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8 easy carry-on swaps that will lower your travel waste
Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

These days, it’s fairly commonplace to see people shopping with canvas grocery bags, bringing their own travel mugs to coffee shops, filling their reusable water bottles in public, and popping their own stainless steel straws into drinks at restaurants. It’s progress, for sure, but the reality is we have a ways to go in reducing our footprint when it comes to plastic and trash. “No matter where we go, we’re creating trash most of the time,” said Ashlee Piper, eco-lifestyle expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, noting the 2013 EPA statistic that the average American generates 4.4 pounds of waste each day. And when we travel, she guessed, the number may be higher. “We’re not at home, we might not have access to our tupperware or our reusable things, or we might not be making meals...and [we’re] grabbing food [and] beverages as [we] go,” she said.

So what can you do about it? Think beyond the reusable grocery bag, drinkware and straws — there are plenty more small swaps you can make throughout your journey and at your destination to minimize the amount of trash you create while traveling.

Food

Piper pointed out that food in airports, on airplanes, and in other on-the-go circumstances is often packaged in plastic. “Even grabbing an apple at the airport, usually that stuff has a bunch of plastic...or stickers” on it, she said. To minimize her part in that, she packs her own snacks and meals for her journey as much as possible.

Bags

When you do pack your food, skip the disposable plastic baggie in favor of a reusable one like Planet Wise’s Lite Mini Wet Bag or, Piper’s go-to, a Stasher bag. “I find those to be my favorite things to travel with because I can use them for a variety of things,” Piper said. “I can use them if I go to a bakery and I want a cookie or something, I can put it in there. ...If I have trash I know I can recycle or compost at home, I’ll put it in there and it doesn’t smell bad, and it keeps it away from my clothes and other stuff. ...I tend to pack myself a sandwich or something for the airport and put it in a Stasher bag and then use [it] throughout my trip for various things.”

And if you’re still using a disposable baggie as your quart-sized liquids bag, swap it out for a reusable option, like The Container Store’s Clear Quart-Sized Zippered Pouch that will hold up far beyond a couple uses.

Cutlery

Avoid eating with plastic utensils for multiple meals — whether it’s food you pre-packed, on-the-go airport food or a sit-down dinner at a casual beach bar that uses disposable cutlery — by bringing your own. A set like To-Go Ware’s Bamboo Travel Utensils or VICBAY’s Stainless Steel Flatware Set will be lightweight and easy to stash in any bag, and you can wash them in the sink between uses. But, Piper noted, “if you don’t have flashy bamboo cutlery, you can just pack a fork from your house — or even reuse plastic disposable utensils that you [already] had and washed.”

Source: J. Lekavicius/Shutterstock

Napkins and Tissues

We’re becoming more attuned to avoiding plastic, but it’s helpful to avoid paper trash as well — and napkins and tissues are an easy place to start. “I bring a cloth napkin and a hankie with me pretty much everywhere I go,” Piper said, noting she can use the napkin to dry her hands in a bathroom that doesn’t have an air dryer (thus avoiding paper towels) or to dry things like her bamboo cutlery after washing. “[I] wash them with my normal stuff,” she added. Piper uses Linen Tales’s Washed Linen Napkins; but there are plenty of options out there. Grab a set of napkins or handkerchiefs versus single pieces so you have extras to use between washings.

Headphones

You may have moved on to an iPhone without a headphone jack or wireless Bluetooth earbuds, but as Piper pointed out, airplanes (at least the ones that haven’t eliminated TVs in favor of personal device entertainment) still use the traditional jack. So, she recommended saving and carrying your old headphones for that purpose. “If I know I’m going to be on a transatlantic flight or something, they’ll usually come by and bring you those headphones that are packed in plastic,” she said. Instead of taking that option, she said she uses her old iPhone headphones. If you don’t already have corded headphones to travel with, grab a comfortable pair and just keep them in your luggage so they’re always ready for you.

Makeup Remover

Makeup remover wipes may be convenient, but they (and other wet wipes, for that matter) are certainly not eco-friendly. Ditch those in favor of a reusable makeup remover towel that works with water (like Jane Iredale’s Magic Mitt or Makeup Eraser’s Makeup Remover Cloth) or fabric pads (like Pai’s Exfoliating Organic Muslin Cloths or ProCIV’s bamboo pads) paired with micellar water.

Laundry Bag

Instead of grabbing the plastic laundry bag hanging in your hotel room closet, bring your own reusable bag to stash your dirty clothes throughout your trip. If you don’t already have an easily-packable fabric bag (even a reusable grocery bag will do) at home, you can grab an affordable option made for that purpose (like reisenthel’s Travel Laundry Bag), use a packing cube (like Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Specter Tech Clean/Dirty Cube), or go with something like Planet Wise’s Wet Diaper Bag that can keep sweaty workout clothes or wet bathing suits away from everything else.

Liquid Toiletries

Aside from the fact that you have limited space for liquids in your quart-size bag, traveling with liquid toiletries like shampoo, body wash, and lotion usually means carrying them in small plastic containers (many of which get thrown away in hotel trash cans instead of recycled). Piper bypasses those by using solid products like Twinkle Apothecary’s compostable Healing Lotion Stick (“It’s a good lip balm, cuticle balm, smells nice, and is...good as a lotion, too.”) and Lush’s packaging-free solid skincare bars and shampoo bars. “I’m a big fan of a shampoo bar because I actually use it to wash my body, too, because it’s all soap,” she said. “And I use it sometimes to wash my clothes...and actually to clean my dishes if I don’t have any dish soap. If I’m at the airport and I really need to rinse something out and dry it, I’ll use some of my shampoo bar and the napkin to dry it.”

Making these small swaps may initially feel unnatural, the more you consciously do them, the more of a habit it will become. And, while there are plenty of items you can buy to replace disposable options, Piper pointed out you don’t have to dig deep into your wallet to go greener. “If you want to buy a new, flashy water bottle or you want to buy one of those cool utensil keepers and the aesthetic beauty of it and the excitement around it is going to make you use it more, then by golly, do that,” she said. “But a lot of people I know, myself included, tend to get quite a few things secondhand or just work with what [we] have. It doesn’t have to be expensive and you don’t have to run out and get all the newest eco gear.”