Have you ever stopped to think about the environmental impact your travelling has? Have you thought about how much plastic and other waste you produce in a single day while you’re on the road – everything down to the trash your plane food leaves behind? Have you ever visited an amazing tourist attraction that was full of rubbish? I bet the answer is yes to all of the above. If you’re a traveller who’s conscious about these things, then you need my sustainable packing list.
I dare say that our waste is possibly the biggest villain when it comes to environmental pollution. With economic development and technological evolution around the world, we have lost control of what we consume and dispose of. We throw away what isn’t really garbage, we produce unthinkable amounts without awareness and we dump it freely, without thinking about the consequences of our actions. Fortunately, with today’s growing media attention towards environmental issues and the ease of access to information, many people are becoming aware and trying to live a more sustainable life, doing what they can to take care of the planet.
You don’t have to be a hippie, vegan or tree hugger to worry about these issues. If you’re a backpacker, the desire to preserve and care for the planet you love should come naturally. It’s not sensationalist to say that if we don’t act now, don’t worry now, then in the future our planet won’t exist. And seriously, there’s a lot of amazing places in this world we still want to visit, right?
With that in mind, I’ve put together a sustainable packing list to help you produce as little waste as possible during your travels. Believe me, it’s the small acts that can make all the difference!
Make a packing checklist
This tip is probably the simplest, but it sure is the most efficient. There’s nothing worse than arriving at your destination and realising you’ve forgotten something important. This has happened to me and I could bet it’s happened to you. You’ve finished lunch, gone to brush your teeth and… hey, where’s my brush?
Making a backpacking checklist keeps you from winding up in this situation, but it also prevents you from having to buy things you already have at home. When you stop buying things, you indirectly stop producing new waste. Get it? So, I suggest that before your trip you take a little time to think about everything you’ll need, be it clothes, toiletries, electronics or footwear. Another valuable tip is to check the weather conditions of wherever you’re going. Rain forecast? Get that umbrella or raincoat in your bag. Take only what you need, but take everything you need!
Pack clothes you already have
One of the first steps for anyone who wants to travel more sustainably is to be a conscious consumer. Capitalism tells us to buy new things when we don’t really need them, but I challenge you to travel only with things you already own. Get creative with the clothes you’re bored of wearing, or repeat the same shirt over and over – there’s nothing wrong with that. And you know that coat you wore last winter? She’s still in the closet, waiting for her time to shine!
The key thing here is that you’re going to a different place where no one knows you or ever saw you, so everything about you will be new, you know? Even those pants you wear every week to go to work, or those shabby sneakers from three years ago. Appreciate what you already have, so you avoid consuming unnecessarily AND save money.
…But what if I need to take something I don’t have yet?
Borrow clothes and gear you don’t have
A great way to save money and unnecessary waste is to borrow things you don’t have. This tip is great for those who plan to travel somewhere cold and need warm clothes or hiking gear, for instance. Instead of spending money on jackets and accessories you may never use again, borrow from a friend or relative. It’s also worth borrowing if you need a backpack, yoga mat, boots, camera – the list is endless. If you don’t know anyone who has what you need, buying second hand is always a more sustainable option.
Assemble your zero-waste kit
Okay, this is the most important tip on my sustainable packing list. Take a zero-junk kit with you on every trip and don’t let it leave your bag! It should include a cup, mug, straw, water bottle, cutlery, cloth napkin and anything else that replaces disposables. Do you know how much waste this will stop you generating?
Obviously employ tips number 2 and 3 here: use what you already have or borrow from someone. You don’t have to buy the trendy retractable glass or bamboo cutlery kit just because it’s cute. Take cutlery from home, that mug you got for your birthday, and so on.
Unfortunately, producing rubbish is unavoidable sometimes, but being prepared is a total waste-saver. You can use your own cutlery rather than grabbing plastic when you eat street food, and many cities have free drinking fountains on the streets to encourage refilling. If you stay in a hostel, always fill your bottle before heading out. Just walking around with a reusable bottle will keep you hydrated, save you money and stop you contributing to waste that is, in my opinion, the easiest kind to avoid.
Always carry an eco-bag with you
Even in everyday life, having an eco-friendly shopping bag is essential for anyone trying to live a more sustainable life. It will ensure that you don’t use plastic bags when browsing local markets or nipping to the pharmacy. They’re also handy in other ways – I always use mine to take my toiletries to the hostel bathroom, or to carry my dirty clothes to the laundry. Once again, you don’t have to buy a beautiful and expensive eco-bag made from finest Chinese silk, you can use any cotton tote you have at home.
Take some spare totes in your backpack too, to carry snacks, hold your electronics, buy groceries and to hold any rubbish you produce when there’s nowhere to dispose of it. After I started using cloth bags, I never went back to plastic. The ones in the photo were made of scraps that would go to waste, which is a good idea if you’ve got a crafty streak!
Invest in environmentally friendly toiletries
If you don’t already use these products, invest in eco-friendly shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes and solid deodorants. The great advantage is not just that they’re not packed in plastic (though that is a big bonus), but also that they’re solid and you can bring them freely in your carry-on bag. They’re organic, natural and great for both your health and the health of the planet. And on top of all this, usually these products are several in one – a soap alone can serve as shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Great, right? There are several brands online selling these products, and for them I’ll make an exception to point 3 on my sustainable packing list – we’d only be buying more harmful alternatives if not! So, invest your money and I promise you will not regret it.
Peel more, package less
This tip is for life, not just for travel. Make sure your meals produce as little waste as possible. How? Peel more, package less 😉. What I mean by that is, avoid buying fruit and veg that’s wrapped in layers of unnecessary plastic – they’ve already got their own skin. I know sometimes travel gets hectic and there’s no time to cook or worry about our waste, but a simple way to avoid excessive garbage production is to buy everything at a local grocery store or market, rather than a supermarket, and prepare your own meals in the hostel kitchen from time to time. It’s both eco and budget friendly. Make sandwiches, pick some berries, put it all in a cloth bag and be a conscious traveller!
But when you can’t avoid consuming pre-packaged products…
Recycle, recycle, recycle
All the above tips should help you to be more conscious about the waste you produce during your trip. Believe me, the most effective way to stop your garbage affecting the environment is for you to stop producing it.
I know from experience that we cannot always produce zero waste, especially if we’re exploring all day and funds are limited. Sometimes, counting on the recycling services wherever you’re travelling is your only option. Many countries in Europe have selective collection services that are brilliant. Unfortunately, I realised that because they’re investing so much in recycling in some places, everything comes packaged in plastic. UGH. It’s bizarre to go to a supermarket and see a tomato packed in plastic wrap.
Lots of places have separate recycling bins scattered around the city, but if you don’t find one, keep your waste with you until you return to the hostel. But let it be clear that recycling should not be an excuse for you to produce waste wherever you go. It should be your last resort.
I believe you’ll agree with me when I say travel is the best thing there is! It’s so good to visit a whole new place, with a different culture and a different climate than you’re used to… not to mention the incredible landscapes that exist in this big world. So, speaking free spirit to free spirit, I invite you to consider these tips and to try to travel more sustainably. We have the power to make this world a better place and we have an obligation to take care of it, so do everything in your power. Have a good trip!
About the author:
Luiza is an Oceanographer and Sustainable Consultant at Ecofriends Consultoria. She and two other friends share with people all kinds of tips on how to do the things we like most in a sustainable way – like travelling! You can see her posts on sustainability on her professional Instagram, or her selfies on her personal Instagram.