Zero-waste business travel

TL;DR (for non-millenials: “Summary”):

When you’re traveling for business, bring these 5 things with you, and you’ll be able to nearly eliminate your day-to-day business trip waste:

  1. Stainless-steel water bottle

  2. Coffee thermos

  3. Metal fork

  4. Metal spoon

  5. Napkin


  1. A few small, light, reusable bags and containers



I don’t have to travel very often for work, but every time I do, I’m stunned by the sheer amount of waste I see all around me. Every day, over 2.25 BILLION cups of coffee are consumed world-wide (according to this 2002 study, so the numbers have increased substantially since then). What’s the big deal with that? Well, setting aside issues involved in production and transportation (for a different post… :), if you get your coffee to-go in a “paper” cup, those cups are NOT recyclable, because they’re lined with plastic – they all end up going to the landfill.

In the United States, most of the 500 million+ cups of coffee we drink every day are served in these non-recyclable plastic-lined paper cups. When I’m traveling through the Atlanta airport, I get a very real sense of the staggering volume of this waste. Every minute I walk by hundreds of people, most of them with a plastic-lined paper coffee cup in hand. Craig Reucassel did a famous stunt as part of his “War on Waste” in Melbourne, Australia to try to help people grasp just how huge the problem of throwaway coffee cups really is – he filled a city bus to the brim with the amount of coffee cups that get thrown away every 30 minutes.

So, what can we do about it?

Actually, it’s really, really, really easy — bring your own coffee thermos with you, everywhere.

I have never yet been to a coffee shop, whether in my hometown of Chattanooga, in the airport, or in any of the cities I’ve traveled to recently, that was not willing to fill my coffee thermos with whatever drink I wanted to purchase. Many coffee shops even give discounts if you bring your own cup / thermos. My wife is currently in process of compiling a list of coffee shops in Chattanooga that give you discounted coffee if you bring your own mug, but so far it’s been the majority.

While in Seattle, for example, I brought my own mug to the offices of the client we were visiting and filled it from their in-office drip coffee. This morning, before heading to the airport, I went to the coffeeshop downstairs from the Airbnb and asked them to fill my mug, and they were happy to!

If everyone in the world drank coffee every day from reusable coffee mugs, we would literally be removing MOUNTAINS of waste from the world.

Every year, we throw away 50 BILLION paper coffee cups — just in the United States.

To try to help us visualize what 50 billion paper coffee cups looks like, ECO2Greetings created this amazing visualization, which hit home for me as I have been in Seattle this week for business:



When traveling, bring your own reusable water bottle. I fill mine up in the morning before I head to the airport, and finish drinking it by the time I get to security. I drink a ton of water so usually I fill mine up when I get to the airport and then drink it all again before I get to security, but you should be able to get down at least one full bottle before the security line. If not, you’re probably not drinking enough water to begin with, but that’s another topic – okay just a tiny tangent, your body is anywhere between 40-65% water, so it’s common sense that you need to drink a lot of it to maintain your body working as it should be, but did you know drinking just one glass of water before a test improves scores by 10% on average?

Once you get through security, fill up your bottle again, and then you can take it on the airplane with you.

Most major airports now have water-bottle filling stations that make it easy to quickly refill your bottle, and companies like Amazon are even starting to install them in their offices everywhere that they have water fountains:


What’s wrong with just buying bottled water when you’re on the go?

