Zero waste + travel + kids … is it even possible? It might seem hard enough to travel alone and reduce waste along the way, but what about when you have kids in tow? Crazy. But if I can do it, you can do it.
We are far from perfect but with some planning we were able to avoid a lot of garbage. And most importantly I had to keep reminding myself that when trash happened for whatever reason, I couldn’t let it distract me from the fun of our trip or steal any joy from the moment. Enjoying our trip with family was the number one priority.
This is the post I wanted to find when we first attempted a low-waste trip with our daughter last year. I couldn’t find much information from parents who had been in this position before. I know we’re out there, but the articles were severely lacking. Most of the advice I found for traveling with babies and small kids involved a lot of plastic packaged …stuff. It didn’t fit into our lifestyle so I had to go with my gut and wing it. Thankfully it turned out well! We created very little trash on our weeklong trip across the country.
Here is our firsthand experience and advice about how to survive plane (or train, or automobile) travel with children AND stick to your zero waste goals.
RULE #1: Bring your own snacks
We hit up the bulk bins at our local health food store for snacks and treats as well as making our own food for the plane. We packed homemade crackers, popcorn and trail mix in little snack bags (our favorites are by Logan & Lenora and Stasher).
We brought home made sandwiches and slices of pizza, too. Cook through your fridge and pantry and raid your fridge for leftovers and before you leave. Avoiding food waste will be an added bonus. We tried to avoid bringing lots of heavier/rigid containers but we brought stainless containers. We personally like the ones by Lunchbots and Kids Konserve. A snack container like this might also come in handy for travel and during your trip (though please note I haven’t tried that particular model).
We also brought lots o’ fruit. Bananas we left in the peel. Everything else we cut up and put into a leak-proof container (the mini Stasher bags by Modern Twist would also work well, but we didn’t have these yet at the time of our trip).
Depending on the age of your kid, you might also want to bring a few in-case-of-total-meltdown candies. All parents are different but I’m willing to bet that after you’ve exhausted all other avenues negotiating with your (possibly exhausted) kid, you might turn to a sweet treat. You can find lots of candy in bulk. Funnily enough it’s one of the things I find most often in bulk/loose bins, so scout around. Lollipops are recommended by many parents for flying but I’ve yet to find them without plastic packaging, though this brand is organic and dye-free.
If you are breastfeeding, use that magic to your advantage every chance you can get as a way to keep babies calm during takeoff and landing (also helps with ear popping due to cabin pressure changes) and help them sleep. We went on a few longer trips while my daughter was still breastfeeding and it was glorious.
RULE #2: Bring lots of low-waste activities
Snacks on their own can be an activity for kids. Bring out a new bag of snacks at regular intervals to keep things interesting.
A lot of advice I read online about how to prepare for travel with small kids involved a LOT of trash. Stickers, plastic-wrapped tiny plastic toys, plastic-wrapped candy, single-use activity kits, etc. Sure, get a few special treats if you want but there’s really no need to raid the local dollar store or Target to load up on plastic junk for your kids.
Here are some zero waste and low-waste entertainment ideas for kids:
- Buddha board
- Endless fun – just add water! (…from your reusable jar)
- Another option that’s not quite as eco friendly but is the same idea: the Aquadoodle travel size
- Books with pop ups and lift the flaps
- Searchable and eye-spy books (or good ol’ Where’s Waldo)
- Cloth play books (sometimes called “quiet books” or “busy books”)
- These can get expensive so if you’re crafty, consider making a quiet book yourself
- Travel activity boards/mats
- Magnetic activity books/boards
- Washi tape
- Compostable stickers, essentially. Hallelujah! Let them stick it everywhere. It peels off of everything easily in my experience. If you have a hard time finding real washi tape locally, I like ordering from Etsy because of the selection, good prices and you can message the seller to ask them to ship your order in plastic-free packaging.
- Coloring: Paper and pencils (this brand of recycled, eco-friendly pencils is my favorite for kids – they are really sturdy!), crayons and coloring book, etc.
- Staple together some paper scraps to form a DIY notebook for travel drawings that you won’t be sad to recycle or leave behind at your destination.
- iPad/iPhone/etc. + headphones
- Lots of planes now have TVs in the headrest now. This can be helpful if you don’t have or don’t want to bring tablets or other tech with you, but it was a huge pain for us. The screens were typically touch screen so even if you “turn it off” the screen so your kiddos can’t watch, they might be easily able to turn it on again with a quick tap of their cute little finger. Especially difficult to manage when you have a lap baby/toddler. The point is – screens might be unavoidable so be prepared with headphones at least. Borrow from friends if you can. We ended up getting these from Amazon because we couldn’t track any down locally.
Before you buy new stuff, see if you can borrow travel-friendly toys and books from family and friends. Borrowed toys = new toys to your kids. There’s always potential to lose and/or break something you’re borrowing but you can always replace it. If the person you borrowed from even wants it back. (Truth: we all have too much stuff.)
If you can’t borrow, see if you can find things secondhand through local consignment stores, thrift stores or local swap and B/S/T (buy/sell/trade) groups on Facebook. Put a call out on a local neighborhood listserv or post on Freecycle, too. These options take a bit more time and planning before you leave, but will be rewarding! Especially with felt activity boards and “quiet books”, there are likely lots of families out there with kids who have outgrown those toys and would be thrilled to pass them along.
RULE #3: Bring your own “avoid garbage and refuse plastic” kit
ONE MILLION disposable cups are used every 6 hours by airlines. WTF. Bring your own cup/mug/jar/bottle and fill it up at the airport. While on board if you need to fill up, ask the flight attendants if they can pour into your jar or mug from their larger water bottle, or get a can of seltzer, etc. Not perfect but still low waste.
