Fresh produce

My progress as a zero waste backpacker

“This portion of my zero waste journey so far has definitely not been as romantic as I’d hoped but I’m confident things will get easier”


I’ve been travelling for three weeks now up the Californian coast. It’s so beautiful here, the weather has been pretty good for this time of year and the people are really lovely. So many things have pleasantly surprised me and a couple of things have been a bit of a shock to the system. But that’s travelling right?!


San Clemente


I started my zero waste journey at the end of last year in the comfort of my own home with all the necesary resources at my fingertips. I made many preparations to help my trip run a bit smoother. But I’ve found out you certainly can’t be prepared for everything.

Probably the biggest thing I didn’t expect was how expensive everything is here compared to home. As a backpacker travelling on a tight budget, this is a bit of a problem! I’m mainly referring to food, transport and accommodation. I don’t need to buy clothes or toiletries and I’m limiting my sightseeing to only what’s really worth it.




Each time I arrive in a new place, I usually only have one thing on my mind; food. I like to eat! So usually my first mission is to find the closest supermarket and now on this trip, to find the closest bulk food store as well.

My first stop was San Clemente in Southern California and when I googled bulk food stores, I was given a couple of options, both were markets rather than actual bulk food stores. The first one was 5.5km away from where I was staying. As a backpacker I want to avoid paying for transport by walking to places, especially to get groceries but 5.5km was just too far for me to walk in this instance. I was intensely warned that the next shop on the list was very expensive so I decided to go to the local supermarket (Ralph’s) which also boasted a bulk food section.

Ralph’s was only 1.6km from where I was staying. Totally doable. So I donned my reusable shopping bag (with my fresh produce bags and reusable container inside) on one shoulder and my camera on the other (because I’m a total tourist) and went on my way. Ralph’s bulk food section consisted of mainly nuts and dried fruits, rolled oats and things like that. It was very small and they only provided plastic bags to put your chosen product in. They also had all fruit and vegetables available loose.


Ralph's bulk food section


After 33 hours of straight travelling, I was pretty tired and just wanted to eat. I’m not the greatest cook and couldn’t really think of what to buy but I knew I wanted something substantial. After walking around the fresh produce section aimlessly for a while, I ended up putting some apples, oranges, tomatoes and an avocado in my bag. I put some cashews in another bag and I then went to the pasta aisle where I put a bag of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce in my bag. I knew I could recycle the jar and I made an allowance for the pasta because by that stage I was brain dead.

After that shopping trip, I realised a couple of things… groceries in the USA are expensive! And I would need to brush up on my cooking skills so I wouldn’t be relying on foods such as pasta which come packaged in plastic.

I have visited a few other towns as I’ve travelled north up the coast and had similar experiences. When googling bulk food stores in the area, they were always quite far away, not walking distance at least. So I’ve ended up going to supermarkets and purchasing mainly fruits and vegetables, canned goods and products that come in glass jars. I have also purchased one bag of rice and two more bags of pasta.

As you can probably tell, my cooking skills have not yet improved.




Like I said earlier, I’m a backpacker on a tight budget. I am using money I have saved to go on this trip so I don’t have any money coming into my bank account, only leaving. Which means I really notice how much I’m spending. This has caused me to face another issue – The free food dilemma.

After having a volunteer exchange (work for board) deal turn sour, I needed to find somewhere to stay fast. I was in Santa Barbara and staying a hostel (costing $70 USD per night) which offered free breakfast. When I hear the word free, I’m immediately interested so needless to say I was looking forward to breakfast in the morning.

When I got there, it was an absolute smorgasboard of cereals, breads, bagels, fruits, yoghurts and muffins. All of it bar the fruit and bagels was singulary packaged. Individual items for convenience no doubt; but a complete nightmare for someone who is doing their best to live zero waste.