SO MANY THINGS. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Price: Would you pay $10,000 for a cookie? The price of tap water in the US is < $0.01 / gallon on average. A plastic bottle of water costs anywhere from $1.00 to $6 / liter (I saw $6 bottles of water in a hotel in San Francisco the last time I traveled there!!!) Do the math. When you buy bottled water, you’re paying a 10,000x markup over tap water. And airports and restaurants give you tap water for free.
  • Quality: About 24% of bottled water in the US is just tap water put in plastic bottles. Moreover, the EPA subjects tap water to publicly-disclosed quality assurance tests, whereas bottled water is regulated by the FDA, and the FDA does not disclose the results of these tests to the public. (More info: )
  • Transportation: Tap water comes from local sources in whatever communities you happen to be in, whereas bottled water often gets shipped thousands of miles, sometimes across the ocean, consuming millions of gallons of gas annually. The irony is staggering – consider Fiji water. Why in the world do we send giant container ships across thousands of miles of water to Fiji, to take water away from the people living in Fiji, and then thousands of miles back, using up huge quantities of oil in the process, and then put this water in plastic bottles, which uses up huge quantities of oil, and ship it across the country – using up more oil – to people who can literally get free tap water out their faucet.
  • Sourcing: Companies like Nestle frequently illegally extract water from communities that desperately need it.  This is wrong on so many levels, I’ll let you read the Story of Stuff’s extensive investigative work here rather than rehashing it on my own.
  • Packaging / Recycling / Waste: Plastic comes from petroleum. We are sending huge machines to the bottom of the ocean, to remote regions of Alaska, etc. to dig up more and more oil. Currently, 8% of the world’s oil is used to make plastic. By 2050, that is projected to increase to 20%. Nearly half of all plastic ever produced has been made since the year 2000. I could go on. Plastic is amazing when it’s used for creating durable, flexible, structural materials. But it’s a terrible choice for single-use, disposable containers – which unfortunately we’re using plastic for more and more. 40% of plastic produced is used for single-use, throw-away packaging.


Whether you’re trying to get a quick bite to eat in the airport, having a lunch meeting, or attending a conference and getting the conference-provided lunch, you’re almost certainly not going to be given reusable, metal silverware to use. Solution? Bring your own. I always bring my own fork and spoon wrapped up in a cloth napkin in my laptop bag, so that no matter where I end up over the course of a day of business travel, I can always pull out my own fork and spoon.’s Dreamforce conference is, overall, amazing in terms of its commitment to sustainability. For years, they have served their conference meals in compostable containers or on compostable plates, with compostable silverware. Obviously, though, it still takes energy to produce and compost all these compostable materials — and many companies just use plastic utensils and plates at their conferences. So, if you can avoid at least part of this waste by just bringing your own utensils… that helps a lot in the long run. The plates, or bowls if soup is being served, are much harder to replace with your own dishes while traveling — plates and bowls are heavy and awkward to carry around in your bag, and it’s a lot harder, and not necessarily more energy-efficient in the long run, to clean them out after every meal. Utensils, on the other hand, are an easy, quick win in the effort to be zero-waste / low-impact. Bring your own, wherever you go!

Buy in bulk, eat whole foods, bring your own bags

My family and I try to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet as much as we can. We buy basically all of our food either from bulk bins or the fresh-produce aisle, using all of our own reusable containers (to learn more: Zero Waste Chattanooga). Our breakfast of choice is oatmeal with raisins, apples, cinnamon, a little cloves and a bit of molasses, and a few walnuts when we have them. Our little girls love their “yoat-meal” and we do too! We recently bought a 75-pound bag of organic quick oats from Whole Foods in order to eliminate having to bring so many containers for oatmeal on our bi-monthly trips there… and that will last us maybe 2 months 🙂

I’d love to be able to eat my daily oatmeal while traveling, just the way I like it with lots of whole fruits, without having to pay the ridiculous prices people charge you for oatmeal at restaurants.

The secret – bring your own reusable bags with you on your trips, and stay somewhere with a microwave / stove so that you can cook your own breakfasts.

On this week’s trip to Seattle, I chose to stay in an Airbnb a few blocks away from the offices where my meetings were at, so that I could not only walk to / from everywhere but also make my own breakfasts in the morning. I find that on business trips you’re usually eating with coworkers or clients for lunch and dinner, but breakfast is often a good chance to make your own food and save some money.

So on the first day, I walked about 6 blocks to the Whole Foods in downtown Seattle with some reusable bags and containers in my backpack, and bought enough oatmeal, raisins, apples, and walnuts for me to have heaping-full bowls of delicious home-cooked oatmeal every day I was there:

If you’ve never bought in bulk before, all you have to do is to ask an employee to “tare” your containers the first time you use a given reusable container, and then write the tare on the container in marker. Then, fill your container with whatever thing you want to buy from the bulk bin, and then use your phone to snap a photo of the PLU number of each item. When you checkout, just tell the cashier the tare of each container and give them the PLU number. Whole Foods even gives you a discount for bringing your own containers!


