Below is a guest blog post from Alex Freid at PLAN, who just wrapped up the Patagonia Worn Wear College Tour, and his attempt to travel zero waste for 14 weeks and 15,000 miles across the US, visiting 21 college campuses that are leaders in the Campus Zero Waste Movement. Impressive!
Traveling Zero Waste: Successes and Failures
We’ve been doing an annual college road trip for four years now, and during each trip, we’ve challenged ourselves to travel as Zero Waste as possible. Spoiler: It’s basically impossible. We have a lot of respect for the Zero Waste Lifestyle bloggers that can fit a year’s worth of waste in a mason jar, but seriously we just can’t figure out how to do it. That said, it is SO fun to try, and we kinda like celebrating the failures as much as the successes.
We don’t want to hide the places where we messed up, we want to talk about them. Living Zero Waste shouldn’t be about creating “no waste”, but about the process of learning how to reduce your personal footprint, and recognizing where industries have made it impossible to do so (more on that here). It’s a game, a personal challenge, but you can’t take it too seriously. If you let it get to you, you might end up waking up from stress dreams where a server stuffs your drink full of giant plastic straws.
We also want to share our challenges because the Zero Waste Movement isn’t about shaming anyone. We know that it’s a bit unusual to do what we’re doing, and we don’t expect everyone to join us. We do this because we find it fun to push the boundaries of society, and because we at PLAN work to constantly ask the big questions. Why is it totally acceptable to hand people trash with every meal? How do we get reusable food containers to be as accepted as the reusable coffee mug? As we work towards re-designing systems, we also face daily choices and do our best to live our values. Along the way, we do hope to inspire folks to think about their everyday impact, and where they can cut down.
Above is a picture of all the trash I created on the trip. For 14 weeks I avoided single-use disposable products whenever possible. I brought my own containers, asked for food and drinks without plastic straws, forks, or packaging, and tried my best to find alternative products when possible to avoid items with plastic seals or lids. In total, I came home with a little less than four pounds of trash.
I made some rookie mistakes along the way – like when we went out for food and drinks in a small town and I forgot to bring my To-Go Ware pouch of silverware with me, only to find that my one dinner option was a food truck with disposable plastic forks. Once, I asked for tea at a restaurant when I was feeling sick, and didn’t realize they were going to bring my tea bag sealed in a plastic disposable pouch. (Of course, if they throw out the pouch before serving it, that wouldn’t be MORE zero waste…but I digress.)
Many of the items in my trash, though, were simply unavoidable. I slammed my sunglasses in the car door and had to discard them when the frame broke. When I got sick, I had to live off Sudafed for a few days. Also, I was traveling, and without regular access to bulk stores or home cooked meals, I didn’t have the ability to stock up on some essential items the way I normally do. For the future, I’m definitely going to plan ahead and stock up on bulk items like peanut butter and granola bars. But when I took the weekends of this trip to go on long hikes, I decided that surviving the hike by bringing a few energy bars with me was worth the waste I’d have to carry for the rest of the trip. When it comes to health and safety, Zero Waste sometimes has to take a back seat.
And of course, there is the pile of straws for every single freaking time I asked for a drink without a straw and I got one anyway.
It’s also worth noting what’s not pictured.
We went to a smoothie place, and asked for smoothies in our Klean Kanteen water bottles. Not only were the servers pretty frustrated with our request, but they made our smoothies in Styrofoam cups, poured them into our kanteens, and tossed the cups.
I went into a sandwich place and asked for a sandwich in a reusable container, which they said they couldn’t do. I looked over and saw that they wrapped sandwiches in tin foil, which I figured I could recycle, and decided that would be okay. Then when I got the sandwich, I realized that the wrapper was tin foil on the outside, fused with parchment paper on the inside. The cheese from the sandwich melted into the parchment paper, and I couldn’t clean it off enough to justify taking that soiled tin foil with me in the car for the next 6 weeks, so into the trash can it went.
So what to make of all of this? We want to come out and say that sometimes, avoiding plastic packaging is impossible, and that’s okay. For medical concerns, for health and safety, or just because sometimes you have no other option, the Zero Waste Lifestyle shouldn’t come before your personal well-being. If you’re hungry, you should eat, and if you need medicine, you should take it. Zero Waste has to be accessible.
While living the lifestyle can be a fun challenge, our organizing efforts and tactical energy should be focused on the companies that make the plastic packaging in the first place. There’s no reason why, in this day and age, anything should be wrapped in non-recyclable or compostable or reusable packaging. Let’s focus on challenging the companies to redesign the system, rather than bending over backwards to avoid waste that didn’t have to be created in the first place.
All of that said, my trip was still a huge Zero Waste success. If the average American produces five pounds of trash per day per year, and I was on the road for 98 days, then I should have produced about 490 pounds. I produced 4. That makes my diversion rate somewhere around 99.2%.
My success wouldn’t have been possible without the system we’ve developed for Zero Waste travel, and the tools that make it possible. We wanted to solidify and share a few of the strategies we’ve settled on over the years. And so, **drumroll** … Here are our 5 tips for Zero Waste Travel on the go!
5 tips for Zero Waste Travel on the go
1. Bulk up
Find a bulk store or a bulk section and fill some containers with snacks. It’s the easiest way to avoid single-use disposables on the road. When traveling, it’s so tempting to stop at gas stations and convenience stores, but you can avoid that by bringing snacks with you instead. My favorite snack containers are from U Konserve…they’re durable, easy to clean, and stack away to conserve space when your’e not using them.
2. Keep sealable containers in the car for your “carmpost”
The idea of compost in the car is daunting to many, and rightfully so. The key, we’ve found, is to carry leftover food and organics in a fully, completely sealable container. This Life Without Plastic container with a lid that clips on is perfect for keeping food and liquids contained and doesn’t emit any smell. If you have access to a kitchen, bring the container in and put it in the freezer to slow the biogenic process down a bit.
3. Figure out your “on-the-go” kit
I prefer to use metal or glass containers when possible for take-out or food on the go, but I keep a small kit in my backpack of the essential back-up items in case something comes up while I’m out. For me, my essentials are:
a collapsible silicone food container
a to-go ware pouch of bamboo cutlery
a small container of organic soap with a people towel so I can wash dishes wherever I go.
water bottle and coffee mug
4. Pack the car with bins – bring containers that are easy to clean
We pack the car with bins and crates so that we can keep our food and containers in one place. Eating three or more meals a day, while traveling, requires A LOT of containers. If you don’t have time to do dishes every time you eat, they can pile up. Bins help you organize your containers and dishes. For me, one of my biggest pet peeves is washing dishes with annoying crevices and ridges that are hard to clean and harder to dry. I don’t have time to pick dried peanut butter crust out of my container, and neither do you. We find U Konserve containers to be super versatile and user-friendly, and Klean Kanteens are pretty great as well!
5. Don’t ask for your food “to go”
We found that a lot of places have reusable dishware when you ask for food “for here” but switch to disposable when you utter the words, “to go.” Sometimes it’s just easier to get your food “for here” on a reusable plate, and then transfer your food into your own container and book it. Every restaurant and region is different, so you have to feel it out when you walk in — we’ve started to develop noses for restaurants that are more than happy to put food in the containers we brought. But if you find yourself in a restaurant or café that seems less than receptive, just ask for food for here, and you’re good to go!