Plastic Free Train Travel
Traveling is a part of my life. It’s hard to know that it’s oftentimes not very eco friendly. Flying, diesel train travel, boat travel, driving by car or bus. If you don’t travel by bike, sailing boat without a motor or your own feet, travel will always have an carbon footprint. But traveling also made me who I am today, an conscious earthling. But that would be a sensitive topic for another blog post, if you are interested.
Since I don’t really like flying (anxiety...) I am always looking for alternative travel opportunities. And when we decided to go all the way from NYC to LA we had four opportunities: Plane, Bus, Car or Train.
Plane would have been the shortest trip but we would have a stop over (start and landing always need the most fuel). Bus would have been the cheapest, the longest and without much space for the feet. Car would have been awesome because your flexibel and alone but it’s also the most exhausting. So we chose the train, 3 days in total, changing train in Washington and Chicago. Let’s go.
We booked online on Amtrak and I downloaded the App on my phone, so we didn’t had to print the tickets.
If you live plastic free or striving zero waste, food prepping is the first rule. If you want to eat healthy it’s the same thing. Because we all know what kind of food you get offered on plane and train stations: Carbs, Sugar, Carbs, Fast Food or a healthy salad with a fatty dressing and then in a plastic container.
We are living a nomadic life since 2 years now and I like a little healthy food while I travel so I am used to make a little food prep. But for 3 days on the road? Thats a new challenge for me.
I know that most food you get on a train(or plane) is precooked and single wrapped. So to eat on the train is not an option.
We knew we would have a longer stop in Chicago to get some more food, so I packed all this in NYC: 3 carrots, 3 apples, 2 Kiwis, 2 container with millet salad, a few boiled eggs, 3 bagels, peanut butter, 2 bananas, 2 pretzels, 2 Donuts, nut mix and energy balls from a bulk store and our 4 reusable bottles. (How to refuse plastic bottles while traveling)
Evacuation in Washington
Because of really cold winter weather our train to Washington got delayed but we made it still right in time. When we waited to check in to the next train, the fire alarm went off and we needed to get out of the station. One minute later they said: Go back in and when we arrived at the check in they said: everybody back out we are evacuating the building. Ok, thats a little unorganized :D A few minutes later the alarm was off and we could finally check in.
Washington to Chicago
The sleeping train was great. A lot of space for our feet and luggage. You could switch the seat way back so you could lay down a little. They had private sleepers too, but we wanted to save some money so we payed less but also a few more nerves. Nerves? How? Well, You know what happens when a bunch of people are together in a space, one is watching a video an the phone, another is talking on the phone in the middle of the night, a few are snoring, a lot of message noises, and a little vocal fight. Thats always the moment when I think: I’m gonna spend more money next time for a private sleeping room ;)
When we got on the train I saw that they had a water refill station (never seen this on a European train), but the space underneath was not big enough for bottles. They provided paper cups but hey I am on a zero waste travel challenge, so I figured I could use one of the paper plates we got at the MET Cafe (I saved them because I knew we could use them one day) to make a funnel to fill my bottle. And then we figured out the our Water-To-Go bottle actually could get filled if you just hold it diagonally underneath the tap. Yeah, Zero Waste Success number one. Saving money and trash.
Our Water-To-Go bottles would have made it possible though to refill from any dodgy tap on train stations because they filter 99.9% of all possible contaminants in water.
They also had a few soft drinks in cans, so if you fancy something sweet go for these and refuse the plastic cup. Cans are getting recycled unlimited times, and they will get more surely because it’s cheaper to recycle than to make new aluminium.
Dinner was millet salad and egg and some nuts. The dinner you could order on the train was mostly: Burger, Hot Dogs and Mac n Cheese ;) served on single use plates with single use cutlery and single use plastic cups (the wine came in glass bottles though but they needed to drink out of plastic).
When we woke up in the morning we had a beautiful sunrise when we stopped along a big frozen lake.
We passed a few landfills too. Have you seen a landfill yet? How you know it’s a landfill? It’s a sandy/earthy unnatural looking mountain. Not a lot of plants growing on it if it's still in use. A lot of birds flying above the waste, and the colorful plastic bags flying around at the edge of it. So all of the trash from the train will end up on of of these too. We also passed a metal recycling facility and a nuclear energy plant and a few Gas facilities.
The Zero Waste Loophole
I started to prepare our breakfast and my boyfriend went to get coffee in the bistro train, and came back with an unsuccessful zero waste coffee.
The guy at the café said: no he can’t take the cup to fill with coffee because of the FDA rules. So he filled the coffee in a single use cup. In the first seconds if these kind of things happen I am kind of feeling angry, but it's nothing I can change. And no I am not mad about that my boyfriend didn’t refused the coffee like I would have, this is my journey and he is doing his very best to support me.
