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How to Travel Zero Waste

Zero Waste Road Trip – March 14 – April 3, 2022, Julie Smith


Travelling zero waste can be challenging. When we travel, we always try our best to avoid leaving a trail of single-use plastic in our wake, but it’s not easy. It’s a little easier when we drive, because we can take our own dishes and utensils, and we can take more recyclables home with us to recycle, especially when we can’t find local recycling outlets in remote locations when we’re on the road. On our recent trip to Florida, we rented a Tesla Model Y long-range, and we were pleasantly surprised at how much trunk space there was. The hatchback trunk was huge, and we easily stashed our suitcases and camping gear, with plenty of room to spare. We used the big back seat for our day stuff, a couple boxes with food and dishes for tailgate camping and our day packs and books. We used the frunk for our cooler and recyclable waste that we would generate during our trip, so we could take it home for recycling.


Where to Stay


Since we’re climbers and we were driving, we packed our camping gear, so we’d have flexibility on where to stay. We figured we could save money and camp where it made sense, and stay in hotels the rest of the time. For us, camping is simpler, and easier in a lot of ways to control our waste. Hotels usually present a challenge in terms of zero waste and responsible travelling, so we’ve learned to bring our own cooking gear and dry food, and then we take any plastic we use home for recycling. At home, we have a Terracycle kitchen box that takes all the plastic bags that can’t go in our curb-side single stream pick-up, like chip bags, snack bags and, yes coffee bags that you get in hotels with the coffee service. We tend to use the hotel coffee service only if it has plain plastic bags with coffee in it, but we don’t use it if it has those nasty plastic coffee inserts. If they have those, that’s when we pull out our own camping coffee.


Our first stop was In Trinidad, where we opted for a local hotel that was just a couple blocks from the supercharger. The Tower 64 is a locally owned and operated one-star hotel with decent ratings. We drove up to the place, and we could see that about half the rooms had cars in front of them. The door to the office was locked, and above the doorbell there was a sign with a phone number to call if nobody answered the bell. I rang the bell and a tall, thin young man with black hair and a stubbled beard appeared. He set us up with a room for $60. We opted out of the extra $15 they charge for smoking in the room. The room was absolutely awesome, with retro décor, local art on the walls, and zero-waste soap, shampoo and cream rinse in dispensers. The heating system in the room actually worked. The refrigerator did too, and we were able to chill the food from our cooler, and even freeze the jug of water we brought to keep the cooler chilled while we drove. We like to take a jug for this purpose to avoid having to buy plastic bags of ice on the road.





Our next overnight was in Shamrock, Texas, where we ended up in a Best Western, which was probably more hotel than necessary for us, but they had breakfast service. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they actually used paper plates instead of plastic or Styrofoam, which seems to be the norm for Texas. I had already told Hilary that I was going to pass on the breakfast if they had irresponsible plates.


We found that generally the cheap hotels are best for us. They’re normally pretty clean, locally owned, and we can park right at the door to our room, or one floor down, so no need for long annoying walks down halls, or elevators, which waste time and energy. They never try to slip in charges for parking the car or other slimy cheats that crank their total up. They usually have a fridge for our food, while some of the pricier ones don’t.


Zero Waste Food


It’s always a struggle doing zero waste food on any trip. At least on a road trip we can bring a bag to collect recyclables and take them home, or to the next recycling facility on the road. If we’re driving, we obviously have a lot more flexibility with food. We can plan a couple meals and start out with food from our home fridge, basic pantry, basic cookware and dinnerware. I use Aspire Colorado Gold All-Purpose liquid soap to wash dishes at the next camp or hotel, in the bathroom sink. I bring a cloth, scrubby and towel for washing. We even take cloth napkins. By taking our own sauces we can just use them up, then get more at the next town when we run out. We had all this, including snacks, in three cardboard boxes on the back seat. By separating everything into three boxes, it’s easier to find things.


We always seek restaurants that we can sit down and eat off washable plates, and pass on places that have strictly disposable containers. This sounds simple, but it’s not, and we’ve been deceived plenty of times. We once went into a steakhouse in Utah that was supposedly the nicest place in town, and they brought everything in Styrofoam. I was furious, and they said it was because they couldn’t find a dishwasher. I had to clean it all in the shower in the hotel and take it home to the Terracycle box, since there’s no other responsible way to get rid of it. I’ve learned to ask before ordering.


On our Florida trip, in one town we were looking for something small for breakfast, like a breakfast sandwich or burrito, and we checked two local places that had everything in Styrofoam, then finally found what we wanted at the Valero on the way out of town, where they had both burritos and sandwiches in paper wrappers. I found it ironic that the local places were too irresponsible for our business, while the national big corp gas station actually got it right.


At another Valero in Texas, I took my coffee cup in and filled it. At the register, the cashier asked “just the fill-up?”, and when I affirmed, she said “that will be $1.07. If you have a dollar I have 7 cents”. Sweet and easy. When Starbuck’s, a national and supposedly responsible company, has refused to refill coffee cups in their stores since Covid started. And won’t even take their irresponsible containers back for recycling, choosing instead delusions of “out of sight, out of mind”, leaving it up to customer to figure out what to do with coffee cups that can’t be recycled in a single-stream service. Go figure.


In the end, Texas turns out to be a wonky mix of progressive and anti-progressive, otherwise known as conservative. There seems to be Styrofoam containers everywhere you go, with small pockets of cardboard containers, and windmills all over the place. The land of Styrofoam and windmills.


It seemed like whenever we went to a restaurant, they would serve the food on a plate with normal metal utensils, but they’d bring the sauces and such in little plastic cups. We took the cups with us for recycling from home in our Terracycle box. This was really tacky and annoying and, I thought, really lame for restaurants to spew plastic containers considering how little time it takes to clean a ramekin or small bowl. There was only one place that we went to on the entire trip avoided little plastic cups, and brought sauces in porcelain ramekins.


When we got home, I sorted out all the recycling, to see how we did on our 3-week adventure. It wasn’t too bad, considering how long we were gone, just a couple pounds. And, we could have left the beer bottles in a single stream drop-off on the road, but I chose to bring them home, because we have Coors glass bins here in Golden, and if we put the bottles in there, they’ll be recycled into new beer bottles in just a couple weeks, saving massive amounts of energy.




It turns out that it is possible to do a zero-waste road trip. It’s a little extra work, but most environmentally sustainable efforts are. It’s definitely easier to just take whatever plastic gets pushed down our throats when we travel, and just throw it away, out of sight, out of mind. But, for those of us with a conscience, who actually care about our planet, we just need to pay attention to the containers, choose to buy products in responsible containers, and recycle everything when we get home. Next time, we’ll also take a compost bucket, to get rid of coffee grounds and other leftovers and one-offs that we weren’t prepared for this time. All that stuff went in the trash and ended up in landfill, but next time we’ll have that covered too!


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