Zero Waste Coffee Mug

Our Zero Waste Travel Guide – how we have been traveling and challenging ourselves to be waste-free

The hostel owner quickly came from inside the kitchen with a broad smile and two water bottles in her hand. In her shy English:

Here you have, for your trip to Ha Long Bay.
We looked at each other, thinking about how we were going to refuse such a kind offer without making her feel bad.
Thank you, but we have to refuse. We are in a zero waste mission.
Her face showed surprise. We continued:
I mean, plastic-free, do you understand? We don’t want to throw away plastic.

She made a tentative smile, but definitely not convinced of what had just happened. We tried to explain with some examples and figures, but it’s a reality you can’t make someone understand in just a few minutes. We left the hostel hoping to have planted a little seed, and hopefully, in the future, she might offer water from the water fountain to her guests, instead of giving them plastic bottles that will have a short lifespan and will probably end in the nearest landfill.

Refusing is not easy, but it’s probably the most important step, and if you are already in a waste-free mission, you know it’s the first of the 5Rs, which we will explain in detail.

zero waste refuse water 5rs
Trying to politely refuse a really kind offer from the hostel owner

Our plastic-free month challenge and our trip to Vietnam

We had planned this trip to Vietnam for some months and decided this would be the perfect test ground to go completely plastic-free while on the road. It would be an even bigger challenge for a short trip like this one (we had only eight days), but it would bring even more purpose to our travels.

Our destination, Vietnam, is very similar to Thailand in terms of plastic overuse. To travel plastic-free in a country like this was probably the ultimate challenge. If we managed to succeed, Bear Grylls himself would be proud of us to have been able to survive without such modern conveniences.

Our plan was to stay four days in Hanoi and spend the other four visiting Cat Ba island, in Halong Bay district, and Ninh Binh, a two-hour drive from Hanoi. Cat Ba was especially challenging because it’s an overcrowded touristic destination and, being an island, there are some challenges in terms of obtaining certain resources, as you will see.

How did we pack for our trip to Vietnam?

zero waste packing list travel
This was all Joao packed for his trip to Vietnam for a week.

We have been minimizing more and more our packing list, and of course, traveling in tropical countries does help us travel carry-on only. For a complete guide on how to travel carry-on only, read our last article.

Our maximum stay while traveling in SE Asia was ten days and we have been pretty happy with the little amount of luggage we have been carrying. Something that is mandatory wherever we go is our No Footprint Kit:

The kit is useful when eating out in street markets, to avoid the disposable items.

For Vietnam, we packed a small number of light clothes and we didn’t carry our computers because we weren’t planning to work. As for personal hygiene items, we love using Castille soap for everything, from brushing teeth to washing ourselves and doing the laundry. With all this, we ended up with roughly two 5 kg bags, light enough to carry around while sightseeing and in transit.

Zero waste commandments: The 5 Rs

5rs zero waste
source: recypet.ch/urrc

We try to apply the 5Rs in our daily life and this time we wanted to apply them while traveling too.

The 5Rs:

  1. Refuse – a gift or someone just offering something we may not need. It’s probably the hardest to do as we may be misunderstood.
  2. Reduce – keep questioning yourself before any purchase, how hard do you really need to buy it.
  3. Reuse – when we really need something, second-hand is always the number one option.
  4. Recycle – there shouldn’t be almost anything left after the first three steps, but at least, we should recycle those things we can’t repurpose.
  5. Rot – any food waste or biodegradable items, probably the hardest to do when traveling, but not impossible.

Popularized by Bea Johnson, the 5Rs represent the best practices to achieve a zero waste life. During our trip to Vietnam, we didn’t imagine we would have to refuse so many things and the challenge was to do it politely enough not to be considered rude.

No Footprint Travel: the 5Rs in action

Refuse

It’s amazing how many things are offered to you when you are traveling in all-inclusive tours. From cleaning tissues to the ever-present water bottles, if you don’t pay attention you’ll have a myriad of different “free” gifts by the time you get to your destination.

zero waste refuse 5rs no footprint travel
The super nice tour guide Chris (he called himself the CR7 of tour guides) offering us snacks.

