Zero waste air travel: what to bring and what to refuse
Traveling, particularly air travel, makes cutting down on waste difficult. Large airports have eat-in restaurants, but pre-prepared food and fast food dominate. Airlines seem to have a love affair with disposable plastic bottles, disposable plastic cups, disposable plastic silverware, plastic trays, and so on. Of course, to really produce the least waste and have the smallest impact on the planet, you won’t step anywhere near a plane, but a zero waste lifestyle is about reducing unnecessary and excessive waste, not saying no to anything that will create waste.
If you’re taking a trip or vacation rather than a long term stay, you might be able to cut down more on your waste than if you’re staying far away for more time. A longer stay usually means bringing more stuff, and a longer period away from home could mean less access to package free or zero waste products. So, if you can, save some room in your carry-on or backpack for snacks or meals and bring your own zero waste products.
Here are some things to take with you on the plane and some things to refuse altogether to reduce your waste:
Things to bring
I’ve flown 7 flights with silverware and have had no issues. If you fly overseas, you’re likely to have two meals on the plane. For many airlines, that means 2 plastic spoons, 2 plastic forks, 2 plastic knives, disposable napkins, possibly sugar or salt and plastic sleeves. Airport security really will let you through with actual silverware. I like to bring an extra mismatched fork and spoon, so that if they do take it from me it's not something I'll miss. Wipe them off between meals or use one for each meal.
A no brainer--you probably already have one of these in your bag if you’ve been on the zero waste train for a while. Nobody will take this from you in security, and you could always wrap up any extra food in the napkin to keep for later.
As you can see here, it's imperfect, but in the breakfast served alone I prevented cutlery, paper napkins and a plastic lined paper cup from going to landfill!
Bring your own! If you bring a full water bottle or coffee mug, they’ll ask you to chug whatever is in it or throw it out, so make sure it's empty. Ever noticed that they pour water from disposable plastic bottles into disposable plastic cups on flights? I bring a water bottle and an insulated travel cup and fill both with water before the flight. This way, I can reduce my need of water from the bottles, or not need it all. Ask for your coffee or tea in your own cup. I've been doing this since before zero waste, and I've only seen one flight attendant say no; that being said, it must not be company policy because on a connecting flight that day with the same airline I was able to get diet Coke in my KeepCup.
Food in reusable containers
If you can avoid the airline food, do so. Everything comes overly packaged and wrapped in plastic and foil. Traveling for only a week or so, I would recommend you try pack a meal (or two) and try to avoid the unnecessary waste. Bonus: you don’t have to wait for the airline to decide when you eat.
My most recent flight, I did not pack meals. I traveled for over 17 hours and I’m going to be abroad for over three months, so my carry-on space was full of other necessities (uh, clothes?). I won’t hold others to a standard to which I don’t hold myself, but I hope to bring meals this fall when I fly back if at all possible.
Saying goodbye to someone you love? Feel super gross after long flights cramped next to strangers? Then you, like me, have use for a hanky traveling. For tears (as always) and also for your face. On my second layover I wet my hanky and wiped my sticky, plane covered face to feel more like a person and less like a monster. This recommendation is more for your comfort than reducing waste, although it may save some paper towels.
Some airlines will also provide you with plastic bags containing small pillows and blankets. I suggest you bring an extra sweater or a heavy scarf to bundle up because planes can be pretty cold. I brought a blanket scarf and an eye mask for my most recent overnight flights. I was warmer than I've been in the past with airline blankets and I didn't have to worry about who used it before, if it was destined for the trash, if the polyester would be washed and release microplastics into the water systems...(anybody else worry about this?)
Things to decline altogether
Disposable napkins with every refreshment
How messy are we? If you choose not to bring your own cup or water bottle, they'll probably give you a single, tiny disposable napkin with every cup of water or snack. Just say "no thanks" because a) it's wasteful and b) who cares if a little condensation from a cup gets on an seat tray?
Snacks are a lot easier to skip than meals. I took three flights to make it to my destination this last time I flew overseas, and two of them served snacks/light refreshments. If it's a short flight, I skip the snack and eat something when I arrive.
Some airlines (not usually budget airlines) will provide you with complimentary headphones. They’ll come in plastic bags, and you can keep them, but they’re cheaply made. Bring your own and avoid cheaply made disposable goods.
Disposable wet handwipes
Where have your hands been? You're an adult.
My final recommendation is to order the vegan option if you're eating a meal! While the vegan or vegetarian option probably won't have any less plastic waste, in the production of those foods there will have been less resources wasted.
Being out of your element, and traveling in particular, can make it harder to cut down on waste (especially food packaging). Air travel itself has a negative effect on the environment, so anything you can do to be kinder to the earth when traveling helps!
What about you? Do you bring your own food? Do airlines accommodate you bringing your own cups or bottles?