Sustainable Travel – Our Trip to Madrid

View of rooftops in Madrid

As I write this article I’m sitting in a lovely self-catering apartment in Madrid. By the time it’s published I’ll be back on Irish soil. My husband and I stopped off in Madrid on our way back from South America about 15 years ago and we swore we’d return. I’m so glad we did. It’s a stunning city with a laid back attitude that you rarely get in a capital city.

Sustainable travel is an oxymoron. It’s one of the most unsustainable activities you can engage it and yet we all still do it. Why? For us, travel enriches our lives. We love experiencing new cultures, food, sights and people and it’s just one of the things we are very reluctant to forgo completely.

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We do try to minimise the negative impact of our trip by doing the following;

  • Limit travel to one flight a year
  • Pack as little as possible
  • Fly direct
  • Fly economy
  • Use reusable cups, bottles and bags as much as possible.
  • Eat restaurants that provide real cutlery and crockery
  • Eat vegetarian / vegan meals where possible
  • Avoid attractions that use animals unless run by conservation organisations.
  • Use your own toiletries and avoid those offered by hotels as they often get chucked once you’ve checked out

For other tips on travelling sustainably check out this article

There were a lot of positives about Madrid in terms of sustainability. For one it doesn’t seem to suffer from the plight of the ubiquitous plastic straw – we didn’t get a straw once when dining out! Just in case, the Spanish for ‘no straw’ is ‘sin pajita’ and the Spanish for ‘no plastic’ is ‘sin plastico’. These simple phrases really helped us avoid unnecessary plastic disposables.

Also native Madrilenians don’t seem to get food and drink to-go so you don’t see bins overflowing with coffee cups or food packaging like you would in Ireland.

On the negative side we saw a lot of plastic bags in Madrid and very few reusable ones. There is a levy of 5 cent on plastic bags in Madrid but it doesn’t appear to be deterring many people. In clothing stores you’ll be automatically offered a paper bag so to avoid them, use the phrase ‘sin bolsa’, which means ‘no bag’ in Spanish. 

Madrid is also a mecca for fast fashion with home-grown brands like Zara and Stradivarious, Bershka, Massimo Dutti and Pull and Bear. Madrilenians and tourists alike seemed to love their shopping and clothing stores were constantly packed, particularly in the evening.

Sustainable Eating in Madrid

In my opinion the easiest, and one of the least expensive ways, to eat low-waste in Madrid is to eat in cafe bars, particularly traditional ones. Food tends to be served on real plates, with real glasses and metal cutlery and no plastic straws! Food in these cafes bar is far less expensive than the equivalent at home and you can have a tiny tapa or a large plate of food. Being able to buy and eat quantities to suit your needs in restaurants really helps to avoid food waste. Often the most delicious tapas are given free with a coffee or drink, making it even more affordable. Our local charged us €1.65 for a small ‘Cafe con Leche’ with a free tapa.

outside view of san miguel market in madrid

In the San Miguel market in the Historic area (near Plaza Mayor) you can pick up a range of tapas from different stalls. The tapas here are much pricier than elsewhere but the quality is superb, the venue is gorgeous and you get to shop a range of different providers all at once. You can get disposable plates at each of the vendors but we got our tapas to-go in a tupperware containers. You can get fried calamari (although at an eye-watering €17) and crisps in paper cones for a more reasonable €2. Mercado San Anton in the area near Chueca metro stop is another market where you can get tapas from various vendors to eat at centrally located tables.

I had high hopes to create as little waste as possible on this trip by booking a self catering apartment and getting the heads up on zero waste stores from the Facebook Group Zero Waste Madrid , which I’ve plotted on the Google map above. On this map of Sustainable Ethical Stores in Madrid I’ve also included the main visitor sights and public swimming pools too.

exterior view of store

We didn’t have an organic fruit and veg shop close to us so I just bought loose fruit and veg in local grocery stores as and when we needed it. The range of un-packaged fruit and veg in the smaller supermarkets was limited but the supermarkets under some of the El Corte Inglese stores (there are a few) offered a much wider selection, although at a higher price. Fresh bread rolls were available package free from local supermarkets and in the supermarket of El Corte Inglese. The supermarkets in El Corge Inglese also loose Haribo sweets that you can buy by weight. The standard is a plastic bag but you could use your own reusable nag.

Sustainable Madrid Area by Area

The opening hours of shops in Madrid vary wildly. Traditional shops tend to open in the morning, close at lunch and open again in the late afternoon till evening (10:30 – 14: 00 / 14: 30, 16:30 – 20:00). Others, mostly in the tourist areas, opened 10:30/11: 00 – 20:00/22:00. Others opened 15:00 – 23:00. In August a lot of stores close for vacations and even if their websites said they’re open they’re often not. Hence photos of closed shops in this article!

Before we headed to Madrid I researched sustainable ethical clothing, shoes and underwear brands with stockists in Madrid and I’ve noted these on the Google map of Sustainable Ethical Stores in Madrid. Some other Sustainable Ethical Spanish brands like El Naturista shoes and Natural World shoes are widely available in many stores throughout the city.

Instead of cataloguing shops by type I’m going to do it by area because I feel that this fits in more naturally with the way people explore a city.

