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A Zero Waste Backpacking Trip: What I Packed

Tomorrow I’m setting off to France on my big walking-across-Spain adventure. I’m hiking to Santiago de Compostela (in Spain) from the town of St John Pied-de-Port in France. It’s 800km in total, along the Camino Frances (most commonly known as the Camino de Santiago).

I’m expecting it to take about 5 weeks.

The biggest difficulty (well, aside from walking 800km of course, but I’m putting that to the back of my mind right now so it doesn’t seem so far!) is figuring out what to pack.

Particularly as a minimalist, who needs to keep warm at the top of the mountains and cool on the lowlands, believes in packing light, can’t face the idea of needing anything single-use on the way, would rather not buy anything new and doesn’t have time to source everything second-hand…

As always, there’s a balance, and there’s compromise.

A Zero Waste Backpacking Trip Across Spain

Using What I Already Have

I’m a big believer in using what I already have where I can. Interestingly, the things I already own and don’t own were a little random. I already own a pair of decent hiking boots, a backpack and a silk sleeping bag liner (purchased back in 2002 and still going strong).

No need to replace these.

On the other hand, I don’t actually own any t-shirts, any jumpers with full length sleeves, or a raincoat.

(I’ve been saying I’ll buy a raincoat since I moved to Perth in 2011. I think I believed Perth was the land of the eternal sunshine. It’s no UK, but I was definitely a little over-optimistic.)

Although I already have a bunch of reusables, I did get some new ones that I think are more appropriate for what I need.

Brand New versus Second Hand

I try to buy as much as I can second-hand, but when you’re looking for specific items it can be more of a challenge. I’m confident it can be done. On this occasion though, I did not have the time (or the patience) to source everything second-hand.

I visited a few second hand stores and had some success. I also spent a great deal of time searching online, with less success.

I found two pairs of shorts, a t-shirt and a lightweight dress second-hand. I was also able to borrow two walking poles.

The difficulty of browsing online was that I had no real idea of the quality or fit of many of the brands on offer. (Plus most things take 2 weeks to reach the west coast from the east coast via mail, so second-hand online shopping means allowing a considerable amount of time.)

The range was also pretty small. In the end I accepted I’d have to buy more new than I’d have preferred to.

Natural Fibres versus Synthetic Fibres

I’m always torn between wanting natural fibres but also needing to be practical, not to mention the ethics of different materials.

Waxed cotton is waterproof but super heavy; lightweight rain jackets are 100% synthetic. Products like down can be harvested by cruel methods; synthetic fleece is the worst fabric for shedding microfibres into the ocean.

The raincoat I purchased was made by Patagonia, who are well known for and committed to pursuing sustainable practices. The outer is made from 100% recycled nylon. Whilst I hate buying synthetic fabrics, I do take comfort in knowing it is made from recycled material over virgin plastic.

(For those in the US, Patagonia offer Worn Wear, which is an online store selling pre-loved Patagonia wear. I love this option, but it is not currently available in Australia.)

In my quest for a lightweight jumper I purchased a down vest. I’ve been against down since watching the Earthlings documentary; they show undercover footage of geese being stripped of their feathers whilst fully conscious. But at the store I was told about ethical down, wild harvested once the geese leave their nests (they shed down to insulate their eggs), and I felt more comfortable with this.

Each down product the store sells has a tracking number for traceability.

Having tracked my ID at trackmydown.com I discovered that the down in my vest is 100% duck down from China, which is a by-product of the meat industry. No birds are live-plucked according to their auditing process. Not exactly the wild-harvested down I was told about though (which does exist, but is much harder to find).

This down is certified Responsible Down Standard. Auditing and certification is better than not, and changing any industry with improved animal welfare and greater transparency is a good thing. Being a part of the meat industry, I do have mixed feelings.

The few other things I purchased were merino wool, which is lightweight and breathable. A pair of leggings (Macpac), a bra (Icebreaker), a t-shirt with no seams across the shoulders (much better for carrying a backpack) (Icebreaker) and a long-sleeved thermal (Kathmandu).

I checked all the brands with the Behind the Barcode 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, which assesses supplier relationships, policies and worker empowerment for different companies and grades performance.

