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13 Ways to Reduce Our Camping Waste

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Last updated on June 23, 2023

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Waste management is a mounting problem worldwide, in more ways than one. Even more so in rural and remote communities where landfill sites and recycling plants are much harder to come by.

If, as we often see in the news, densely populated areas have their waste management difficulties, the challenges of the rural and remote areas to which we as campers are drawn would have to be even greater.

Compounded by their limited resources, greater distances to landfill sites and recycling plants, lower economies of scale and higher unit costs, these communities would have a hard time disposing of large amounts of camping waste.

Our priority should therefore be on waste reduction rather than recycling. That way, there’ll be less for others to collect on our behalf and less to end up in landfill, floating around the countryside and in our waterways. There will also be less for us to pack out ourselves when there are no available waste bins.

As part of our eco-friendly camping guide, here are our camping waste or trash reduction tips.

1: Reduce single use items, especially plastics

Most of us know the problems caused by single use products and packaging, not only to our environment but also in terms of waste management. Many of our single use items are not recyclable and are made of all sorts of substances that can take a very long time to break down, some in excess of 1000 years. They unnecessarily add to waste and landfill and consume valuable resources to produce, transport and dispose of.

Being such a big issue, we’ve dedicated a whole separate article specifically for camping and touring to help reduce single use waste.

You can also check out our zero waste camping article for practical tips.

In the kitchen and bathroom

2: Establish a meal plan in advance

Planning your camping meals before you leave home and creating a grocery shopping list will help you bring or purchase the right quantity of ingredients for your menu plan. Determine the quantities you need and see what you can bring from your home pantry, especially if you only need small quantities of an ingredient. Your plans might change along the way, but cooking to a plan will nevertheless result in less food wastage.

3: Make Dishes from scratch

Processed foods tend to be sold in bags and containers - tins, glass jars, plastic containers, vacuum sealed bags - all of which will eventually end up as waste. By comparison, raw products come with much less packaging and often none at all.

You are not always going to have access to fresh fruit and vegetables while on the road and travelling in remote areas, but when you do, give preference to fresh and dried ingredients over packaged and tinned. In buying for your camping meals:

  • Instead of tinned chickpeas and other beans, use dried alternatives. They are generally sold in plastic bags from the supermarkets and brown paper bags from bulk supply stores. You just need to factor in some extra time to soak and cook them.
  • Instead of tinned tomatoes, use ripe tomatoes, preferably those in season. Four to five whole tomatoes equate to a 400g tin. Tomato skins are extremely nutritious but if you wish to remove the skin, slit the bottom of the tomato and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
  • Instead of a jar of tomato based pasta sauce, use ripe tomatoes (as above) with a finely chopped and fried onion, some tomato paste and a sprinkle of herbs and seasoning. Add in some mince meat for a simple bolognese.
  • Instead of tinned soups, make your own with fresh ingredients.
  • Instead of tinned corn, buy fresh. The corn husk creates a little waste but it will be compostable and less in volume than the actual tin.
  • Instead of bought dips, make your own tzatziki (primarily yogurt, cucumber, garlic and herbs) and guacamole (primarily avocado, tomato, red onion and lemon juice).
  • Instead of pancakes in a shaker bottle, make your own. All you need is SR flour, eggs, milk and a little sugar.

There is a whole article in itself here but you get what we mean.  When considering a recipe, think laterally about how the packaged ingredients could be substituted for fresh or dried equivalents. You may need to plan your time around preparing those ingredients but the results are extremely satisfying.

If you don’t have a practical fresh or homemade ingredient equivalent to a bulky packaged item, then pick another recipe. There are thousands of them to choose from.

4: Don’t cook more than you will eat

Cook enough to make a fulfilling meal to cater for your family or group, but not so much that you end up with leftovers that nobody wants to eat. Have fillers on hand to satisfy the hungry ones, such as fresh bread, cheese and dips and other nibbles and something for the sweet tooth. Only cooking what you will eat not only reduces food waste but packaging waste as well.  

5: Cook using ingredients you already have

Every so often at home I look at the crowding in our fridge, pantry and freezer and embark on a mission to only buy perishable foods for as long as it takes to consume what we already have. In the same way, be creative with your camp cooking and use what you already have instead of buying a whole lot of additional ingredients for a particular recipe when you already have with you the makings of a delicious meal. Using up your existing pantry ingredients will not only help limit your food waste but also the amount of food you need to pack and transport.

6: Serve or use leftovers

Any leftovers should be stored below 4° C / 40° F and consumed within 24 hours primarily for food hygiene reasons but also to prevent them from languishing in your camping icebox of fridge for days and clogging it up. Make it a habit of serving leftovers during the following day - either for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You could also incorporate leftovers, such as leftover pasta, mashed potatoes, cooked meats and roast vegetables, into salads, soups and patties.

