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I Tried To Create Zero Waste During a Four-Day Business Trip: Here's What Happened

While I've been living a "low-waste" lifestyle for the past year and a half, I often allow myself to deviate from these behaviors when traveling. This past week, I challenged myself to a ZERO WASTE BUSINESS TRIP to see how much waste I could avoid if I actively tried. Read on for details on the waste I ended up acquiring and my tips on how to avoid this in the future!

The challenge: Create as little waste as possible on my 3-night trip to Charlotte, NC.

The details: I flew to Charlotte on a Tuesday afternoon to attend a conference until Friday afternoon. The conference was a series of presentation sessions as well as a large networking fair. I stayed in a hotel just by the convention center and ate all my meals out at restaurants within walking distance.

My plan: Bring reusable coffee mug and straw, reusable utensils, reusable water bottle, stainless steel takeout container, and toiletries. Decline all optional meals at conference and choose my own restaurants. Decline any freebies.

The results: 52 pieces of waste generated. I have determined that 34 (65%) of these items were unavoidable whereas 18 (35%) could have been avoided if I had made better decisions. 12 (23%) of the total items will go to the landfill, whereas 40 (77%) will either be composted, recycled, or used.

*A detailed table describing each item can be found at the end of the article

Day 1:

The first piece of trash I acquired was a luggage tag on my checked bag. I dodged all potential waste on the flight by getting coffee in my reusable mug in the airport and packing my own snacks and lunch. I used the airline’s app on my phone to avoid printing a paper ticket.

At the hotel, my plastic room keys were given to me in a glossy paper envelope. I was able to return the keys at the end of my stay to be reused, but the envelope will be thrown out. I avoided all the small plastic hotel toiletries by bringing my own but I opened a bar of soap to wash my hands. I chose to do this because the soap was packed in a cardboard and paper wrapper that I could take home with me to compost. I hung the “do not disturb” sign on my door for the duration of the trip to avoid having the maid service use their time and resources to clean my room.

When it came time for dinner, I really did not feel like going out but knew I needed to if I wanted to avoid single use food packaging. I went to a sit-down restaurant, ate most of the food, and took all my leftovers with me in my stainless steel container.

Day 2:

I started this day on a hunt to find a juice bar that could fill my reusable mug. The first place I visited only had pre-made juices in plastic bottles so I ended up walking out. The second place was happy to fill my reusable cup with their fresh juice.

Next, I needed coffee. My mug was still full of juice so I set out to find a sit-down coffee shop that served coffee in reusable ceramic mugs. That wasn’t too hard to find. I also found a super sustainable pizza place that served pizza on reusable trays and had vegan options.

When the conference began, the waste started to accumulate. I could have avoided the conference schedule if I had downloaded the conference’s app to my phone and the presentation handout if I had thought quicker and refused it when the presenter came by. The biggest mistake I made at the conference was acquiring a few freebie items. While I did pass on a majority of the swag that was offered, some items were given to me in the middle of a networking conversation and I felt it would have been too awkward to say no.

The company brochures and business cards were (in my opinion) necessary to collect because I was talking to these people to learn about their products and may need to follow up with them in the future. The nametag was also unavoidable because it was required to get into the conference.

For dinner, my coworker and I went to a sit down vegan restaurant. I ate half of my wrap and put the other half into my stainless steel takeout container. We both wanted to get dessert but were too full to eat more at the restaurant. Since my sandwich was already in my takeout container, I asked the waiter what material their disposable containers were made of. He told me they were fully compostable so I ordered dessert to-go. When the dessert came out, the container was cardboard and the lid was “commercially compostable” plastic, but inside the container was a small plastic cup containing some caramel sauce. If I had not gotten dessert I could have avoided this, but I wanted to see what would happen (and I wanted to eat carrot cake haha).

My coworker and I then attempted to ride the light rail train and bought our tickets before we realized the train was not running. The ticket is paper and will be a nice souvenir.

Day 3:

On day 3 I felt like a pro, hitting up the same juice place, getting my coffee in my reusable mug, and going to a sit down restaurant for lunch. Then out of nowhere I acquired a plastic straw. I ordered a glass of water and the glass arrived with the straw already in it. Had the waitress asked me, I would have refused the straw but I also could have been proactive and stated, “no straw please” as soon as I ordered. I’ll also mention here that I collected any non-edible garnishes and disposable napkins at the restaurants to take home and compost.

After the conference that day, my coworker and I went to a live music bar. When we entered the bar, everyone was drinking from glass cups. The bartender served my first beer in glass, but then switched my second beer to plastic. I had no real way of knowing this would happen and was slightly bummed about it, but hey that’s life.

Day 4:

This morning I met one of my high school friends for breakfast. We needed to meet somewhere relatively quick before the conference and the place we met at served food on paper plates. Because we were in a rush, I decided to just eat there and take the plate with me to compost. In retrospect, I could have been more proactive about finding a place that didn’t use disposables; however, I was able to avoid using the restaurant’s plastic utensils because I had my own bamboo set.

On my flight home I got another luggage tag. Finally, I acquired 13 receipts throughout the trip to submit to my company for reimbursement. I would have had many more but I chose to have receipts emailed to me whenever that was an option.

52 pieces of trash – did I fail?

While 52 may seem like a lot of pieces of trash, and there were several that I could have avoided, I don’t think this experiment was a fail at all. There would have been A LOT more than 52 if I hadn’t planned ahead and brought my reusables with me. I also actively tried to find restaurants that would serve me on reusable dishes or fill my reusable cup. I walked out of places that utilized single use packaging, avoided buying any snacks, and made sure to take all my leftovers and eat all of my food. I said no to TONS of free swag and handouts at the conference and got receipts mailed when I could. (I also would have generated a bunch of trash from single-use period products if I hadn’t had my menstrual cup along.)

Regardless of the number of items I generated, I learned A LOT from this experiment! While I consider myself to be a very committed “low-waste” person, I still get embarrassed about refusing things and end up with more waste than I’d like. This means it’s extra hard for someone who’s just starting a low-waste lifestyle. Also, it was eye-opening to see just how many pieces of waste ended up blindsiding me like the beer cup and plastic straw – these things are ingrained in our culture and are given out without a thought, even though they will remain on the earth forever!

To summarize, here are my tips for low-waste business trips:

  • Eat out at sit-down restaurants that serve the food on reusable plates and with reusable utensils

  • Only go to bars that serve drinks in glassware

  • Only go to coffee shops that will fill a reusable mug or serve it “for here”

  • Ask about packaging before ordering and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like the answer

  • Eat all of your food!

  • Bring reusable containers/cups/bottles/bags etc.

  • Pack your own toiletries

  • Bring your compost home

  • Proactively speak up about not wanting a straw/utensils/whatever

  • Say no to freebies/handouts

  • Download apps instead of printing tickets/schedules

  • Get receipts texted/emailed

  • Give unused tickets away

  • Do more in-depth research on restaurants before going

Click here to read my "100 Sustainable Swaps Series"

Click here to see some of my favorite low-waste living products

Click here to read about my urban gardening project

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