list? Packing your own cutlery is already a huge step in the right direction. Take it a step further by carrying a reusable container. That way you can avoid those single-use paper plates or wax-lined paper wrappers. It won't be a problem in street markets but in some brick and mortar establishments, you may even get a discount on your purchase just for bringing in your own container. Carrying your own container is also perfect because then you have an easy way of bringing leftovers back to your hostel or Airbnb because these accommodations usually provide you with a refrigerator.

When you're backpacking and on a budget I know it's tempting to eat fast food whenever you can but here's a tip: try to look for eateries where you can buy home-cooked meals for a decent price. Mostly in western countries, I have found some grocery stores that have a section for cooked food. They always have a great array of dishes like roasted chicken, pasta, and salads. More often than not, places like these use fresher ingredients. Remember, processed food is also part of your carbon footprint. Some of my best food experiences have been from simple cafeterias or meals from markets. You really taste the flavours of the city and your body will thank you for taking a break from the fast food.

popup food container

Use a popup food container. The empty ones do not take much space in your bag.


This goes without saying but using public transportation already does wonders for your effect on the environment. I won't dive too much into this one because I'm sure that is what you'll be doing as a backpacker anyway. Some of the best ways to explore beautiful cities are also on foot or by bike. There's no feeling quite like travelling through other countries by train or boat. That's an experience in itself.

Use a bike sharing scheme


I hope these simple tips have been helpful. My goal for this article was to show you that zero waste changes don't have to be overwhelming. There are plenty of opportunities to minimize your waste in your daily life. Most of the time it doesn't even involve purchasing something new. It's more about maximizing your own belongings. Don't feel pressured to be completely zero waste, doing just one of the things in this article is a big help. It's extra important to be conscious of your habits when you are travelling. Remember you are just a visitor, so be mindful about leaving places cleaner than when you arrived. Rest assured that most cities have also jumped on the zero waste wagon so you won't be the only one trying out these hacks.

Have you tried any of these switch-ups? Or do you have your own ‘zero waste' practices when travelling? We would love to hear about them in the comment section below!