Icebreaker was graded A+, Patagonia was graded A, Kathmandu was graded A, and Macpac was graded B.

Okay, so here is my confession: I purchased a pair of brand new nylon trousers. Not recycled nylon. Yes, I’m cringing too. We all have moments of weakness. In my defence, I was pretty tired of shopping by this point.

Total weight of clothes (including everything except hiking boots): 2.4kg.

Packing Reusables

It is very important to me that I avoid single-use disposables wherever possible. It is also important that I avoid plastic where I can. I want to travel light, yet all of the lightweight reusable solutions seemed to be plastic.

I knew that titanium is a lightweight metal sometimes used in camping and hiking gear, and I wondered if titanium reusables exist. It turns out they do! I found a reusable water bottle, leakproof container, spork and travel mug at Vargo Outdoors, who specialise in titanium equipment and accessories.

I’ve compared them with my regular reusables to give an idea of weight difference. Clearly they are not exact swaps, but they serve the same purpose.

The Vargo water bottle weighs 120g, compared with 240g for the Klean Kanteen bottle (it’s a slightly smaller volume, being 650ml as opposed to 800ml).

The Vargo BOT (which is what Vargo call their reusable container) weighs 136g, versus 295g for the stainless steel container. Despite owning a few stainless steel containers, none of mine are actually leakproof. The Vargo BOT is leakproof, so I can use it as a second water bottle if required.

The Vargo travel cup weighs 61g, versus 222g for the KeepCup. Clearly they are quite different (the KeepCup has a lid, and an insulated band). But I don’t want to take (breakable) glass with me on this trip.

The Vargo spork weighs 17g, and the bamboo fork and spoon (part of my To-Go wear set) combined weigh 17g (with the knife, chopsticks and the case it’s more). So they weigh the same, but the bamboo fork isn’t very easy to eat with – I tend to only use the spoon, which doesn’t work for everything. I love how small the titanium spork packs down.

Additionally, I’ve packed a single Onya produce bag, my 4myearth food wrap, and a lightweight reusable tote bag.

The total weight of my reusables: 452g.

Toiletries

I keep my toiletries pretty simple at home, so this wasn’t a challenge. Bar soap, a bamboo toothbrush, a pot of DIY sunscreen, a pot of DIY cold cream, a pot of homemade toothpaste and a pot of DIY deodorant.

I also packed 6 soap nuts for laundry, my Diva cup (reusable menstrual cup), and a hankie.

Total weight: 521g.

The Final Pack

My final pack weighs 5.8kg. This includes every single thing thing except my hiking boots, but clearly I’ll be wearing some of the clothes. I was aiming for less, but it’s still manageable.

I’m going to go through everything one more time before I leave, so I still might be able to shave some weight off.

And that’s it! Tomorrow I head to the south of France to begin the walk into and across Spain.

Here’s to five weeks of walking. I’ll report back from the other side on how it all went :) Wish me luck!

Going Plastic-Free in Asia (Part Two – all the other plastic)

My goal was to travel around Thailand for four weeks without consuming any single use plastic. It’s what I do at home, so why should anything be different whilst I was away? I’ve already talked about how I avoided using disposable water bottles, which I thought would be the biggest battle. But there were other contenders.

The plastic straw

Thai people love straws. I thought the straw problem was bad in Australia, but there is a whole other level of straw-dependence over there. Every single drink seems to come with a straw. Of course the obvious smoothies and cocktails come with plastic straws. But less obvious drinks come with them too. If you buy bottled water to take away, it comes in a plastic bag and with a straw. If you buy a tin of fizzy pop, a straw is neatly tucked under the ring pull. Even tins of iced coffee and beer come with straws. It seems that the cultural norm is to drink your drink with a straw. Everyone does it.

Except, we didn’t want to use plastic straws.

I don’t know how to say “please don’t give me a plastic straw” in Thai. Fortunately, this didn’t matter, because I’d brought a stainless steel reusable straw with me from home. It was the single most used item on the trip. Whenever I purchased a drink, I’d whip out my straw and demonstrate that I had one, and no straw would come with the drink. I’m sure they all thought I was a crazy Westerner, but at least I was keeping to the local custom!