In the stores

7: Consider the product packaging

Product packaging makes up a lot of our camping waste, both in relation to the supplies we buy on the road as well as the various components of our camping setup accumulated at home. When choosing your purchases, where possible:

a) Avoid pre-packed and over packaged products: 

Many products are sold with unnecessary packaging - some not only double but tripple packaged. You will also find some products, such as breakfast cereals, sold in boxes that contain up to 30% fresh air! On the other hand, the local green grocer, butcher, baker and farmers market, as well as bulk food supply outlets, sell many of their products with minimal or no packaging and will allow you to purchase the quantities you need. They are also more likely to accept your refillable containers and bags.

b)  Choose products with collapsible packaging: 

Hard plastic and glass containers that can’t be collapsed add a lot of volume to our camping waste and lead to waste bins that fill up more quickly and require more regular collections. Products with collapsible packaging, especially if crushed before they go into the waste bin, will significantly reduce your waste volume. While you won’t have a choice for every product, consider these alternatives that can be crushed and flat packed:

  • Aluminium cans rather than glass stubbies of beer
  • Cartons of milk and juice rather than bottles
  • Cask wine rather than bottled
  • Vacuum sealed or soft plastic wrapped meats and dairy products (from the butcher and delicatessen) rather than those sold in hard plastic containers and trays
  • Collapsible cardboard and soft wrapping rather than tubs, glass jars and tins, such as tomato paste, sauces, stocks and meal bases

c) Choose products with both biodegradable AND recyclable packaging:

While we fully support recycling, in rural and remote areas where resources are limited and recycling costs are relatively high, there’s no guarantee that recyclable material will actually be recycled. Nor is there a guarantee that, if dumped in a landfill site, some if it will breakdown any time soon. In fact, it is expected that some types of waste material, especially many types of plastics, will take in excess of 1000 years to breakdown.

Some products will have both biodegradable AND recyclable packaging options, such as brown paper and cardboard, and should be given preference over those that don't. This might not reduce your short term camping waste, but it will in the long term. If it ends up at a recycling plant, then great – that’s the best place for it. But if it doesn’t, it will break down and won’t be hanging around in landfill or causing havoc to our environment for centuries to come.

So when next at the store, give preference to cardboard and brown paper packaged products such as pasta, breakfast cereals, bread, flour, nuts, seeds, pulses, condiments and all manner of dried foods. Likewise, when eating on the run, also give preference to takeaway foods sold in biodegradable and recyclable packaging.

8: Buy in larger quantities (if practical)

As long as the product can be consumed at the campsite or comfortably transported out when you leave, purchasing your food in larger quantities where practical not only saves money but the lower packing to product ratio of bulk purchases also reduces waste volumes. For example:

  • A 2 litre carton of milk contains more than 20% less packaging by weight than two by 1 litre cartons (66 compared to 82 grams) 
  • A 1 litre bottle of soda water will contain less packaging than a four-pack of 250 ml bottles
  • A large packet of chips will contain less packaging than a multi / variety pack containing individually packaged serves

9: Buy what you need and when you need it

This point might sound contradictory to the previous one but it’s more about buying too much food in general rather than bulk buying. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomach, especially if we are energetic campers and hungry shoppers. We can get carried away and buy way more food than we really need. 

Over buying not only contributes to our waste volumes but also to greenhouse gases as it breaks down in landfill. If you have limited space, excess food can also be difficult to store at the campsite and transport. If you are in a remote area and unsure when you will next get to a store, stock up with non-perishable items that won't go to waste.

10: Buy well and buy once

One of the aims of this website is to help you to put together a camping setup to last for many years and a key factor in helping to achieve this is to buy good quality and long lasting gear. By that we mean a sturdy reputable tent that won’t end up going into landfill after the first big gust of wind, followed by the sleeping bag that didn’t live up to its warmth rating claims and the sleeping mat that didn’t retain enough air to keep you comfortable and insulated from the ground. And don’t get me started on the cheap camping chair. They aren’t even comfortable enough on day one to keep.

These items are bulky and, if discarded, will make a big dint in the waste bin and landfill. Even the non-bulky items should be of good quality. Buy a cheap 3-pack of vegetable peelers for $5 and you’ll be discarding and replacing them all in no time, but a similarly sized $10 one can serve you well for years.

11: Buy second hand

Good quality reputable second hand gear could last much longer than something new but cheap and poorly made. In fact our current tent and most of our tent accessories were purchased second hand at a saving of at least $500 on its full price. That was over 6 years ago and it’s still going strong.

Second hand stores are also great places to search out sturdy items such as cutlery, utensils, stackable containers, tools, cookware and clothes. These items come without packaging, you’ll save money and you will be extending the life of what might otherwise go directly to landfill.

Reuse and recycle

12: Turn your camping trash into treasure

Camping by its very nature brings out the resourcefulness in us much more so than at home. While perfectly reusable items tend to be just thrown in the waste when the conveniences of home are at our fingertips, camping forces us to go back to basics, and that includes making do with and reusing what we have.

Reusing as much of your waste as possible will definitely make a big difference to your waste volumes. You will be amazed at how much your waste can be reused and put to good use around the campsite, and if it ultimately ends up in your waste, it will have served a very useful purpose beforehand. So think before you throw.

Again, go to our separate article to help you to turn your camping trash into treasure.

13: Recycle

And finally, if you can't reduce or reuse it, then recycle what you can.