After breakfast I thought I give it another shot. So I went to the Café for a another coffee and asked to fill it into my cup. He just picked a single use cup straight away and I said: no no no, please no single use cup. I’m not using any single use cups. And he apologized but he can’t take the cup behind the counter because of FDA rules. Strange because they don’t have any unwrapped food behind the counter, but thats the rules. And in these situations, don’t get mad and fight with the staff, they are just doing what they are told to do.
I had a real nice chat with the guy then. I asked why they couldn’t do this and pointed out all the single use trash on the train. He was on my side, he totally understood my opinion, but couldn’t do anything, afraid of losing his job.
When we chatted I saw his college walking into the diner with a portable coffee pot to give the diner guests coffee refills and I asked: oh hey but couldn’t she just refill my cup? She’s not touching my cup in any way this way and he was like: yes, great idea, and told her to refill my cup when she comes back. She wasn’t really happy about this, afraid she’s doing something against the rules, but he was like: No that’s ok, your not taking it behind the counter, your not touching it, so thats an actual loophole here! I didn’t had to pay for the coffee, he was happy to help me out and I was happy to get a Zero Waste Coffee.
A loophole I thought, thats what we are looking for. It’s all about finding the loophole in such a wasteful world.
So whenever you find yourself in this situation make your own decision, take the single use coffee cup, refuse the coffee or find a loophole ;) I will try this one more time in the next train (new staff) from Chicago to LA.
Our breakfast has been a bagel with peanut butter and banana and a kiwi and apple.
Then the announcement: We are running 4 hours late because of weather conditions. Some of the switches were frozen so at night they needed to stop a few times and defrost them. Luckily we actually had 6 hours layover in Chicago. We thought we could do some sightseeing and food shopping, but now we just hope this will be enough time to catch our next train :D „Life happens when your planning other things“.
It’s ok to say no
Because of the delay the train staff came around and brought us free water (8oz) and snacks. The snacks has been some sweet cookies and pretzels single wrapped in small plastic bags inside a bigger plastic bag.
We just said "no, thank you, we are fine!"
You don’t need to take a free offer, flyer or anything else. It’s not rude to say no.
Even if people might say it’s rude to refuse a „gift“. I say it’s not.
It’s always my/your own choice to take something or refuse it.
You wouldn’t take it if you had food allergies against the products. So why not refuse because its so over packaged. These tiny packages of cookies won’t make you full, theres no real nutrients in there at all, so it’s also healthier to refuse. If they have brought bananas or an apple I would happily take it.
The tiny amount of plastic bottled water is what you could easily get from the refill station. (Side fact: Did you know that they actually need 3L of water(!) to produce 1L of bottled water?)
Chicago to LA
We were looking forward to a 6 hour break in Chicago. Wanted to do a little strolling around town and get some food in a restaurant, but no it wasn’t meant to be. We were running 4 hours late because of frozen switches, so we only had two hours time.
My boyfriend needed to check something online and I wanted to do some grocery shopping. So I went out to a nearby (10 blocks away, sometimes you need to go the extra mile;) Whole foods. I am so thankful that we have this choice here in the US! I got some more veg and fruit, chocolate covered nuts and snacks from bulk, salad from the salad bar for dinner (in a paper to go container, how awesome) and some bagels in my own bag. The lady at check out was happy to see me bringing my own bags.
I don’t know if we have too much food now... But better a little too much than not enough.
Be aware that you actually don’t need that much food when you travel a longer journey by bus, train or plane, your not moving that much so your not burning a lot of calories ergo you actually don’t need to eat that many calories. Your digestion will thank you too if you don’t eat too much unhealthy and dry food while you sit for a very long time!
We had a nice and quiet night this second night on the train. The part of the coach we were sitting in was only half full. Next morning we had another great sunrise over the wide open land. Birds flying above lakes, cows running and playing when the train passed through. I went down to the cafe and gave it a shot with my reusable mug (new train, new staff) I asked if I could get a coffee in my mug and surprisingly he looked at my like „why are you asking“ and said „sure!“ filled my cup with coffee and of I went. They just have wrapped food in the cafe anyway, so they shouldn’t be afraid about any cross contamination, and he wasn't. Same company, different rules? So don't hesitate, always try again and again, even if they refused you once.
After breakfast (another Bagel with peanut butter and banana. I actually stopped eating wheat on a regular basis, but bagel or bread rolls are an easy and zero waste food on the go when you travel, because you can always use your reusable bag.) we went to get a place to sit in the panorama coach. Big windows, a lot of light and really close to a coffee refill ;)
I always feel like traveling by train is like driving through the back yard of a country. You see different things than driving on the streets. You see things you sometimes won't ever see if you travel by bus or car. You definitely see the beautiful and the ugly things.