There were a couple of occasions where the staff forgot (there were two times that I can remember) and brought me a straw. I handed them back immediately unused, hoping that the straws would be washed and reused, but of course, they went in the bin. So usually I’d watch as staff prepared my drink, and if I saw any hands heading near the straws I’d run over, flailing my arms in the air until they panicked and handed the straw-free beverage over. I may have looked mad, but it worked.

straws

Our stainless steel straws in all their glory!

The plastic bag

The plastic bag is the other obvious contender, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be pretty easy to avoid these. Just say no when you buy something, right? But there were a couple of complications.

The first was laundry. In Thailand self-serve laundromats aren’t very common, and instead people offer a private laundry service where you pay by weight. You drop your laundry off and pick it up 24 hours later, smelling fragrant, neatly pressed… and folded in a plastic bag. It’s not like we could not use a bag altogether, because we’d have ended up dropping our underpants and socks all the way down the street. Fortunately we had brought a calico bag with us and we were able to use this instead.

laundry

Our freshly washed, neatly pressed laundry in the calico bag I’d brought with us. Plastic free!

The second was that Thai people used plastic bags as a vessel for food and drink. Literally. They pour cold drinks, hot soups, curry, sauces, coconut milk, you name it, into plastic bags, seal them up, and send you on your way.

plasticbagsThere’s no way I’d want to eat or drink anything served that’s been transported and stored in a plastic bag, even if I hadn’t given up plastic. Fortunately, our KeepCups served as containers for food, so the few times we bought something as takeaway, we didn’t need to use plastic bags.

deepfried

Battered, deep-fried sweet potato and banana – so delicious! We used our KeepCups rather than any disposable packaging.

The most important place to avoid plastic is at the beach. There are no bins so the options for rubbish disposal are taking it home, leaving it there or burying it. Of course, with the last two, it’s only a matter of time before it gets washed out to sea. Best to avoid disposable plastic altogether!

pineapple

Other Disposables

The main other disposable plastics that we were faced with were styrofoam trays (for takeaway food items) and plastic cutlery (for takeaway food items). We avoided using plastic cutlery by taking our own re-usable bamboo cutlery. The spoon was useful for ice cream and getting all the tasty coconut meat out of the drinking coconuts once they were empty, and I even managed to skin and chop up a whole mango with the knife!

cutleryAs for styrofoam, and any disposable food packaging, we avoided this by choosing to dine in rather than get takeaway. The food was fresher, we got to sit down and use metal cutlery and it looked so much more appetizing on a plate rather than stuffed in a plastic bag or cling-wrapped in styrofoam.

food

Imagine eating any of these out of a plastic bag… and yes the option was available!

Tips for Keeping Plastic-Free

There was a lot of plastic to avoid as so much stuff was packaged this way, but keeping plastic-free didn’t mean going without, it just meant looking a little bit harder for what we wanted.

I took a reusable straw, a reusable cutlery set, a KeepCup (which is a coffee cup with a lid that can double up as a small container), a cloth bag and my water bottle. All of these were invaluable. The only additional thing I’d take if I went back is a small sealable plastic container (Tupperware or similar), because the KeepCups were a little too small for most food.

bananasAmongst all the plastic out there, there were plastic-free options, which were exciting to find! These bananas were barbequed, pressed and smothered in coconut sauce, and then served on banana leaves. Plastic-free definitely makes things taste more delicious!

Holiday packing: the battle of minimalism vs sustainability

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be on my way to the airport for a month-long break overseas. It’s not my first trip abroad, or course, but it is the first time since I really started embracing the sustainability path. The last time I went overseas I hadn’t taken part in Plastic Free July (or given up plastic), I wasn’t passionate about reducing waste, I’d never heard of simple living and i thought minimalism was a furniture/design style.

Fast forward 18 months, and all of these things have become really important to me. I don’t want my ideals to go out of the window just because I’m going on holiday, although it would be much easier to take a break from all of that too.

I have decided to pack as lightly as I can. Having been on numerous trips where I’ve taken far too much and cussed as I’ve had to haul heavy luggage all about the place, this is something I’ve been working on for years. Read more