the trials and tribulations of a zero waste overseas jaunt
Zero waste travel is a strange beast. The carbon footprint of the flight itself is so damaging that its basically the antithesis of living a sustainable lifestyle, and the beautiful irony was that my most recent trip to the US was to present my research in sustainable design at a conference. Ha! Walking the talk is important to me so making sure I could offset this trip as much as possible was my first step. I also wanted to make the most of having travelled so far, so I stayed longer in connecting cities to make them part of the trip and after the conference was over I spent a week in New York to immerse myself in some art, design, and architecture. In addition to carbon offsetting my travel and making the distance worthwhile, maintaining my zero waste lifestyle was the next step.
Packing... 3 cities over 2 and half weeks, 2 climate changes (from 34C down to -4C), 2 events, 2 presentations, night photo shoots (hello tripod), lots of walking (meaning extra shoe changes) AND my full zero waste kit. Holy heavy bag alert, Batman! But I did it. I packed my everything, including 24hrs of meals/snacks and headed to the airport where I discovered that my bag was 5kg under weight. A small win for planet earth as I was allocated 2x23kg and ended up with less than half of my designated check on luggage for the trip over, yay! On the way home I checked a second bag but both were still 5-10kg under weight so another small win for earth!
Handy hint packing a little less that your allocated allowance means less fuel is used by the plane throughout the flight.
The flight(s)... Well firstly the airline attaches those huge long stickers onto the luggage and they go straight into the jar, dammit! I collected a decent heap of them too. Secondly, EVERYTHING on flights is wrapped in plastic. Luckily I brought my neck pillow, prepared my own food and had my headphones in my bag - Girl Scout style - but I blanked on the blanket, so the soft plastic bag travelled all the way home with me to be recycled through the Redcycle program. I scored an upgrade to 1st class on my flight to New York which meant coffee in a real mug and a banana for a snack which was pretty awesome, but Murphy's Law the upgrade was for the shortest of all my flights, haha 🙂 I was able to use my water bottle and keep cup for all my drinks on all my other flights, but I had to hand over my banana peels before each landing, Australian airlines compost their food scraps so I'm hopeful that the same happened on Delta's domestic flights throughout America, as their recycling program is the strongest of all the US domestic carriers.
Handy hint to avoid collecting boarding passes - download the airline's app beforehand so you can use the app to store your boarding pass.
The trip itself... Well that was interesting to say the least, I had some amazing adventures, I met some inspiring people, I had some zero waste wins, but I sure had some challenges along the way! America has a disposable culture, and often the ONLY option is for disposable cups/plates/cutlery. The conference I presented at was fully catered and unfortunately almost fully disposable, so I used my keep cup and my own cutlery instead of their polystyrene cups and plastic disposable cutlery (win). Being vegan meant my food choices were really limited, but this was actually a zero waste plus. Most days the vegan breakfast ended up being a banana because the catering company didn't understand what vegan meant (at different times they tried to serve me chicken, sausage, cheese and eggs!!) on the plus side, my breakfast banana skins were composted so no unnecessary waste created there. My lunch choices were usually limited, but sandwiches and salad wraps were easy to pick up and eat without a plate - yay. Of course the day they served beans ‘n’ greens was the same day I left my little lunch container in my apartment! The plastic plate I used was collected by someone while I was chatting and I assume it went into landfill even though it was technically recyclable - I’m sorry earth. I opted to avoid the conference's dinner meals and in the process avoided a heap more pre packaged plastic, but I did attend a banquet dinner that was a full-service affair. The food was served on crockery, BUT the drinks came in plastic cups, and full disclosure... I had 3 gins. Because I’m only human and I loves me a good botanical gin on the rocks! I didn’t think I’d need to bring my keep cup to a fancypants dinner! You live, you learn. I still don't feel great about this one but least those plastic cups were recycled.
Handy hint assume everything will be disposable and always be prepared with your zero waste kitty!
On refusing... On any given day in New York I would walk out of 4 cafes before finding one that would let me use my keep cup. Most cafes didn’t have any reusable options at all, they were 100% disposable, even for those dining in. It’s no wonder why there’s garbage piling up on every street corner of the city - see my other blog post about the NYC street garbage!). I did have two coffees that were accidentally served to me in disposable cups. Sometimes the baristas get busy and their force of habit kicks in. When 99.999% of the drinks you serve are in disposable cups it must be hard to break that habit. It used to kill me when that sort of thing happened, but I don’t get so upset about those mishaps anymore. Sure it's frustrating, but they’re out of my control and getting all teen-angsty about it doesn’t change anything. Someone whose day is hectic enough already doesn’t need a dogmatic bitch freaking out at them over a disposable cup. Asking to use your own stuff, be it a plate, a cup or whatever is the start of a conversation, and you win more flies with honey, although I’m not a huge fan of flies either so... Much to my own surprise, I also found that using my own bags was almost always met with surprise from the person serving me. Using my own containers even more so, I think this is more because people are surprised by that level of preparedness!! I walked out of many restaurants and cafes, but I did find some places that were happy to play the zero waste game with me. But, full disclosure, I also had my fair share of caving in and ordering Uber eats, (damn that conference was exhausting!) but I made sure to seek out options that used compostable or at least recyclable containers. My parting gift to America was one paper bag of recycling. I brought home my landfill (minus that conference beans plate and accidental coffee cups) along with some soft plastics (like that airplane blanket wrapper) for recycling.
Handy hint be willing to say no, and stand by your principles in the nicest possible way, even if it means walking out of a few eateries before you get a meal in your belly!
Was I a perfect role model of zero waste while I was away? Probably not. Was I almost? Yep, most definitely!!
What ended up in my jar?
What did I take with me to help?
- Water bottle (it's a given, I also faint if I get dehydrated so I've carried water bottles with me for the past 20-odd years)
- Keep cup (it's another given these days!)
- Reusable shopping bags (another given!)
- Bento box (a box inside a box inside a box - easy to lug when empty as they take up less room, but can be filled with all sorts of goodies while you're on the run!)
- Cutlery (I have a little plastic set that came with an old lunchbox, it's easy to use, lightweight and a little more compact which I find ideal for travel.)
- Stasher bag (like a ziplock bag only waaaaaaay more reusable, also great for getting through airport security with ease!)
- Toiletries such as bar of soap/shampoo/conditioners (to avoid the little disposable ones in hotels/AirBnBs!)
It wasn't that difficult to do, I just needed to be a little more prepared and carry a decent sized bag with me, which is just like being at home. Being out of that home town comfort zone was the bigger challenge, and finding places that would let me use my reusable kit was tricky at times, but once I found them I frequented them! Doing this is a choice, and you have to actively choose it because waste-making norms are quite entrenched in many people and perceived convenience can be a killer! What kinds of choices will you make next time you travel?