What was I going to do? My options were plain bread and fruit. Even the butters and jams were in tiny packaged portions. I couldn’t even have a cup of tea without putting it into a takeaway cup as they just didn’t have actual mugs in their cupboards. I was pretty devastated as the price I paid per night didn’t reflect what I was going to be able to eat, plus my mind was boggling at how much waste was being produced. So, I made some compromises. I ate fruit, cereal and one bagel with one jam and recycled as much of the packaging as I could.

I have encountered this problem in other hostels also but on varying levels. The hostel I stayed at in Monterey provided loaves of bread that came double wrapped. Double wrapped!! What a complete waste of resources and packaging. I googled what may be the reason for this and it seems that it ‘may’ keep the bread fresher. There was no definitive answer. I guess it’s the price you pay for living in a world driven by convenience.

The other free food dilemma involves the free food shelves which are in every hostel and usually always full of food. This food doesn’t always get used so the dilemma here is – Do I use this food to avoid it going to waste and to avoid spending money of my own even if it comes in packaging that isn’t recyclable?


Free food shelf in hostel

Free food in fridge at hostel




It’s so funny, I’m travelling in another western country that is so similar to home. I haven’t experienced a massive culture shock here compared to some other countries. Yet, so many things are still unfamiliar and are done differently to home. And it’s taking a bit of getting used to. I’m struggling to accept how expensive food is here and it’s definitely made me bend my way of thinking.

I’ve had to ask myself some important questions in relation to what I am prepared to do to be zero waste. My main consideration when asking these questions has been my finances.

1. Am I prepared to pay for transport to get to bulk food stores or farmers markets? No. They will have to be within walking distance, generally up to 2.5km in each direction.

2. Will I accept free food even though the packaging may not be recyclable or biodegradable? Yes, however I will do my best to limit how much. If the food is going to go to waste, then I will definitely accept it otherwise that is double wastage.

3. Am I prepared to purchase items that come in recyclable or biodegradable packaging. Yes.




Wow, I’m making it sound like I’ve had a really negative experience so far! There have also been so many positives. For example, most hostels are eco minded; advising you to take shorter showers, reuse your towel etc. My hostel in Monterey provided us with shower tokens to limit our showers to 3.5 minutes so water wasn’t unnecessarily wasted.

Recycling seems to be a big thing here in California, every residential home and business premises has a recycling bin and everyone is encouraged to recycle. Another thing I noticed immediately was that every residential home has a large compost bin to accompany their recycling and regular garbage bins. Even a couple of hostels I have stayed in have a composting system set up. It’s so great to see!


California bins


California has also banned the bag. The vote even went to a referendum and was voted in by the public. This is heartening and inspiring and I hope my home state of Western Australia follows in California’s footsteps soon.

And I found rice in the bulk food section of the local supermarket in Monterey! That was a happy day!

I’ve now made it to San Francisco and have decided to stay for a while. I’ve only been here a couple of days and am already inspired by the local people and the practises put in place. This portion of my zero waste journey so far has definitely not been as romantic as I’d hoped but I’m confident things will get easier. With a bit more effort from me, research in my local area and maybe some help from new friends made, I’m sure I’ll be able to get this zero waste thing mastered.


Mural in North Beach


If you have any tips or tricks for the San Fransisco area, please send them my way!!

Love Kat xx




  • Judy

    April 21, 2017

    I completely agree with you mate, zero waste travelling is bloody hard in North America!!
    Good luck for the rest of it.

    • blueharmony

      April 21, 2017

      Thanks matey, things are already looking up. I’ve just been advised where to buy cheap fruit and vegetables in San Fran – Chinatown! Looking forward to my next shop 😀

  • H. Garza

    August 30, 2018

    Hi. I work at a hostel in Brazil, and I’m always trying to improve the way we deal with our waste. I’m going to follow you on this, I pretty sure you’ll help me on my job. Keep doing this amazing kind of trip, you have my support! Good luck!

    • Kat

      September 7, 2018

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Which hostel do you work at in Brazil? I would love to visit one day 🙂 Good luck in reducing waste in your hostel, every little bit helps 🙂


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