Earlier this month Josh and I took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. We spent five days touring Oaxaca City and three days in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast. We had a fantastic time and were thankful to get away from the cold, wet and dreary Oregon winter for a bit.
The trip was special because I studied abroad in Oaxaca the spring semester of my junior year of college in 2007 and it was my first time back so I was excited to introduce Josh to my favorite places.
Until I started learning about the zero waste lifestyle, I never stopped to consider the role tourists have in the waste stream. When we travel we often resort to disposables to lessen what we have to carry around with us. But now that ZW is on my radar, I realized that we could help lessen the amount of waste generated on vacation and most likely with very little effort.
So, as we were getting packed for our trip I decided to pack a “zero waste” kit to take along with us. I have traveled to Mexico many times and each time was shocked by the amount of trash everywhere. There are few garbage cans so trash is discarded everywhere and anywhere. Furthermore, there aren’t many comprehensive recycling or composting programs, so I knew that during our vacation, anything we threw away was very unlikely to make it to a landfill, let alone a recycling facility.
Here is what our kit contained:
- 2 reusable spoon/fork/knife combos
- 1 reusable straw
- 2 cloth napkins
- 2 reusable sandwich bags
- 2 drawstring produce bags
- 1 cloth bag
- 2 reusable water bottles
As you can see in the photo below, the kit took up very little space, even in the small backpacks we brought with us. Other than the water bottles, everything fit in a small zippered bag that could lay flat. That made it easy to take with us wherever we went during the day, which was the key to reducing waste – making it just as convenient to grab a reusable bag as it was a plastic one. Over the course of the nine days we were gone, it helped us refuse at least a dozen plastic water bottles, several single-use plastic straws, half a dozen plastic bags and countless paper napkins.
But of course, planning is often much different than reality. There were ways we could have improved but instead of focusing on what we could have done better, I am choosing to focus on what we were able to accomplish. So, here is a recap of how we attempted our first zero waste vacation, along with some tips that I hope you can follow on your next vacation, no matter where it might be!
Find alternatives to plastic water bottles. Based on my previous trips to Mexico, I knew avoiding plastic water bottles would be a challenge. Tap water is not safe to drink so most restaurants serve it to you in a plastic water bottle. Luckily, we discovered an alternative: “agua de garrafon”, or purified water from large reusable jugs. Yes, the water still comes in a plastic container but avoids the need for disposable plastic water bottles. To our relief, every restaurant we visited accommodated our request. It pays to ask!
We were also lucky that our hotel in Oaxaca City offered agua de garrafon as well so we could fill our own water bottles every morning before we left for the day. Then, we’d pack them in our day bag along with our snacks, wallets and the rest of the zero waste kit.
Unfortunately our hotel in Puerto Escondido did not provide purified water but we were able to buy a very large jug of water from a local convenience store and use it to refill our water bottles. Not ideal but still much better than buying individual ones.
Our efforts throughout the week paid off. I kept track of how many plastic bottles we bought over the course of nine days (including travel) and we purchased only three 12 oz water bottles (at airports) and three extra large jugs of water.
Be smart about where you choose to eat. Because “comida corrida”, or “food to go”, often comes with a lot of packaging, we made a conscious effort to eat at sit-down restaurants as much as possible. Of course some of the best food in Oaxaca is sold at food carts so when we did eat out we did our best to order food that required very little packaging. This was extremely helpful and wasn’t nearly as hard as I anticipated because so much of the food is hand-held! We did opt to get take-out tacos one night, which I regret despite the fact that they were delicious. Every part of the meal came wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil and then was served on styrofoam plates and given to us in a plastic bag. Oops. Had we stayed to eat in the restaurant everything would have been served on reusable plates and serving dishes.
I do have to say, however, that I was impressed by how many street vendors offered reusable plates! It wasn’t uncommon to see a large group of people eating tortas (sandwiches) from durable plastic plates and we also encountered it at a local farmers market. So, there are clearly some folks who are on the right track!
Say no to straws. Plastic straws were EVERYWHERE, and unfortunately this includes the side of the road, storm drains and the beautiful sandy beaches as well as cups. So, I was determined to avoid them at all costs. Unfortunately I kept forgetting the Spanish word for straw (pajita) and I didn’t realize that EVERY drink would come with a straw, so bringing our own straw wasn’t as effective as I had hoped. But, on the few occasions that I did remember, I felt good that one less straw could make its way onto the street. The great thing about reusable straws is that they hardly take up any space so they aren’t a pain to take with you.
Bring reusable shopping bags. I was very excited to shop at the mercados in Mexico but wanted to avoid the plastic bags used to transport fruits and veggies and wrap gifts. To reduce our need for plastic bags, we brought mesh drawstring bags and a cloth drawstring bag. The mesh bags were great for oranges, avocados and mangoes, and the cloth drawstring bag was perfect for dried chilies and chapulines (grasshoppers) that are sold in bulk. When buying gifts we refused plastic bags, just like we did at home, and stored them in our day pack.
Use your own napkins. Carrying a cloth napkin is a great way to reduce paper waste when you’re eating street food. They are also handy when you need to wipe your hands off or clean up a spill. They can also serve as a way to wrap leftovers or as a plate in a pinch, especially if you bring your own snacks with you.
Just say no. To be polite it is ingrained in us that we must take what is offered to us. But a big part of a zero waste lifestyle is refusing things you don’t need. For example, when we purchased gifts we said no to the plastic bag they offered, and if someone tried to offer us a paper pamphlet or brochure we said no to that too. This was fairly easy when we were out and about but not so much when we were flying, so in-flight food and drink was by far the most detrimental to our zero waste efforts. All drinks are offered in a plastic cup and flight attendants seem to insist on giving you a napkin along with multiple small bags of snacks. But I did my best to refuse them (pretending to be asleep during the food service is a great way to do it!) and was successful a few times. In fact, on one flight I even asked the flight attendant to fill my water bottle instead of giving me a cup. It only worked when she could empty the contents into my bottle (was probably a sanitary thing) but I’d be willing to try it again. So here are my tips for avoiding waste during flight: bring your own snacks and say no to theirs, and if you want a soda, ask for the whole can and no ice (they always put ice in a plastic cup). It might not work, but you never know so it’s worth asking.
So there you have it, our strategies for reducing waste while on vacation! I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was and plan on packing a zero waste kit to take with us on every trip.
How about you? Have you ever thought about the waste you generate while traveling? Would you consider packing a similar “zero waste kit” for your next vacation?