Low-waste Travel

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Originally published on Oct. 6, 2018

I recently spent 6 weeks in Paris, France. I looked up blogs on blogs about how to prepare for travel in a waste-conscious manner and although I happened upon some good sources, I found there wasn’t that much information out there to help me get ready for this trip, mentally or otherwise.

I say this often but it’s important to simply do your best. You may create trash, but are you doing your best to avoid it? If you are, you can rest easy knowing that sometimes things are out of your control, and that’s okay. We can’t be held responsible as individuals for a corporate and capitalistic system that is built against us, especially in regards to environmental consciousness.

To be super honest, our individual sacrifices mean very little against the system that is set on single-use/convenience and waste. The idea behind the waste-conscious or zero-waste movement is simply that if enough individuals alter their lifestyles and purchases (“buying power”), there will be enough demand in the marketplace for the supply to meet the demand. OR, that if enough individuals are vocal/vote differently, there will be enough collective power to negotiate for new laws and regulations put into effect by local and national government agencies. This is a long game but we are here to play the long game because we only have one earth, one atmosphere, one water source, etc. Our individual choices are worth it!

The great thing about living this kind of lifestyle is that people ask me questions all the time! I have strangers come up to me at the coffee shop where I work telling me I inspired them to make small switches. That makes me feel reassured because our decisions as individuals do affect the world around us.

I have chosen to embrace the mentality that my choices are my own and I am responsible for them but I cannot control the decisions or actions of people around me.

I have chosen to embrace an attitude that is not angry at individuals for their wasteless-ness, but angry at the systems that changed our market and angry at the lack of education and environmental awareness, especially where I live in the South of the United States. This means that I try very hard to not be judgmental toward others and I do my *best* to keep my mouth shut unless people ask/inquire.

When traveling to another country that is not your country of origin, I think it is extremely important to prioritize cultural sensitivity and kindness over some* of your personal convictions. You’re entering into a space that is not your context, sometimes not your language and whereas normally you can have a full conversation about why you use the bulk section with your local grocer, the language barrier may keep you from being able to have this conversation. Sometimes, it will be more important to accept trash than to cause difficulty to someone who can’t understand you and is just doing their job.

*** Here I will pause to say that this is in regard to trash, specifically. If you are a strict vegan, you do not need to relent. You can totally figure out vegan options wherever you are and typically people can understand that. Only if you were in a rural area in a developing nation would I consider asking you to take time to talk with someone from the area to decide if you should eat what they provide (even if it’s animal protein) for cultural reasons. That would be a very rare and unusual scenario and most tourists won’t find themselves in such a place ***

This is *especially* important if you’re an American, unfortunately. Americans do not often have a positive reputation abroad and with Trump as our President, non-Americans are even more suspicious of us. That is not your fault, but don’t contribute to the negativity! Be respectful, always.

This doesn’t mean you’re living in a free-for-all! This means you’re prepared, you’re going to do your best but you’re not going to prioritize not making trash over a social interaction/cultural insensitivity.

What can you do?

Always be prepared!

I, however, was overprepared. I packed my own fork-knife-spoon, hot cup, cold cup, straws, wine cork, napkins, 32 ounce water bottle, produce bags, grocery bags, bar soap, rope for hanging clothes to dry, charcoal to filter water and a few old gelato containers filled with snacks. I also brought one large stainless steel tiffin, and one small tiffin.

If I could do it again, I would bring:

  • water bottle (no bigger than 24 ounces)

  • 12-16 ounce hot coffee cup (use also as cold cup)

  • fork-knife-spoon: bamboo or wood or old camping utensils! They confiscated my real fork and knife.

  • straws (2) with straw cleaner

  • produce bags and grocery bags

  • charcoal only if you’re going somewhere with unreliable filtered water

  • one small tiffin, at most

  • cloth napkins/bandana as napkin

  • bar soap (if you can’t buy package free bar soap where you’re going)

I would not bring the bulky stuff I brought like the stainless steel tiffins, old gelato containers, both a hot and cold cup, and a large water bottle. I also wouldn’t bring the charcoal again to France; I didn’t need it there. My 32 ounce bottle was too bulky and I wished I brought a smaller one. I did use the rope to hang dry clothes but could’ve hung them on chair backs, windows etc.

Every day when I went out, I had a cup of some kind (usually a water bottle and my hot cup), my utensils, my napkin and a bag inside my purse/backpack.

Grocery shopping was easy in France. I found an organic food co-op with a bulk section. They didn’t speak english so I was unable to use my own containers (like jars) for the bulk section but could totally use my own produce bags for that (I didn’t get a tare weight before). They also had compostable brown bags for the bulk section as well.

In France, they charge you for a grocery bag so everyone brings their own bags to the store. At bread shops, they were usually okay with putting bread into my own bag. If I had to use their bag, it was almost always recyclable or compostable paper.

If you’re going to a place with another language, learn how to say:

  • No bag, please

  • No straw, please

  • Thank you

  • In my own bag, please

  • My cup

  • For here (to eat here)

These will help you reduce your waste, even if you are speaking in fragments. Some languages are harder to learn for people, depending on your first language and what you’ve been exposed to, etc.

Always be kind, smile, say please and thank you.

Gestures will get you pretty far, too! Cue me in the bread line saying, “in my own bag,” in French as I held up my bag and smiled. If they couldn’t understand my accent, they understood from the empty bag I was gesturing toward.

At restaurants, I put my own to-go food in my own containers quickly, trying not to draw attention to myself. Take-away was a little more difficult. Some European countries are better about biodegradable materials and their take-away containers are compostable. I found this to be true many places in Paris.

Before you leave your house to head on your adventure, I would download the city map off-line in Google for the place you’re going. I would look up ahead of time: co-op’s, zero-waste shops (if any), vegan cafes, etc. and save them to your google saved places.

If there are no grocery shops with bulk sections/co-ops available, go to a regular grocery store and just buy cardboard options and glass options. You can easily find water in glass (sparkling, usually), pasta in cardboard and sauce in glass, for example.

When eating out, specify “for here” and most places will provide real plates/cups/mugs.

At the end of the day, however, do your best and enjoy your time in a new place. It is far more important to enjoy the place where you are, meet people and hear their stories, be kind and not make people’s lives more complicated, learn about a new culture and to value someone’s else’s home than it is to be uptight about your convictions, judgmental or difficult!

Unless you have the ease, time and vocabulary to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing in a non-judgmental or offensive manner, sometimes it may be easier just to go with the flow even if that lands you with a little trash.

When in Rome --

Emily McCollister