How To Avoid Food Waste When You’re Travelling

Food waste is surely a universal pet peeve. No one likes it, everyone wants rid of it, but why is it so hard to avoid when you’re travelling, and how can we change that?

Table of Contents
Introduction

Even if you’re not an environmentalist at heart, I’m sure you can agree with me: food waste sucks. I think the reason we all join so vehemently against it is that, in theory, it makes no sense. So many people in this world are hungry so, even if we have too much food in developed countries, why can’t we just give it to them? The answer seems so simple, but unfortunately, it’s much more convoluted than it might first appear.

Sadly, the main cause of food waste, rather than being every day people, is corporations. Most food waste actually happens before it even gets to us, the consumer. The main reasons for food waste are: overproduction and overstocking early in the supply chain, and companies such as super markets having very high aesthetic standards for food (blemishes, odd shapes etc. are often seen as unacceptable despite the food being perfect edible). There are ways we can combat this by lobbying governments and corporations, and feeding back to restaurants. The tides are slowly starting to change, so it’s more important than ever to do this.

Although consumers aren’t necessarily the main culprits, as travellers we need to be really careful. The travel industry and its consumers (i.e. us travellers!) are heavily contributing to the amount of food being wasted worldwide. When we consider hotel breakfast buffets, all-inclusive hotels, welcome fruit platters, hefty meal portions in restaurants, the inability to carry food with us as we go with, no storage space in our already heavy bags, and sampling new food we don’t like, the list really does go on!

But the good news is: there are things we can do.

Why is food waste a problem?

Food waste is one of the biggest problems facing the planet. From an environmentalist perspective, it’s as big a contributor as some countries, bigger than most! In fact, if food waste were a country itself, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, behind only the US and China. But why?

Well, if food is not composted, there is nowhere to put it apart from landfill. Even recyclable materials with any form of food (grease, sauce, remnants) on them cannot be recycled usually. This means that even these materials need to go to landfill if contaminated with food. When food goes to landfill, it doesn’t have the required conditions to decompose properly (there isn’t usually enough oxygen), and so it releases instead toxic gases into the atmosphere, such as methane and carbon dioxide.

Currently, over a third of food globally goes to waste. This is a staggering statistic, which truly feels ridiculous when we consider how many hungry people there are in the world.

So, what are the main causes of food waste when travelling?

Well honestly, that depends how you travel. You might have something that contributes more to food waste than other things you do. The best way to figure it out is to do a self-audit of what you eat when you travel and where your food goes to waste. It also will depend on the country you’re travelling to, their main source of food waste and how they combat food waste themselves. Here are a few things to consider:

Leftovers in restaurants

Restaurants typically tend to serve larger portions than you would make yourself. Add to that things like pre-meal bread, complimentary aperitifs, side salads that often aren’t necessary, garnishes, and you’ve got a food waste disaster waiting to happen.

Planes contribute significantly to food waste
Hotel buffets

I don’t think this one needs much explanation, the food waste is fairly obvious. Food that has been out so long often can’t be safely left out again another day, and even if it could, hotel safety standards usually do not permit staff to put food out for a second day. The sheer amount of food put out could usually never be eaten in one go, and even if it were, more would be put out.

Cruise ships

Cruise ships have a major food wastage problem. They’re basically a sailing hotel, often with multiple restaurants, so you can take the hotel problem and multiply it, since they usually have a lot more people staying with them too. Even if food is not served in a buffet style, cruise ships often need to overstock in case of any issues. For example, during COVID when many cruise ships couldn’t dock for months, it was really important that they had reserve supplies. This is not a problem intrinsic to COVID, so they always need to be prepared.

This means that when the cruise ends, the crew will need to throw out the excess food.

Food waste when flying

It’s a fact of life that most people cannot finish an airline meal. Besides the fact that they’re usually not very nice, they always have extras to go with them, such as (usually pretty dry/stale) bread and fruit (inevitably a bit gross and slimy). The airlines usually also overstock, just in case of emergencies, so food waste on planes is really astronomical.

Leftover food from self-catering

People would assume if they are self-catering, they are not creating as much waste as those who stay in hotels. While this is possibly true, food waste is definitely still a problem for self-catered apartments. Not being smart when shopping, not knowing if there is a composting system or where leftover food should go, not having the means to take food away with you when you leave can all contribute to wastage of food.

Lack of planning before departure

Going away on a trip can be really stressful! It’s hard to keep track of everything you need to do and clearing out your fridge is probably the last thing on your mind, but unfortunately this can lead to food going off while you’re away and going to waste.

So how can we combat all of this?

Combatting food waste at home feels easier than when you’re on the road. When you’re at home, most people (even those in a small space) can set up a composting system to deal with excess, or organise their schedule to minimise leftovers.