For us, it was complicated to convey why we were refusing, but we tried as much as the language barrier allowed us. At the hostel or on the tours we did, refusing was constant, but we did it with success. Of course, you need to have some level of preparation, like carrying your own water bottle or our own snacks, to be able to refuse without really needing those things.

Reduce

Look at that nice veggie sandwich.
Oh, looks tasty. Ah, but wait, it’s wrapped in plastic.
Never mind, I’m not that hungry.

Yes, eating less was a challenge. The allure of street food is very strong in these parts of the world and, together with a low price, it’s hard to say no sometimes. When we are at home we are very disciplined about what we eat, and we avoid having tempting foods with us, like chocolates and bread. But, when you are traveling, you are bombarded with tasty treats that are hard to say no to. Often, they are convenience foods, wrapped in plastic. The challenge is to be able to resist and reduce any unnecessary consumption.

Another thing we definitely reduced were souvenirs. We travel light, we want to stay light. We strongly believe souvenirs should be memorable experiences and people we meet, not material things, so we don’t buy anything but postcards, which we normally send home.

zero waste travel reduce 5rs no footprint
There is more plastic than food at this shop.

Reuse

For us, this is the easiest and the one that gives us more pleasure because we have a chance to use our No Footprint Kit. During our trip to Vietnam, we ate street food many times so the kit was really useful. The problem is how to wash the utensils. Well,  on a couple of occasions I washed my coffee mug directly in the sink of the coffee shop, the staff was very friendly and curious about our stuff. A public toilet can also do the job until you get home for a proper wash.

Refilling the bottle of water wasn’t as hard as we thought, many public places and hotels have water stations. Just remember to empty the bottles before you enter the security check at the airport.

As an alternative, we could have used the Steripen to purify the water we got from the public service, but we wanted to explore the hardest way of finding drinkable water.

zero waste travel water refill no footprint

Recycle

We did not produce any direct waste, so at the end, there was nothing to recycle, but if there was, we wouldn’t be able to do it easily as we did not find any recycling bins. We did, however, fail on our last day, when we bought some postcards and did not realize they had plastic packaging. We brought the plastic with us and we will try to find a facility that recycles this kind of plastic. It’s a challenge here in Thailand, or at least in Chiang Mai where we live. The few places that recycle are private companies that only want to recycle materials that represent a profit for them, so there aren’t many things that can be recycled here.  As a last resource, we will use the plastic to build eco-bricks.

zero waste plastic travel no footprint

Rot

This is the hardest to do when traveling because, even if you find places that compost, and we’ve found a few, it’s the synchronization between the moment you consume and delivering the leftovers that is a problem. You would have to carry them with you until you find a compost facility or system. Because we are vegetarians and we don’t eat processed food, our leftovers can be thrown into any garden or park to work as food for the plants but be aware of any laws that might forbid this, it could be considered littering in many countries.
Or, as we did in Malaysia, we rented an Airbnb that had a garden, so our food waste was all sent to the compost pile of the garden. It is now quite easy to rent houses that have gardens, you can even look for farmsteads in Airbnb.

zero waste rot 5rs travel food waste scraps
Taking the food scraps to the building’s compost in Penang, Malaysia.

Our results and advice for zero waste travel

We managed to be zero waste completely if it wasn’t for an easy to avoid mistake with the postcards. We did have to make some sacrifices, like eating the same bread and banana for breakfast, but overall it wasn’t that hard.

  • Planning is the key, think about your day, your needs, your food and alternatives you will have. This will save you from half of the risks
  • The No Footprint Kit was critical, even when you think you are not going to need it, an irresistible ice-cream shop shows up around the corner
  • Like all zero waste approaches, no one should be looking for perfection, there will be moments that you can’t avoid waste, but overall you are doing great if you try to follow the 5Rs
  • Tour companies need to quickly start introducing zero waste measures, they are a real problem to waste creation, and it increases directly with the number of tourists

At the places we visited, we tried to find tour companies that had some concerns with their impact but with no success. We are aware of a strong move in that direction from companies like Better Places Travel and Crooked Trails but it would be great and of big impact to see them in countries and locations where waste management is a serious issue, and Southeast Asia is definitively one.

Hope you have got some good insights for your travels, if you have more ideas or experiences you would like to share please comment and we will add to the guide.