Zero waste travel: What to know before you go to Italy
If you’re reading this, I hope you’re going to Italy. After living and traveling for three months in this country, I have to say that no trip will be long enough to take in all the beauty and history this country has to offer. As a zero waster, I navigated travel with a different lens. Generally, zero waste in Italy is smaller and there are fewer resources online, even in Italian, than there are for places that speak English or even French. Luckily, zero waste in Italy is growing and being pushed forward by an incredible group of people who are featured later in this post.
That being said, there are plenty of ways to reduce your waste while traveling here in Italy, and other things to keep in mind specific to how they do things here. If you’re visiting any of these cities-Venice, Florence, Bologna, Milan, Padova, Verona, or Trieste-then definitely check out my city-specific tips. Consider this a guide (or crash course) to reducing your waste while traveling here and the zero waste challenges and advantages of Italy!
Traveling between cities in Italy is very easy with trains. You can use the Trenitalia app for your train tickets, which is a very effective way to cut down on paper waste when traveling between cities. There, you can purchase tickets and view train schedules from the app and then show the ticket on your phone instead of printing on paper at home or in the station. That is, if your ticket gets checked (it doesn’t always happen). I used my phone for three months of rail travel in Italy with no issues.
Something I love about many Italian cities? Waste disposal. Yup, that’s right. All of the cities I’ve visited have raccolta differenziata, or differentiated waste. This means that glass, plastic, paper, compostable material, and non-recyclable material are disposed of in different bins. Don’t despair, most big bins have labels (with pictures) so you can dispose correctly. Compost away, travelers.
Bottled water is all the rage in Italy. Italians have actually been found to be the biggest drinkers of bottled water in Europe, and in the homes of Italians I have visited, this is true. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink. If you order water at a restaurant, they’ll offer still or sparkling water that comes in bottles. I’ve tried to order tap water with varying degrees of success, but you’re unlikely to get it, even if you ask. It’s not a matter of cost, since bottled water is very inexpensive.
What I recommend is drinking water before going out to eat, and ordering a bottle or a glass of wine with your meal. Of course, there will still be glass from the bottle of wine, but a wine bottle to recycle is better than a wine bottle and a water bottle.
Good news: unless you go to McDonald's or something like that, they'll bring you coffee in a real cup every time. If you come across a place that gives out disposable cups as well, learn how to refuse it here.
It’s probably small and inconsequential, but when you order your coffee, you don’t have to use the sugar packet. While it’s obviously not a huge amount of garbage, it will most likely be tossed in the trash even if it is compostable paper. Last time I ordered a coffee I forgot, even after living zero waste for a while, so while I’m not about to shed a tear over this, I also won’t be using sugar next time.
In general, eating in helps reduce waste because you don’t use the (often plastic) take-away boxes. This rule applies when traveling as well, so relax and eat in if you can and skip take away foods. In Italy, you’re unlikely to get a take-away box even if you don’t finish (leftovers aren’t even always saved in the home), so make sure to finish the entire pizza or bowl of pasta (since that’s probably what you want to do anyway).
Fontanelle are public water fountains with safe drinking water. They’re in every Italian city I’ve visited, although some cities have more than others. They are ideal for refilling your water bottle and a map for any city can be found here.
Straws are on everybody’s mind these days. For better or for worse, you probably won’t be drowning in straws, no matter how long you spend in Italy. I’ve been here for three months and the only straws I’ve seen have been litter, none have been given to me. That being said, if you order a mixed drink, one may be included. It doesn’t hurt to say you don’t want one! If you’re interested in learning how to ask in Italian, learn here.
I’m (obviously) going to recommend you eat gelato. When you order, try it in a cone instead of a bowl to avoid the unnecessary waste from the cup. Be attentive as well that even with a cone, you might be given a tiny plastic spoon— be sure to refuse it. You can usually find vegan gelato as well, and I’ve had luck from Cinque Terre to Venice finding it. It won’t reduce the waste in front of your eyes, but in the upstream it required less resources and suffering to produce.
Depending on how long you travel and your travel style, you may wind up in an Italian supermarket. If you’re keen on ditching single-use, unnecessary plastic, be prepared. To buy fresh bread or produce, you must wear disposable, single-use plastic gloves to take the food and put it into your disposable, single-use bag (which you also must pay for). On the bright side, supermarkets are now expected to use bags made of a bioplastic derived from corn which is composable, but keep in mind that the stickers from weighing the produce are not compostable.
Just like anywhere, it’s easier to get food in your own containers from smaller businesses or markets. An added bonus is that as a traveler, local markets can be a good way to see how people live and what they buy, as well as load up on easy snacks like fruit.
A bit of bad news here, folks. Secondhand and used things are harder to find here. They exist, don’t get me wrong, but there are fewer placed to buy them and those places are not always easy to find. My experience is also that rather than being resources for people without financial means to buy new, like many secondhand stores in the USA, these stores often appeal to young people with a 90s-is-cool aesthetic or lovers of true vintage, and are thus pricier. That being said, I have also come across some great secondhand stores. The takeaway: don’t expect the thrift store from you’re used to.
Rete zero waste
La Rete Zero Waste, or zero waste network, in Italy is a group of incredible people in Italy who have created a network to share zero waste resources and support. My favorite resource they’ve put out is the map of zero waste style stores—bulk stores, secondhand, etc. I had the opportunity to go to a meetup while in Padova and had a great time discussing the issues we all care about. A quick disclaimer is that the resources are in Italian, and when I went to the meetup we all spoke in Italian as well. That being said, many of the members of the network who I spoke to also post in English. Want in? All you have to do is use #retezerowaste. No weird club rules or initiations here, all you have to do is try and live a zero waste lifestyle in Italy.