At home in Switzerland, waste is not really seen as a big problem. Everybody separates their waste for recycling, the garbage gets collected every Tuesday – and all streets and roads are swept in the early morning hours. Which is why a culture shock can happen when traveling.
Here in Latin America we see everyday how trash is being thrown out of car windows, how it’s being washed ashore after high-tide, and how everything is packed in plastic several times. Most countries do collect private waste but it they do not burn it. So the waste – even though it’s been disposed of correctly – ends up in landfill. And from there rain, wind and birds carry it into nature. The least – or only thing we can do is: produce less waste. Of course, that’s not always an easy thing to do. Especially in a society where using a single-use plastic plate is cheaper than washing a regular one, it’s actually a challenge.
Here some tips for zero waste travel. But of course they apply to other lifestyle and circumstances too.
Containers & Substitutes
First off, I see the discrepancy in this one. Wanting to be sustainable with buying stuff is not completely free of irony. But it’s about consuming more mindfully and especially about escaping the single-use madness – which is only possible by using containers, even though we might have to buy one. Of course, second-hand is always the better option.
We carry the following things around and use them very frequently, almost daily: to-go coffee mugs, tupperware, jars and bags of different sizes, water bottles, metal drinking straw. Of course, we’re traveling in a van and therefore have more space than backpackers. But you could always carry a water bottle, a tote bag and a to-go mug, which also works well as a container for food.
Sin bolsa, por favor (no plastic bag, please) is probably the sentence we use most frequently in Latin America. It’s stunning how fast your tomatoes end up in a plastic bag when you don’t pay attention. That’s why you have to be aware and wave around with your own bag in advance.
Some weeks ago a vendor in Ecuador even thanked us for not using his plastic bags by saying: Thank you for not polluting our environment! Also it makes sense to buy food at local markets where it’s still possible to say no to plastic. In supermarkets many things are already wrapped. With this simple adjustment you also support local businesses and people.
We also try to learn the local word for drinking straw right away in every new country (it’s different in each country, even though they all speak Spanish) to proactively order drinks without the straw. When we want to drink coconuts we usually fill them up into our water bottles or we bring our own metal straw.
Choice In Material
Glass, paper and cardboard are better than plastic and polystyrene. And of course, no packaging is the best packaging. Often there are no-waste shops in bigger cities (also in Asia and Latin America) which are easy to find online. There you can also look for waste-free soaps and that kind of stuff.
Who has already seen a toothbrush lying around on the beach? Everyone. But nowadays there are fantastic alternatives to the plastic brush – bamboo for example. Even if those end up in landfill they will decompose naturally.
Walks With A Mission
We made a habit of combining walks (especially on the beach) with picking up trash. Usually we find a plastic bag or a container of any sort lying around which we then fill with everything we find. And recently we found this new – and for once useful – trend of #plogging: picking up trash while jogging. A great exercise for the entire body. That’s a small contribution we try to make for all the waste we have already produced in our lives.
It’s easy to get angry at people when you see them leaving their waste on the beach after partying. Or when they throw stuff out of their car windows. The problem is that it’s not very healthy to be angry all the time. We realized how important it is to understand the circumstances under which the local people are behaving. Often they just don’t know it better or they never learned. Or they have more important problems in their lives. All we can do is keep giving and doing our best and hope that one day our fellow human beings are going to follow with.
And finally, it’s as important to have understanding for ourselves. Of course we often forget to not order the straw and sometimes our bags are full after buying mucha fruta and we have to get a plastic bag for those last potatoes. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about becoming aware and mindful about what’s happening around us and doing our most possible. If everybody did that, how do you think our world would look like?
Gabriella and Sandro are two parts of Vanabundos, they picked up a VW bus at the port of Seattle in July 2016 and have been slowly driving through the Americas since. Working freelance from the road, either writing articles for magazines and newspapers or creating content for all kinds of clients, they’re also trying to live sustainably as they continue on this adventure.