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How to Have a Zero-Waste Road Trip

zero waste travel

Once the rhythm of living a no-waste lifestyle at home becomes habitual, you have your go-to spots for refilling bulk items, stocking up, recycling and composting. But what about when you head out on the road?

A road trip is all about freedom and flexibility and having a zero-waste road trip requires some extra planning that you may not have had to do before. But don’t let a little bit of pre-trip legwork stop you. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Here’s what you’ll need to bring and think about for a successful zero-waste road trip.

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Hydrate – and Caffeinate – With Reusable Containers

If you’re someone who needs their morning caffeine fix or a cup of tea to relax at the end of the day, bring along your own travel mug. Many gas stations, coffee shops and fast-food restaurants will fill up reusable containers. Make sure you know how many ounces it holds to be charged accordingly and bring a lid to prevent messes. Keep in mind that the in-room coffee machine at your hotel may use single-use coffee pods, so it’s better to be prepared.

If you’d rather not chance having your favorite hot drink on the road, coffee lovers can consider packing their own French press and pre-ground coffee and tea enthusiasts can bring enough of their favorite blend and ask for hot water at a gas station. This way, you’re not shelling out extra cash and you know you’re getting what you like. Put your coffee grounds and used tea leaves in a tightly sealed reusable container designated for compost.

While not everyone on the trip might want coffee or tea, everyone will need to stay hydrated, so bring a reusable water bottle for every traveler, pre-filled before you leave. And if you’re planning to do some shopping – whether it’s for groceries or souvenirs – pack your own easy to access reusable shopping bags. They also work well to help keep the car organized on your trip.

zero waste road trip

Plan to Use Less Plastic When Eating

Like having a good playlist, a road trip is nothing without good snacks. But you’ll find a lot of the places you might typically stop for quick and easy food, like gas stations or fast-food joints, use tons of single-use plastic packaging.

Bring your own reusable containers pre-packed with your favorite snacks, and if you run out, you’ll be set to refill them on the way at a farmer’s market or grocery store. If you’ve got the space or won’t have other options on the way, bring along the full container of your favorite, non-perishable snacks in the trunk and refill as needed.

Don’t forget cloth napkins to help keep you, your clothes and your car clean. And for scraps like apple cores or banana peels, a sealed compost style bin is a must so you can dump into your compost once you get home or when you see a public composting spot on your travels.

When going out for a sit-down meal, choose a place that uses non-plastic cutlery and dishes or bring your own. If you’re staying at a hotel or somewhere you can refrigerate leftovers, bring your resealable containers with you to the restaurant to prevent food waste and avoid having to deal with any take-out boxes.

If you’re planning to bring along your own perishable foods, pack a well-insulated cooler tightly with reusable ice packs. At hotels, you can nearly always top the cooler with ice as needed from the ice machine. If you’re camping, a big block of ice will thaw more slowly than ice cubes and smaller ice packs. You can also freeze water bottles, so you get a two-for-one benefit: cool food and drinkable water as the bottles thaw.

It’s also worth it to research any farmers markets you may be passing by; they’re great for checking out a local destination, learning more about the area and stocking up on fresh food.

Essential and Earth-Friendly

With all those containers being used and reused on your trip, you’ll need to be prepared to wash some dishes. Be sure to bring along some dish soap and reusable dishcloths for the job.

As for toiletries and other essentials, parcel out what you’ll need from your full-size versions at-home into smaller, earth-friendly, leakproof containers. While a lot of hotels are stocking their bathrooms with refillable shampoos, conditioners and other toiletries, it’s not guaranteed. Bringing your own this way is not only sustainable but helps to save on space and ensures you’ll have your favorite products on hand.  

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Learn how AAA Northeast is becoming more sustainable. Visit AAA.com/ESG to read about our environmental, social and governance initiatives and how we are progressing on these goals.

AAA’s sustainable travel series is written in partnership with Kind Traveler, a women-and-veteran-owned public benefit corporation empowering travelers to make a positive impact in local communities, and contributing writer, Kristin Conard.

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