General theory of the best way to use food is (in order of most preferable): to feed people, to feed animals, to feed the earth (composting or perhaps biofuel). So here are some ideas for how best to reduce your food waste when travelling:

Take collapsible Tupperware with you when you travel

This is such a game-changer! We use them mostly when we eat out. This means we can basically order whatever we want at restaurants, and take it away if needed. If you choose to do this, there’s two things to consider:

  1. Local culture – it’s not culturally acceptable to take food away everywhere. For example, in Japan and other parts of East Asia, taking away leftover food is rude. This is the case in other countries too. It’s best to Google these rules before you go to make sure.
  2. Food storage – do you have somewhere to keep this food? If you don’t have a fridge in your accommodation, make sure the food is going to be OK to eat the next day. Alternatively, even if you do have a fridge, when will you next be able to eat this? It’s good to plan accordingly.

With those things in mind, you should be fine, though we find the hardest thing is remembering to bring it with us! That’s the main reason we like to take collapsible containers, so we can fit them easily in our day bags. Make sure if it’s a saucy meal, you’re heading straight home to avoid spillage!

We also found these so useful for taking ready-prepped food on long hikes. Making the food at the campsite or huts the day before and storing in the containers made for a great mid-hike lunch.

Watch plates come out before you order

There are multiple reasons you might want to eat at a slightly livelier restaurant when travelling. One of them is definitely that you can watch the food come out for others before you order! Not only will that help you avoid the horror that is food envy, but it will also help you determine portion sizes. If everything looks absolutely massive, that might be a good indicator to share a dish. It’s not a complete failsafe – we’ve definitely been guilty of overestimating our appetites abroad! – but it gives you a good idea and helps you plan.

Stay in hostels or hotels with a fridge

This ties into the first point about leftovers, but having a fridge will help you enormously, especially in hot countries. Besides anything, it’s just really useful for storing things like drinks, water, self-catering food. It’s also brilliant if you are bringing back leftovers though, and can expand their shelf-life by quite some way. If you’re not sure how to find this out, it’ll usually be listed on hotel/hostel websites, or in the amenities section of booking platforms like Expedia or Booking.com. You can also email them to find out.

If, like us, you often stay in small hotels with no access to the internet… unfortunately chances are there’s no fridge. But you could always try and call them to ask!

Ask your hotel or hostel about composting

This is something that most people skip. If you are self-catering, this is especially important! There will always be food scraps which, sadly when you’re travelling, you probably can’t make use of. In this case, you absolutely need to know how to dispose of them properly. Firstly, ask before you go. This shows them that composting is on people’s radar and an important part of your stay.

If they don’t have options, feedback! It’s so important to show people that we care about having these options, as only then will they implement them. We’d also suggest asking hotels/hostels too – it may not be you composting yourself, but it’s still good to know.

If you are self-catering, plan your meals smartly

Smart shopping is really underrated. When travelling, you probably aren’t batch-cooking, unless you’re travelling really slowly. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t mean you can’t meal prep. Even if you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen as little as two days, you can plan your meals accordingly. When you’re shopping, think about portion sizes – for example, can you actually eat a whole loaf of bread in two days? Probably not, which means you’ll have to carry it with you or bin it! However, you can probably manage a small stick of bread.

Some great meals you can cook in small batches without leftovers include:

  • Chilli – beans and lentils are usually available in tins, and you can serve with a single baked potato
  • Pizza! If you can’t buy pizza bases, you can use grilled bread with cheese and tomato on top
  • Spaghetti (usually comes in smaller packs)
  • Salads (as long as you shop smart with the vegetables)
  • Noodles
  • Tagines, soups and hot pots (one pot meals)

Foods that come in large packets like rice and pasta (apart from spaghetti!) are usually not ideal.

Research food donation banks near to you

Yes, this is a thing worldwide! There are many people in need of food, particularly homeless or impoverished families. Often people think of this as something they can only do when they have a home base, but really, there’s no reason you can’t donate food while on the road. Most food banks do ask that food be unopened and professionally packaged, so do check the regulations first.

Clear out your own fridge before you travel

This is a really tough one to remember, but it’s so vital. We take a look at everything in the fridge as part of our pre-departure routine. A good failsafe list is below:

  • Most fresh vegetables will last a long weekend (if they were fresh when you left). Make sure you are storing your vegetables properly to elongate their shelf life.
  • Also think about the time you will have when you get back and how much cooking you’ll be able to do. If time will be short, consider making and freezing meals for when you get back. This will use things up in your fridge and help you out when you come home
  • Things like jams, butter, cheese, eggs will usually last a week. For longer trips, consider cooking them into things and freezing to avoid wasting them
  • Milk is a case by case basis depending on when you bought it! Remember it can be frozen and defrosts well
  • Don’t forget about your bread! It’s probably not in the fridge so make sure you use it up before you go or freeze it.
  • Likewise fruit in a fruit bowl
Give feedback

Consider giving feedback wherever you go. If you as a customer/consumer are telling hotels/hostels/cruises/airlines that correct disposal of food waste is a priority for you, then it will eventually start to sink in. At the moment, environmental factors don’t always influence buying choices. However, if they start to, and we let corporations know that it matters to us, they will eventually start to consider it themselves.

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Post written by Emma Cartwright, 21 March 2023

Emma

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