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Plastic-Free Road Trip: Must-Pack Items and Tips from an EcoWatch Editor

Adventure
Camper bus taking a road trip through the desert near Arches National Park in Utah
Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Plastic Free July lands smack in the middle of vacation season, and this year, my summer plans included leaving North Carolina and driving through four cities in Florida to spend some time in the humidity sun. The challenge was: Could I really carry out a plastic-free road trip?

With a lot of planning and even more improvising, I was able to significantly cut down my waste and successfully avoid single-use plastic throughout the entire journey. Here, I'll share the best tips I learned and a few items to pack if you're embarking on your own plastic-free road trip.

Disclaimer: If you want to take it a step further and have a zero-waste road trip, you may need to adjust some of the following tips.

Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.


Plastic-Free Road Trip Food and Drinks

Road trips usually mean a lot of eating en route. Here are a few ways to have plastic-free food and drinks while traveling by car:

Snacks

Snacks are an essential part of any road trip, but there are few gas-station finds that aren't wrapped in single-use plastic. One of the best ways to avoid this waste is to stock up before you hit the road. Fill up reusable containers with fruits, veggies and dry goods. If you run low, see if the cities you're driving to (or through) have zero-waste shops, farmers markets or stores with bulk bins to refill your containers.

Drinks

In my experience, you can usually bring your own cup inside a gas station or inside quick-service restaurants for sodas and water. Just tell the cashier how many ounces your cup holds (or offer to pay for the largest-size cup they carry). You can also fill up your reusable water bottle at rest-stop water fountains.

Caffeine

If you need something to help you stay alert on a long drive, many gas stations and convenience stores sell caffeinated sodas, energy drinks and coffees in cans. Don't forget you can bring your own cup to Starbucks as well. If you're striving for even less waste, you can make and bottle your own coffee or cold brew ahead of time and pack it in your cooler.

Meals

For meals, dine in at a quick-service restaurant that uses real tableware, like Panera. (Or, to get back on the road right away, order your food for dine-in and carry it out in your own reusable to-go container). You could also opt for a place like Chipotle, which packages many items in foil and other plastic-free containers. Just remember to bring your own silverware and cup or water bottle.

In a pinch, many fast-food chains wrap items like burgers and tacos in biodegradable paper. Subway wrappers, for example, even say "please compost" on them. If you go this route, just ask for no sauce packets/cups, silverware and other small sources of plastic.

Ice

If you're packing a cooler, you'll need to keep it cold without buying plastic bags of ice. If you're staying at a hotel, use the ice machine to replenish your supply. If you're staying somewhere else that has a freezer, bring re-freezable ice packs or pack ice trays and freeze them overnight. If you're camping or don't have freezer access, freeze a tub of water and pack strategically, keeping your most perishable items nearest to the tub. A large block of ice will melt much slower than individual cubes.

Avoiding Plastic While Lodging

If you aren't driving through the night, you'll likely be staying at a hotel, campsite or rental home. Use these tips to avoid plastic in each scenario:

Hotels

One of the biggest culprits of waste in hotels is in-room amenities. From ice bin liners to mini toiletries to coffee bar items, there are a lot of single-use plastics that can be easily avoided. If you leave these items untouched, it's likely the housekeeping staff will keep them out for the next guest. When checking out, make sure to return your key card so it can be passed on as well.

If your hotel has a continental breakfast or other type of buffet, you may be able to find some plastic-free fare. However, the utensils and plates may be disposable. Be sure to bring your own tableware and a cup for coffee or juice.

Campgrounds

Food and drinks are often the biggest sources of plastic waste while camping. Sure, a dehydrated backpacking meal is convenient and quick, but you'll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't come in plastic packaging.

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. Cook your own meals at home and dehydrate them before the trip, then rehydrate them at camp.
  2. Cook your own meals at home and freeze them, allowing them to thaw a bit in your cooler before you heat them at camp.
  3. Plan, pack ingredients and prepare plastic-free meals at camp.
  4. Stop for a meal before heading to camp for the night.

