zero waste road trip
Zero Waste

5 Steps to a Zero Waste Road Trip

I often find myself on long stretches of highway. Living in Las Vegas gives me easy highway access to a lot of amazing places in the American West, and honestly, I’d be a fool not to take advantage of my location. However, I’ve noticed how easy it is to give into convenience while traveling. My good habits go out the window when I’m on the road because they simply take more time and thought than I’m willing to give. To solve this lazy traveling habit, I’ve used the steps below to work toward a zero waste road trip.


And here’s the big but: no matter how many steps you take to lower your impact, a zero waste road trip is not and will never be possible. The most important component of a road trip, the car, consumes finite resources and releases nasty emissions into our polluted air. While hybrids and electrics create less waste than your typical gas engines in the long run, they’re far from innocent. Your own two feet are the most eco-friendly option, but taking a month to walk across the Mojave Desert for a quick weekend getaway doesn’t sound like a great time to me.

However, zero waste or not, traveling is a necessity. Mark Twain said it well: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Traveling widens our worldview as we’re introduced to new perspectives, cultures, and ways of living. While a walking tour of America could provide such perspectives and would be a trip of a lifetime, it’s unrealistic for most people, myself included.

So travel, dear friend. Travel near and far, but keep your impact in mind. Recognize the change you can create, and use these five tips to create less of an impact when you hit the road for your next great adventure. These five steps to a zero waste road trip will get you started, but leave a comment if you have other ideas!

5 steps to a zero waste road trip

1. Bring a reusable bag and glass jar to stow recyclables and compostable waste.

Very few gas stations I’ve come across have recycling cans, and I doubt the recyclables in those blue cans actually make it past a dumpster. Rather than throwing your cans and plastics away at the gas pump, put your recyclables in a reusable bag to recycle when you return home. If you compost at home, pack some snacks in a glass jar (tip #3). When you’re done with the snacks, you can add your compostable waste to the jar.

I’ve found if I keep a hiking mentality (pack in, pack out) when traveling, I heavily decrease my waste. Just changing the way we think about our travel habits can make a big difference in how we consume and the waste we produce.

2. Bring a reusable tumbler and straw in case you find yourself craving a fountain drink.

I know, I know—soda is terrible for you. I’m definitely not encouraging anyone’s soda consumption here, but sometimes you’re on the road and you have an itch water just can’t satisfy. With a reusable tumbler, you can fill up directly from the soda fountain. I’ve never had a problem doing this at a gas station. When checking out, just tell the cashier that it’s a refill. I usually get a $0.50 discount when I bring my own cup.

If you forget your tumbler (so much for a zero waste road trip… just kidding, it happens to us all), opt for a drink packaged in a can or glass. Glass is a good option, but can use more resources than a can. Take a look at the back of the can: if it says it’s from recycled content, then go for the can. If not, glass may be your cleanest, greenest choice.

3. Take some time before you hit the road to pack your favorite road trip snacks.

I used to grab a gas station bag of limòn potato chips every time I made the trek to my parent’s house. But by the time I finished my drive, that acidic-salty goodness made me feel nasty, and I was left with a single-use, unrecyclable bag. To make my body happier and eliminate the trash, I transitioned from the greasy chips to clean snacks I’d packed myself. Prepping snacks the night before takes some extra time, but that time is well worth it. Try to pack something in a glass jar to use as a compost jar later on in your trip (see tip #1).

On long trips, you may be tempted into Taco Bell’s drive-thru for a fresco style black bean burrito for a quick lunch (guilty). Aside from the health concerns, fast food produces unnecessary waste (paper bag, paper wrap on the burrito, napkins, sauce packets, etc.) that you can avoid by prepping your own lunch. By packing an easy-to-eat and protein-filled lunch (no-tuna salad sandwiches, hummus wraps…you get the idea) with your reusable utensils and a cloth napkin, you have a friendlier meal for your body and the earth.

Your guide to the best zero waste, vegan snacks is coming soon!

4. Use cruise control to conserve gas.

Half of the fight to have a zero waste road trip happens with things you directly consume on the road. The other half comes down to the vehicle you use and how you operate it. Hybrids and electric cars are a greener choice overall, but you can still reduce the resources a gas car consumes. Regardless of the car you drive, use cruise control on long stretches of road. A consistent speed saves gas. Although I think I keep a consistent speed just fine by myself, I realize that the computer in my car probably does a better job, seeing as it’s governed by math and not mere human whim.

5. Find the most fuel efficient route before you go.

Fewer miles don’t always mean less fuel used. Sometimes the shortest route will take you over gas-intensive mountain passes that suck gas. When planning your route, try to limit the number of mountain passes and other steep inclines you travel through.

You may also want to take high speed roads into account. Most of Utah’s I-15 is 80 MPH, a speed that is very inefficient. For reference, cars function most efficiently around 55 MPH. Taking the scenic route on lower-speed highways may decrease your fuel consumption get you closer to a zero waste road trip. However, your time is a finite resource. Some routes may be more fuel efficient but take four extra hours (which could use more fuel overall). Because I usually run on a tight schedule when I travel, it’s worth it to me to opt for the 80 MPH interstate. You have to decide if the trade-off between fuel efficiency and time is worth it for your specific circumstance.

Bonus tip: DRIVE SAFE.

Aggressive driving (fast acceleration and breaking, speeding) wastes gas. Driving safely and sensibly conserves fuel, so even if you don’t want to do it for your fellow drivers, do it for the earth. 🙂

Using these tips, you too can decrease your impact and have a zero waste road trip.

Safe and happy travels!

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