Littered backyards, beautiful houses, illegal dumping close to rivers, beautiful nature, old abandoned cars in the middle of nowhere (hopefully without any oil spills), beautiful wildlife….. and so on.
Close to bigger cities the littering is always really bad. Along side the road, or on spots where truck/car drivers are resting, always littered with food packaging, plastic bags and cups.
Since I am aware about pollution I just can't stop seeing it. Yes it's a nightmare and exhausting sometimes, and on some days I work really hard to see the beauty too. But it makes me sad every time I see it. How come that some humans, the intelligent race, litter like theres no tomorrow, out of sight, out of mind.
We stayed in the Panorama Coach for the whole day. Time flew by like the land we drove through. We passed green forests, red deserts, huge cacti, beautiful rock formations, rivers, lakes, cows, deers, buffaloes(no wild ones sadly). Suddenly in New Mexico it looked like we actually are in Mexico. The clay houses, hidden in the landscape because they are clay colored too. All the clay ovens in every backyard.
The next longer train stop has been in Albuquerque, and the people who went for food shopping all came back with fast food. In a styrofoam container and a plastic bag. No more options. I love that in Europe you mostly always have a little supermarket and bakery at the train station where you at least can buy some fresh fruits and veggies, unwrapped bread rolls/sandwiches and salad (but only in plastic container). Its a tough game sometimes if you don’t like to eat fast food all the time. Thats why we’ve been really happy about our fresh fruits.
I made some fruit salad for lunch and we could feel our tired brain just woke up quickly.
Dinner has been bagel with Avocado and the rest of our salad and some raw veggies. Nothing fancy, but healthy and nutritious.
And I’ve seen the most beautiful sunset that evening! The mountains, the open land, the clouds, perfect
The last night on the train has been a mix of quiet and annoying. We had two smokers on the coach, complaining loudly if they couldn’t get off the coach for a smoke when it stopped somewhere.
So yes, if your unlucky it can become annoying in the open sleeper coach. If you are lucky or you are a good sleeper, its no problem at all.
Last sunrise while having the last bagel with peanut butter and banana (yes the last bagel has been a little dry by now, but it wasn’t too bad actually), coffee in the reusable cup and we drove in to L.A.
The river was filled with water. The water was wild, because of a day and a night full of rain. The rain washed all the garbage from the streets into the river, we watched cups, bags, a big cooler, balloons, and other stuff swimming in the waves, knowing they will all end up in our beautiful ocean.
My Conclusion after a 3 days Train ride:
Would I do a train ride this long again?
Yes definitely, it's a great way to travel. But next time hopefully in a private sleeping room ;) But be aware that meals are included if you book a private sleeping room, so if you want to travel Zero Waste let them know that you don't want to eat in the restaurant.
Did we had some food left?
1 banana, 1 apple, and a few raw veggie sticks.
Did we manage to be Zero Waste/Plastic free?
Not a 100%. We had the sneaky to go cup in the first train and the paper salad container. We had our fruit peels. I collected them in the beginning, but there were no compost bins. If you know you have a compost at home, or at your destination you could probably collect the fruit peels too (the compostable paper container from the Whole Foods salad would be perfect for this).
Did we buy water bottles?
No, not a sinhle one, we refilled our bottles the whole time. Saving so much money this way.
What we couldn’t refuse?
Paper notes on the train, where they write down seat numbers and destination (On the german train ICE they actually have digital seat number reservations).
The head covers from the seats got disposed (I’ve traveled with trains they had fake leather head parts you just could clean easily, or other trains had washable seat head covers).
And a few paper towels for the toilets. (But hey the toilet paper rolls were wrapped in paper, not plastic.)
All in all we made a pretty good job for being on a train for 3 days. It’s definitely not impossible to travel a little more eco friendly and with a minimalistic trash footprint.
It just needs a little food preparation because food on trains comes mostly wrapped, and in the US they serve only on single use plates, cutleries and cups. I know it is different in some trains in Europe. I know coffee is always served in To Go cups, but I remember I was drinking beer out of a real glass (ICE, Germany), and I think I remember they served food on ceramic plates too, in the ICE. If anybody traveled by ICE in Germany lately, tell me if they still do.
I hope madly, that countries and companies will adapt and learn more from each other in the future.
They could make journeys more zero waste, they could even save some money.
Now tell me, would you do a 3 day or longer train journey one day?
Some articles might contain Affiliate Links.
Hi my name is Jule
I am a nature and ocean lover. A passionate runner and minimalistic traveller. On this blog I share my experiences, thoughts and ideas about the "sustainable lifestyle" and how you can stick to this while traveling.
You like what I share? If yes, feel free to buy me a coffee <3