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Eat out of Dumpsters & Drink from a Vodka Bottle: 5 Tips to Reduce Waste While Traveling

Two summers ago, I took a mountaineering course set in Washington State’s North Cascades to disconnect from work and home. Inspired by Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, I signed up for the trip with Alpine Ascents (one of the guide company’s mentioned in the book).

On arriving to Alpine Ascent’s Seattle office on the morning of the first day, I met the other seven course participants and found a spot on the floor to unload my pack’s contents. The instructors started the course with a comprehensive gear check.

Four hours later we zipped, cinched and buckled our packs closed.

Lesson 1: Pack Light and Pack Well

During the morning session, our instructors had explained Leave No Trace principles and had encouraged everyone (as much as possible) to leave non-essential weight behind.

The lesson was reinforced the next day. Partway up Mount Shuksan, two in the group had hit a wall. They had grossly overpacked (against our instructors’ better judgment) and struggled to continue.

To keep moving, we divided the weight between ourselves and, in the spirit of teamwork, we arrived at our campsite in time to pitch our tents before dusk. Fading quickly, we cooked dinner and collapsed into our sleeping bags shortly afterwards.

The next morning we awoke at sunrise and watched the sun’s first rays cascade over the surrounding mountaintops.

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The view from Mt. Shuksan at sunrise

A year later, I relocated to Ghana, a resource-rich country with a fast-growing industrial economy and a waste management infrastructure that can’t keep pace. Crushed by the country’s visible waste problem, I started changing my habits (an ongoing journey).

During my conversion, it hit me, my home country, the United States, doesn’t produce any less waste than Ghana; the country is just better at hiding their waste problem. In fact, America’s waste problem is so big that it was visible from outer space until 2001 when New York City closed their largest landfill, Fresh Kills, to transform the landfill it into an eco-park (source).

Waste is an environmental (and economic) harm that ordinary citizens can change. To illustrate this point, I put together a list of five unconventional tips to reduce waste while traveling.

5 Tips to Reduce Waste While Traveling

1) Eat out of dumpsters.

Rob Greenfield, a blogger and an activist, bicycled across America and over two-thirds of his meals out of dumpsters (source). I’ve never eaten from a dumpster, and I don’t plan on it, but Rob’s story makes a point.

Only take what you can eat. – My Mother (and probably your mother too)

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that, in the United States, one-third of the country’s food supply goes to waste; but the problem is bigger than that. The UNEP also reports that each year, consumers in industrialized nations waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa (source).

Can’t subsist on dumpster diving alone?

2) Buy bulk.

Bulk foods are available for sale at farmers’ markets and bulk foods stores. In the United States, Whole Foods is the largest bulk foods seller, but there are many independent bulk foods grocers the world over.

In Vienna I frequented, Lunzers Maß-Greißlerei, an indie grocer that sells un-packaged consumables including, grains, nuts, legumes, handmade pastas, bakery goods, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. The grocery had a down-to-earth vibe and contained a small coffee bar.

3) Use reusable bags and containers for packaging.

Going to the store? Remember to bring reusable shopping and produce bags to package groceries.

Packing a lunch? Replace Ziploc bags with cloth napkins (for wrapping sandwiches) or reusable containers such as glass jars (for storing fruit, chips, salads, etc). When in doubt, ask your grandmother for a tip or two.

4) Drink water from a glass vodka bottle.

In Vienna, the city water is fresh from the Alps and tastes delicious! To keep the water pure and untainted, some Austrians drink water from glass vodka bottles. Keep the sticker label or steam it off. You decide.

This is one alternative to single-use plastic water bottles but there are a thousand others. I carry a stainless steel Klean Kanteen almost everywhere.

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The Danube River flowing through Vienna, Austria

5) Eat with your hands.

In Ghana, it’s custom to eat with your hands. And as they say, “When in Ghana, do as the Ghanaians do.” When I’m out on the street I eat with my hands on occasion but most of the time I prefer to eat with a utensil so I bring my own. Sometimes plasticware is available but I always opt-out.

Lesson Learned

Mountaineering taught me the fundamentals of minimalist packing and showed me the joys of traveling with less. At a deeper level, the course inspired be to become more self-sustaining and transformed the way I travel.

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Rappelling a frozen waterfall at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois

Do you have any tips to reduce waste while traveling?

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All good things are wild and free. - Henry David Thoreau