One thing that’s problematic when traveling for business: receipts. Before paying for my items at home, I always try to remember to tell the cashier that you do NOT want a receipt. Receipts are a huge source of waste, as they CANNOT be recycled with other paper because they are laced with plastic. With the advent of new payment systems that allow you to have receipts emailed, texted, or not sent at all, this is slowly becoming less of a problem, but it’s a hassle when traveling for business because if I want to expense my food costs, I have to have a receipt. Ideally I can just use an electronic receipt, but when that’s not possible I have to have the receipt printed and then take a picture of it. Unfortunately then I have to put the receipts in the landfill trash 😦

On the flip side, one thing I love about Seattle is that basically everywhere you go, from restaurants to parks to corporate offices, there are compost bins! At my office, I pushed for us to have compost bins available for coffee grounds and food waste to be placed in, and at the end of every week I or a coworker brings the bins home and adds them to our own compost pile.


Airport food and snacks

When traveling, I want to be feeling awake and alert, and I don’t want to get sick. Eating a whole foods plant-based diet has been incredible for many reasons, but one of the best things is that I rarely if ever get sick, am never tired during the day (unless my wife and I stay up late playing Age of Empires or our little girls wake us up in the middle of the night… both of which are unavoidable parts of life 🙂

There’s no reason that this has to be any difference while traveling. The solution: bring your own meals and snacks to the airport. Many people don’t realize that TSA is totally cool with you bringing entire sandwiches, salads, virtually whatever the heck you want, right through security. You do NOT have to buy food after going through security — you can make your own favorite foods at home and bring them to the airport!

One the way here to Seattle, I brought leftover pancakes with peanut butter and maple syrup — our go-to Saturday morning breakfast — and ate them before heading onto the plane. My wonderful wife made some granola (another reason we go through so much oatmeal) the night before, and threw it into a container with some seeds and raisins. I brought that heaping container with me on the plane with me and was snacking on it all the way… garnering lots of longing looks from those in the seats next to me. I also usually bring along apples to snack on while traveling.


Having your own healthy, whole-food snacks not only makes it easy to say no to the plastic-wrapped junk-food snacks in the airport and on the airplane, but it helps keep you healthy while traveling. Eating sugary or fatty foods – yes, even that precious Chik-Fil-A sandwich — while being under the stress of traveling weakens your immune system and makes you that much more likely to succumb to the innumerable germs you’re unavoidably going to encounter in the airport, airplane, trains, or client offices. Plus, having good foods makes you more alert – that afternoon fried-chicken coma doesn’t help with closing deals or paying attention in hour-long conference lectures 🙂

Booth giveaways and hotel shampoos

What happens to all of those freebies that companies give away at trade-shows and conferences? Excluding the awesome socks and t-shirts that my company Skuid produces :), how many of the other booth giveaways are you still using a year after the conference? So often, many of these just end up getting thrown away.

The solution: just say no to freebies and chotchkies. Both as a company manning a booth and an employee visiting another company’s booth — really thing hard about ways to eliminate the waste generated by booth giveaways. People don’t need that many shirts – is it worth the water, oil, and sweatshop labor it took for your company to buy 500 of those shirts for $10 / each? Do you really need another t-shirt to add to your drawer of 30 conference t-shirts that you never wear and will eventually donate to Goodwill in 10 years?

Hotel shampoos are another common source of plastic waste, that is also easy to avoid. One option: use Airbnb — usually your Airbnb host will provide shampoo and all that in bulk containers, then you don’t even need to worry about bringing your own. Or, just bring your own shampoos in reusable, travel-sized bottles. Very easy, totally kosher with TSA, just remember to pull them out when going through the screeners to avoid getting searched afterwards.


I hope this has been helpful thinking of ways to reduce your environmental impact and on business trips, would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


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