Rental Homes

Staying at an Airbnb or other rental home is the easiest way to cook your own food, as many have kitchen setups and all of the cooking and dining dishes you may need. Some homes may have single-use plastic items like coffee pods or mini toiletries, so make sure you avoid these.

Plastic-Free Packing: Toiletries

From shampoo bars to cardboard-cased deodorant, more and more sustainable toiletry items are becoming widely available. (In fact, I found both of these plastic-free items at Target.) However, toiletries can still be a big source of waste while traveling. Here are a few ideas to avoid the unnecessary plastic:

Liquid Toiletries

When packing for a road trip, you'll have at least a trunk's worth of space. While it can be tempting to throw everything from your shower into the car, it's often a better idea to just bring what you need.

For liquids like cleansers, shampoo and conditioner, I used Cadence's leakproof capsules, and they worked like a charm. If you're using other containers and are worried about spillage, instead of using a Ziploc, pop them into a reusable storage pouch like a Stasher bag.

Dental Hygiene Products

If you're like me and refuse the plastic-filled goody bag of travel toothpastes, toothbrushes and flosses at the dentist, you may not have any totable dental hygiene products lying around. This is where bamboo toothbrushes, toothpaste tablets and refillable floss containers come into play.

Feminine Hygiene Products

Traveling on your period? There's no better time to make the switch to plastic-free menstrual products. A menstrual cup is one way to go, as it can be worn for up to 12 hours. However, they do require regular washing, which can be difficult in a public restroom. Another option is to pack a few pairs of leakproof period underwear from a company like Proof. Proof undies can hold up to five regular tampons and have leak-lock edges, so you can wear them all day and still stay dry. These can be washed by hand (which, again, can be difficult in a public bathroom) and hung to dry overnight.

Must-Have Items That Made My Plastic-Free Road Trip Easier

Planning is the key to a successful plastic-free road trip. As you make your packing list, here are a few things I recommend bringing along. Many of these items turned out to be useful in more ways than one, and having each of them in tow, I was more easily able to avoid single-use plastics.

Item Why Pack It on Your Plastic-Free Road Trip? Product I Used
Reusable bags Having a stash of reusable grocery bags can come in handy for everything from restocking your food supply to organizing your vehicle. BAGGU Reusable Shopping Bag
Reusable water bottle Rather than buying dozens of plastic water bottles, bring your own eco-friendly water bottle and fill it up wherever there is a soda fountain or water fountain. Hydro Flask Water Bottle
Reusable cup Plastic cups for soft drinks and Styrofoam coffee cups can easily be avoided if you BYOC. YETI Rambler 20-Ounce Tumbler
Reusable cutlery Whether you prefer metal or bamboo utensils, bringing a fork, knife and spoon (or all-in-one tool) will let you skip single-use plastic cutlery. Light My Fire Titanium Spork
Reusable plates From food prep to serving, you'll get plenty of use out of the plates you pack. MSR Alpine Plate
Reusable straws Straws can make it much easier to drink out of a cup while driving. Pack your own reusable straws so you can avoid single-use plastic ones. Klean Kanteen Steel Straws
Reusable containers Along with using them for packing, bring a few empty reusable plastic or glass containers for storing leftovers or miscellaneous items in your car. Ball Mason Jars with Lids
Car trash bin It doesn't have to be fancy, but making sure you have a dedicated trash receptacle in your vehicle will help keep your car fresh. Bonus points if you have separate recycling and compost bins as well. HOTOR Car Trash Can
Heavy-duty cooler When you aren't buying as many items on the go, you'll need to pack more perishables. A well-insulated cooler that can keep ice frozen for days is a saving grace. RTIC Hard Cooler

Final Thoughts: Plastic-Free Road Trip

Although a plastic-free road trip is no small feat, it can be done with a little effort. When traveling by car, you're already creating a large amount of pollution through vehicle emissions. Cutting out single-use plastics is a good way to make your vacation a little more eco-friendly.

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