To build your “avoid trash” zero waste kit for traveling with kids, consider each person on the trip and account for everyone if possible. We brought:
- 3 napkins – one for each of us
- 2 bamboo utensil kits (we didn’t want to take our chances and carry on metal utensils)
- 1 stainless steel straw
- A water bottle for our daughter and a water bottle for my husband and I to share
- A mason jar that we could use for water, coffee, soda, leftover food, whatever…
- 2 cloth bags for bulk items at the grocery store if we found one, baked goods, etc.
- Plus we had the stuff we stashed the snacks in for the plane ride like cloth snack bags, etc. — see above
RULE #4: Find a grocery store at your destination
No matter where you are staying and what the food/kitchen situation is, it’s nice to have a stash of food on hand. Maybe even just some fruit to easily grab as you’re heading out the door or whenever a snack attack strikes. When you’re unprepared and hangry (or your kids are), packaged snacks and their corresponding trashy wrappings tend to accumulate. If at all possible, make a quick stop at a grocery store an early priority when arriving at your destination.
Get 100 bonus super awesome earth warrior points if you use the Zero Waste Home Bulk App and find stores in the area you’re visiting that have bulk sections where you can snag food package-less.
You’ll likely be eating out a lot or at least more than you normally do. Since you’re entering unknown territory, you might acquire some trash even if you feel you’re “doing everything right” and asking for no straws for the table, etc. That’s life. In general if you go to restaurants with “real” ceramic plates and cutlery versus fast food-like places, you’ll rack up less garbage. But sometimes a cool taqueria will give your daughter her quesadilla in a disposable container even though everyone else got real plates, seen below. It was a bummer but we let it go – and certainly didn’t let it steal any of our joy at appreciating the amazing meal we had!
RULE #5: Pack minimally
When it comes to snacks and activities and kid stuff, you may not be able to pack very minimally. So, limit the items you bring for yourself. We were traveling for a wedding but also a lot of other family and friend activities and functions. But I only brought one pair of shoes, a pared-down makeup/toiletry kit and a handful of mix-and-match clothing items. It was a test of just how minimal I could go but I’m happy to say I didn’t feel deprived in the slightest. My husband had to bring a bit more – he brought a suit and dressy shoes – but kept it streamlined everywhere else.
We wanted to carry on all of our luggage so that limited the size and quantity of bags we could bring. Here’s how it broke down: All of our clothes and our daughters clothes fit in one carry-on sized bag. Cloth diapers (see below) went in a backpack, snacks/activities/zero waste kit and misc baby stuff like a diaper/wipes/extra outfit went in the diaper bag, and we had a smaller backpack (I’m wearing it in the photo above, the Northwest bag by Looptworks) for shoes, toiletries and other items that we needed to stash. We also brought our car seat, pictured above – it was a breeze to tote around thanks to a wheeled carrying case that we borrowed from friends.
RULE #6 (If you have a baby in diapers…) Bring your own diapers
We traveled from Vermont to California with our 15 month old so that meant… diapers. We considered getting “eco friendly” diapers just for the trip but the more we thought through the logistics it boiled down to this: diapers are a hassle no matter what. Might as well save money and continue to live our zero waste home values by bringing cloth diapers with us. We dedicated one large backpack to cloth diapers. Having one dedicated bag for diapers was huge for staying organized and sane. Here’s what we packed inside:
- 24 daytime cloth diapers
- 3 nighttime cloth diapers + covers
- 1 jar of your preferred powder detergent (I measured out portions of the amount we normally use per load & marked the outside with a sharpie so I could easily pour out the correct amount at the laundromat, but you could also bring your scoop)
- 2 large zippered wet bags
- A big stack of cloth wipes
- Spray bottle (fill at your destination with water + a squirt of baby Castile soap)
- 2 small zippered wet bags
RULE #7: Go to the laundromat
It might sound exhausting but for us it was pretty painless. There’s sometimes even laundry facilities inside your hotel or wherever you’re staying – even if they don’t advertise it – so double check.
We did some research and found laundromats near where we were staying. There are nice, safe laundromats pretty much everywhere. Some of them you can use coins but a lot of the modern laundromats require you to get a plastic card to fill with money. You may have to pay a deposit on the card, so pay it forward and leave it as a surprise for a stranger, or give it to someone you know in the area who will use it. Consider posting about the surprise card on social media to encourage someone to find it.
We washed our cloth diapers to the best of our ability. They came out smelling clean and looking fresh! Certainly we couldn’t do our exact home wash routine but we knew it wouldn’t have a negative effect on our diapers since we were only washing on the road a couple of times.
We also washed our clothes! Bringing fewer clothes with us meant that we were able to still pack light even though we brought our own food, zero waste kit, diapers, etc.
The elephant in the room
Yes, there is some irony in talking about travel and also being eco-friendly. Plane, train, automobile, boat… any way you travel unless its walking or by bicycle is going to use fuel and have a negative impact on the planet.
One option is to try to make your trip as “carbon neutral” as you can by calculating the carbon footprint of your trip and trying to offset it. Here is some useful information from the NRDC about carbon offset programs. Some airlines like United even offer a carbon offset program that you can pay for with miles (or dollars).
For us, traveling to visit family and friends and experience new places and cultures is absolutely worth it. A lot of our actions have a negative impact on the planet. For example, when you ordering something online your packages sometimes travel by plane, too! Pretty much just existing in a western culture causes a negative impact on the earth. That’s why our daily actions such as reducing our waste as much as possible and refusing single-use plastics are so important.