Travel more sustainably with a DIY zero-waste toiletry kit

Don't fall for the cute little bottles. You probably already have everything you need.
A set of hand soaps and shampoo bars over organic cotton covers and other wooden-made toiletries.
Products with no packaging like soap, shampoo, and conditioner bars are a great addition to your toiletry kit. Igishevamaria / Deposit Photos

Those little bottles of travel-sized toiletries you bought before your last trip may be convenient, but they are an environmental nightmare. Most facilities are not properly equipped to recycle small plastic tubes, tubs, and anything with a pump, so they probably won’t. Only 9 percent of plastics get successfully recycled worldwide, and at least 14 million tons of what’s left ends up in the ocean every year, making up for 80 percent of marine debris. 

More sustainable alternatives to these miniatures include products like shampoo bars and toothpaste tablets, but they can be expensive and hard to find locally if you don’t live in a large city. 

Fortunately, putting together a zero-waste toiletry kit for your next getaway doesn’t have to be complicated or spendy, and there are plenty of strategies that won’t require you to buy a single thing. 

You probably already have suitable containers

The most common items you’ll find in a toiletry bag are shampoo, conditioner, soap, and toothpaste, all of which you probably already have in abundance in your bathroom at home. So the logical solution is not buying more, but transferring some of it to travel-sized containers. You can buy bottles and miniature tubs for this purpose, but chances are there’s already an abundance of storage solutions sitting around your house that will do the job just as well.

[Related: Will we ever be able to recycle all our plastic?]

Instead of purchasing new vessels, take a moment to scan your surroundings and see what might suit the task at hand. For example, a tiny glass jam jar like the kind you might find at an upscale diner is the perfect size for a week’s worth of face wash. Likewise, a breath mint tin is an excellent place to store a bar of soap, and if you use a non-aerosol variety, you can refill empty hand sanitizer spray bottles with hair spray. Even your child’s empty paint pots with screw-on lids or used-up sample jars that came from beauty counters are practically designed to carry your bathroom products.

Ketti Wilhelm, the author of the sustainable travel blog Tilted Map, has a less conventional idea: contact lens cases. If you wear contacts, you probably have enough of these to last a lifetime, and she explains they hold just enough face lotion or toothpaste (in paste or tablet form) for a weekend trip.

Creativity is key: Any container will do, especially if it has a twist top or a lid that latches. If you think it might hold anything from half a bar of soap to a week’s worth of conditioner, wash the container thoroughly, sanitize the inside by spraying it with alcohol, and let it air dry. Then designate a box under the sink or in the bathroom where you can stash the bottles or jars until your next trip.

Do simple swaps

For most travelers, toiletry kits not only include shampoo and conditioner, but also single-use items like cotton swabs and face wipes. But these products may not be as biodegradable as you think, as they often include synthetic materials like plastic, and are laden with chemicals. The good news is that these items also tend to have easy no-waste alternatives.

Instead of using disposable wipes in non-recyclable packaging, bring a washcloth and facial cleanser. Wilhelm likes to pack small bars of face soap, which she tucks into the pockets of a folded washcloth. This technique saves space but also negates the need for a soap container.

You can replace cotton balls and cotton rounds by cutting 3-by-3-inch squares out of a clean cotton T-shirt or sheets you’d like to retire. You can even cut larger swatches, fold them over several times and sew the edges to create a thicker pad. After every use, wash your pad with gentle soap in the sink, wring it as best you can, and let it air dry.

You don’t need a new toiletry bag

There are hundreds of stylish, sustainable, and functional toiletry bags available for purchase out there. But the most eco-friendly is the one you already have, so give it a wash or a patch job if it’s seen better days. And if your toiletry bag is beyond salvation, try to repurpose something else you have around—it could be a small soft-sided lunch bag, lingerie wash bag, a small camera bag, or even a reusable silicone zip-top bag. Small packing cubes and zippered pouches that come with department-store skincare products are also suitable.

Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need separate cases, stands, and covers for items like razors to toothbrushes. 

“Ask, do you need extra things to go on top of your things?” Wilhelm says. “It’s just part of re-examining the mindset of excess consumption that we’re so conditioned to.” 

If your toiletry bag has a separate compartment that fits your toothbrush, skip the plastic brush cover. If you’re really afraid your razor is going to slice through something, place a large binder clip or folded piece of scrap mail held in place by a rubber band over the blade.

Make smart substitutions

As you run out of your bath and body products and it’s time to replace them, do so more mindfully. Look for multi-tasking and zero-waste items like 2-in-1 bars of shampoo and body wash, or conditioner bars that can also serve as shaving cream. Opt for a face lotion that also contains SPF and go for avocado oil, which you can double as a makeup remover and body moisturizer.

[Related: How to go zero-waste at the grocery store]

“Minimalism sounds scary to people, but taking just a small dose of that perspective and rethinking all the products you use can be really transformative,” Wilhelm posits. 

But reconsidering your routines and the products you use is a process. She advises that as you strive for a zero-waste toiletry kit, you start by changing or swapping one thing that feels easy and approachable—maybe a product you’re not in love with and don’t mind replacing. From there, rethink what to get next as you finish your products one by one.

Whether it’s collecting small jars and bottles to use on your next vacation or committing to not using the products in your hotel room, make sure to remember that every bit of waste you reduce makes an impact in the long run.