How to Travel Zero Waste on a Plane

One of the most wasteful parts about traveling is all of the single-use items that get thrown out on planes. From food packaged in plastic wrap to the mini plastic toothbrushes and toothpastes they hand to each passenger, waste it constantly being generated.

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting provided with things on planes as much as the next person. We do pay for it, after all.

But something about seeing person after person throw out their little plastic drink cups after .5 seconds of use has made me second guess the necessity and “convenience” of the single-use lifestyle that has pervaded our flying experience.

And until airlines change their ways, it is up to us, the consumers, to make a difference and push for change.

This is why I decided to create a comprehensive prep-list for all of those wanting to reduce their waste on planes once and for all.

In this post, I am going to go over the two MAIN ways you can have a zero waste travel experience:

PREPARE

When traveling zero waste, preparation is absolutely vital, especially before a plane ride. You’re basically in this little vacuum of a building, with no access to other sources of food, toiletries, etc. That is why preparation is key. Without it, we are only left with two options: use the plastic items provided to us, or go without (which can be a difficult task when on a long flight).

In this list I am going to give you all of the necessary items you will need for a zero waste flight:

  1. Reusable Water Bottle & Coffee/Tea Bottle

Reusable drinking bottles are probably the single most important item you can bring with you on a plane. Those little plastic cups that passengers receive are usually used for less than 10 minutes before heading to a garbage bag. If you want juice, it will be put in a plastic cup. If you want a hot drink, that will be put in a different plastic cup. If you want water… yeah you get the point.

Having these two reusable bottles with you will reduce so. much. waste. I always bring my Hydroflask with me for water and another reusable bottle for any hot drinks or juices I might want.

You can either fill up your water bottle at a café before boarding (after the security check-point) or you can ask the flight attendants to fill it up for you when they do their drinks round.

I have gotten some peculiar looks when asking to have a drink poured in my bottle, but I have never been refused.

I store my two bottles in the pouches on either side of my backpack, but if this option seems like too much bulk for you, then consider getting a collapsible bottle! Finding what works best for you will help make it easier for you to sustain the habit.

2. Bamboo Utensils

A set of bamboo utensils will come in handy when eating on the plane or at the airport. Plus, bamboo knives are TSA-friendly, so they can be stored in your carry-on no problem! These will replace those plastic utensils that cannot be recycled and can be washed and used over and over again!

3. Reusable To-Go Container

If you are going to buy food at the airport or bring your own food, you will want to have your own personal to-go container.

If not bringing your own food, you can head to an airport café/restaurant and ask them to put the food in your take-away container. Basically any restaurant that’s not fast-food or only carries pre-packaged meals will be able to do this.

This will reduce a lot of waste when it comes to food purchases and will replace those plastic-wrapped meals that airlines provide you with.

You can also opt for a reusable silicone bag such as the Stasher bag! These work great for snacks like trail mix, cut up fruit, sandwiches, etc.

4. Food

Which brings me to my next point: food.

Airlines unfortunately wrap all of their meals in plastic. I have even been on some flights where they wrap each individual food item in a plastic bag and then wrap all of those items together in another plastic bag. Agghhhh!

Not to mention, airline food is generally very processed and not very filling. So, if you have the time and are willing to prep your own meal, I highly encourage it!

If it’s a short flight (less than 3-4 hours), packing a few light snacks might hold you over. However, if you are on a longer flight, then consider either buying a meal at the airport before you board and having them put it in your own container or pack your own meal.

Some good plane meals could be:

  • Cold pasta salad with veggies
  • Energy bites (like my Almond Energy Bites)
  • Rice, tofu, and veggie bowl with a side of soy sauce
  • Snacks like apples, bananas, trail mix, etc.
  • Loaded salad with chickpeas, sweet potato, quinoa, etc.
  • Veggie wrap with hummus

As a general rule-of-thumb for bringing food:

  • Do not pack canned food with liquids in it such as canned beans or soup (they will get thrown out at the security check-point)
  • If bringing fresh produce on a plane when traveling internationally, make sure you eat it before landing (produce coming from one country and entering another is generally not allowed). I had to learn this the hard way when my $5 avocado from New Zealand was thrown away at an Australian airport- devastating!

5. Headphones

This one’s pretty basic. Airlines usually give you cheapy headphones to use on the flight that most people only use once. Instead, just bring your own from home! They’ll probably work better, too.

6. Thin Blanket or Blanket Scarf

Ahh, now this is the part of a plane ride where I always wanted to rip through the plastic so I could get warm and snuggle up! I get cold pretty easily and love curling up under a blanket during a flight.

But alas, the blankets and pillows provided are always wrapped in plastic.

I totally get not wanting to bring a big ol’ blanket with you on a plane. We have enough to carry as it is. But if you can find a thin enough blanket that can fit in your carry-on, then go for it!

Some friends of mine use Turkish towels to wrap themselves up on their plane ride, while others bring a blanket scarf (a scarf that doubles as a blanket); both will work!

