7 Zero-Waste Air Travel Tips

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Discarded items from travelers at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois.
Discarded items from travelers at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Air travel is not good for the planet, but sometimes it’s the only feasible option to get to where you need to go. If you find yourself on a flight for one reason or another, it’s good to know your options for minimizing the impact of your trip. Sure, you can buy carbon offsets, but if you’re looking for a more tangible way to make a difference, you can start by reducing the amount of waste associated with flying.

You might purchase little plastic shampoo bottles for your carry-on to comply with the TSA liquid size requirements. Then, on your journey through the airport, you stop for a dreaded plastic water bottle that costs nearly as much as a luxury meal.

Once you’re comfortable in your coveted window seat, you might use a wipe to clean off the tray before the flight attendant pours you a drink in a little plastic cup.

Over the course of just one flight, you can accumulate a lot of waste, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are tips to reduce your impact of air travel, from saying ‘No, thanks’ to the single-use plane pretzels to packing your own zero-waste personal care items, even in a carry-on.

1. Go Digital

Thanks to modern technology, there’s no need to get paper version of your boarding passes at the airport. Instead, download the airline app with which you are flying or ask to have your boarding pass emailed or texted to you. You can even make these selections yourself at a self-service kiosk at the airport. 

If you plan to bring other paper items, like a print-out of your hotel confirmation, instructions to your destination, or maps, consider downloading these items onto your phone or taking screenshots instead. This way, you can still access them without data.

2. Pack Snacks

You don’t have to resort to airline peanuts or plastic-wrapped snacks from a vending machine at the airport. You can bring your own snacks through security and onto the plane, so long as you follow TSA’s guidelines. You can bring liquid or gel foods of 3.4 ounces or less — they may just need to be screened separately from your other belongings. 

You can bring most solid foods, from sandwiches to pastries. To keep this process zero-waste, pack items in reusable containers or reusable and resealable bags, and choose items without plastic packaging, like fresh fruits and veggies. (If you are flying to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, or internationally, avoid packing produce, or you may have to throw it out at the security checkpoint.)

3. Bring a Water Bottle

Taking a reusable water bottle to the airport isn’t just sustainable. It’s also a smart move for your wallet. Water bottles can cost about $5 when you purchase them at the airport, which can really add up when you’re trying to stay hydrated. Make sure the reusable water bottle is completely empty before you head through the security screening, then you can fill it up at water fountains throughout the airport before you get on the plate.

4. Transfer Liquid Personal Care Items to Small Containers

Instead of buying the adorable little travel-sized shampoos and body washes from the grocery store for your trip, make use of the products you already have. Use reusable travel-sized containers to add 3.4 ounces or less of your shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, lotions, and other personal care items. Make sure to label the bottles, so you don’t mix up which product is which when you get to your destination. 

You’ll also need to keep all liquid and gel products together in a quart-sized bag. Instead of using a plastic version, pack items in a clear, resealable silicone bag to reduce waste and make screening simple.

5. Switch to Solid Shampoos, Conditioners and Soaps

Even easier than pouring small portions of liquid products into reusable and resealable containers is swapping to solid products. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash and facial cleanser bars are easy to find at most grocery stores or pharmacies. These days, you can even find toothpaste and mouthwash tablets and lotion bars for no-fuss traveling.

6. Put Together a Zero-Waste Travel Kit

Before it’s time to fly, make a zero-waste kit to keep in your carry-on or personal item for easy access. While the specific items you include can depend on your own travel wants and needs, consider including cloth napkins, a reusable spoon and fork, resealable and reusable food containers and reusable straws. Of course, don’t forget to include your water bottle in the kit. 

Then, you can adjust your kit to bring other items that are essential to your needs and comfort. You might want to include an extra container to hold food scraps for composting when you reach your destination. Shopping bags will also come in handy if you need to stop off to purchase a book or two.

7. Say No to Single-Use Items

Depending on your flight, the crew might offer you prepackaged snacks and meals, earbuds in plastic packaging, or drinks in plastic cups. Simply, and politely, refuse these items, instead turning to the foods you brought yourself. If you happen to forget a reusable water bottle, you can ask the flight attendant to give you a full can of the soda or juice of your choosing. Then, make sure to rinse out and recycle the can when you leave the plane. While it’s not guaranteed that they’ll give you a full can, most flight attendants are happy to accommodate this request.

Based in Los Angeles, Paige is a writer who is passionate about sustainability. Aside from writing for EcoWatch, Paige also writes for Insider, HomeAdvisor, Thrillist, EuroCheapo, Eat This, Not That!, and more. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Ohio University and holds a certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also specialized in sustainable agriculture while pursuing her undergraduate degree. When she’s not writing, Paige enjoys decorating her apartment, enjoying a cup of coffee and experimenting in the kitchen (with local, seasonal ingredients, of course!).

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