Another thing you can do is take the blanket that the airline provides you with and just use that for all future flights. I know it’s not a perfect option since it’s still in a plastic bag, but that’s what I did, and now I have a dedicated plane blanket for life!

7. Neck Pillow

A good neck pillow is essential. Not only will this help you sleep well, but it will also replace the pillows that come in the plastic blanket bags.

8. Eye Mask

If you use eye masks on a plane, then consider bringing your own. Or, like the blanket, you can take the one the plane gives you and keep that one for all of your future plane rides.

9. Toiletries

Below is a list of zero waste toiletries you might need on longer plane rides. Maybe you are the type of person that packs their bathroom items in their checked bag, but if I’m ever on a long flight, I like to have these items on-hand:

  1. Bamboo toothbrush
  2. Tooth Tabs: tooth tabs are great because they aren’t a liquid/paste, so you don’t have to worry about fluid requirements and you’ll be reducing waste generated by those little mini toothpaste tubes!
  3. Shampoo & Conditioner Bars: if you’re only traveling with a carry-on, shampoo & conditioner bars are a great zero waste option because they are a solid (not a liquid) and don’t need to be put in mini bottles like traditional shampoos!
  4. Deodorant (in a jar or compostable tube): We all get a lil stinky on plane rides. Bring a zero waste deodorant for your next flight and make sure it is below 3.4 fl. oz. (although most already are).
  5. Bamboo Hairbrush: not everyone wants or needs a hairbrush with them on a plane, but one flight I went on gave out mini hair brushes for everyone, so I’m putting this down as an option in case anyone likes a little brush-a-roo on the plane.
  6. Norwex Washcloth: norwex washcloths are great because they are uber soft and quick-drying. Whenever I’m on a super long, overnight flight, I will wet my norwex cloth with hot water in the bathroom and wipe down my face with it. Not only does it feel amazing, but you can hang the cloth on the pouch in front of you and it will be completely dry in less than a couple hours!
  7. Liquids/creams below 3.4 fl. oz.: if you want to bring on other creams or liquids, then make sure they are in a reusable bottle that is less than 3.4 fl. oz. I use these TSA-friendly glass bottles to fill things like jojoba oil with.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of all the things you might bring with you on a plane. Your Chihuahua Felix and essential oil rollers can all be part of this check-list, but this is simply the list of essential, zero waste items you will need for your flight.

REFUSE

Once you have all of your zero waste items prepped and loaded in your bag, give yourself a big pat on your back and head into the airport like the zero waste king or queen you are!

Next comes the easy part. The simple, yet effective act of refusing.

You actually won’t even realize how much waste is created on a plane until you start to refuse it. It’s pretty astounding. But refusing doesn’t mean we have to go without.

Bringing our own food and other items will ensure that we have everything we need. Plus, you can still get all the drinks you want. Just simply ask for it in your own cup!

Most airlines are pretty accommodating and will not question your refusal or request to have a drink in your own cup. I have had some flight attendants give me odd or annoyed looks, but I have yet been refused anything. One girl I know of was refused a drink in her own cup due to “sanitary” reasons. She replied that she can’t use plastic, so they ended up filling up her cup anyway.  

Either way, don’t let them being taken-aback affect you, because, well, it doesn’t.

Here are a few simple scripts when interacting with flight attendants:

  • “Can I please get water in my bottle?”
  • “Can you fill up this mug with some hot tea, please?”
  • “I’m okay, thank you, though!”
  • “No, thank you!”
  • “That’s okay, I have these items with me already. Thanks anyway!”

GO THE EXTRA MILE

We all know that flying isn’t great for the environment. It emits greenhouse gases into the earth just like cars, large-scale cattle farms, and plastic consumption.

Although I believe that flying’s effects on the earth are small compared to other sources of greenhouse gases, there are a few things you can do to go the extra mile and mitigate your environmental impact.

  1. Download Skyscanner: this app not only shows you the cheapest flights available, but it also tells you which ones use less CO2!
  2. Purchase carbon offsets: some airlines like Delta and United, offer carbon-offsets services. This is basically when you pay for things like planting trees, which uptakes carbon dioxide in the air, to offset the CO2 produced during a flight.

And there you have it: how to travel zero waste on a plane! It’s important to note that it may not be perfect the first time, or even the tenth! However, all that matters is that we are trying to make small improvements each time, even if that means a couple setbacks every once in a while.

For instance, I anticipated to have a zero waste plane ride on a recent trip to Australia. I had all of the items with me and planned to get a meal in my to-go container at the airport.

However, my connecting flight was late and I had to sprint to the gate to make my flight, so I didn’t have time to get food and ate the plane meal instead.

Life isn’t perfect and things happen, so just have fun with it and make the necessary improvements whenever and however you can!  

Just like anything else in life, once you do these things enough times before flying, it will become second-nature.

Hopefully some day airlines will become more eco-conscious and provide passengers with plastic-free options, but in the mean time we will have to take these steps ourselves!

Please comment below with how you’ve been able to reduce your waste on plane rides or if you’ve had any interesting experiences when trying to travel low waste – I’d love to hear your stories!

Happy travels, everyone!

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