Between Grand Via and Sol Metro Stops

This area is the main shopping area and there is little in the way of sustainability area except for one little haven, just beyond across the road from the Sol metro stop on Calle de Espoz y Mina.

exterior view of store

La Canela Biocentro doesn’t sell zero waste items per se but it does sell organic cotton yoga wear, organic skincare and food items. It’s more along the lines of what would be a traditional health shop in Ireland.

exterior view of store

Relatively close to this area is an outlet of the French confectionary brand La Cure Gourmande. They sell loose biscuits and sweets by weight. They provide paper bags and plastic gloves so you can serve yourself, but if you wrap a reusable cotton bag over your hand you can dispense with the glove.

Between Chueca and Gran Via Metro Stops

This area has an affluent bohemia vibe and is a lovely place to wander around in the late morning as the narrow streets offer reasonable shade from the searing sun.

exterior photo of store

In addition to being stocked by some other stores in the city the Spanish sustainable clothing brand Ecoalf have a flagship store in this area.

exterior view of store

Ecomania is a great stop for sustainable ethical gifts and homeware. They have lovely upcycled items made from reclaimed materials and other zero waste fare like beeswax wraps and reusable bottles.

exterior view of store

In this area there’s also a large natural health and skincare store called Herbolarie. Here you can get a large selection of natural skincare and cosmetics, although very little is zero waste.

package free goods at San Anton Mercado

The San Anton Market (Mercado San Anton) in this area has a tapas food court similar to that at San Miguel plus a high-quality package-free fruit and veg shop with a large range of loose rice and beans.

exterior view of store

La Magdalena De Proust was a store recommended to me on the Zero Waste Facebook Group. It has a few loose items and refillable Ecocover but most of the items on sale were individually packaged. They did have an organic bakery on site too.

Down the road from La Magdalena De Proust is a Kiki Market (now closed), which appears to be a chain of organic stores. It wasn’t open when I was there but going by their website their range of unpackaged fruit, veg and bread looks good.

exterior photo of store

ZigZag Kids is a good spot for wooden, paper and unpackaged toys for younger kids very reasonable prices.

And if you’re in the mood for some organic beauty treatments then check out natural EcoVita Beauty in this area.

Bunny’s Delight on Calle San Gregorio is a Vegan deli and cafe. It was closed when we were there, hence no photos.

Between Santo Domingo and Tribunal Metro Stops

This is more up-and-coming area than the area between Chueca and Grand Via, but just as charming.

exterior view of store

The main zero waste store here is El Granel De Corredera. It has a huge range of bulk store cupboard items but no liquid refills, no bakery and no fruit and veg. There is a very good grocery store across the road with a good range of package-free fruit and veg and bread that would serve as a good complement.

exterior view of store

There’s also a lovely organic bakery Levadura Madre around the corner from both too.

exterior view of store

The large French brand of supermarkets Carrefour has an organic produce outlet in this area called Carrefour Bio. They do have some package-free organic fruit and veg and bread and a few loose beans and pulses but most items are packaged.

exterior view of store

This area also has lots of independent stores selling handcrafted goods and lots of quality vintage stores.

exterior view of store

The only charity shops we came across in the city were run by the same company Humana and really only stocked clothing and accessories.

exterior view of store

This area also has a fabulous gift store called El Moderno with lots of modern unique craft and art items, some of which are made from recycled materials some of which are package free.

Between Puerta de Toledo and La Latina Metro Stops

This area is called El Rastro and is mostly composed of antique shops, which all seem to shut down in August, although there is a fair on Sundays, which we forgot to go to 😦

exterior view of store

Granel Madrid is a zero waste store recommended to me, which seems to sell quite a few store cupboard items in bulk. I’m gleaming this info from the website as it was shut the entire time we were in Madrid.

exterior photo of store

Across the road from Granel Madrid is a store selling handmade popsicles, and nearby was this artisan ice cream shop called Mama Elba  on Calle de la Ruda offering an ice cream range that includes some without sugar and animal products.

exterior photo of store

Close by is a small organic shop on Calle de la Rude called Como en Casa.

exterior photo of store

Caramelos Paco is a long-established sweet shop with lots of unusual sweets and some well know brands. A lot of the sweets are un-packaged and sold by weight in paper bags. Be mindful not to go at lunch closing time or you’ll be rudely shown the door like we were!

There’s also another charity shop by Humana across the road from Caramelos Paco.

Near Callao Metro Stop

exterior photo of store

Le Pain Quotidien on Grand Via is a French brand of cafe and bakery that sells organic bread and coffee.

Near Ventura Rodriguez Metro Stop

exterior photo of store

In an area with little else is chain store Bic n Bon. This store had quite a good range of loose organic items, including pasta and cereals, biscuits and chocolate, which most others didn’t. They also do a good range of package-free fruit and veg and bread, and have a deli counter with meat and cheese too. I felt their range of both packaged and loose organic items was the most comprehensive of all the stores that I visited and if you were to only visit one zero waste store on your trip I’d recommend this one.

Other Spots of Note

The gift shop in the museum Caixa Forum has some nicely designed gift items some of which are package-free, some made from paper, in their gift shop.

We came across a couple of outlets of the Portuguese chain store Natura on our trip. The name suggests that it’s an eco-store of some sort and its about us webpage suggests that but then you discover that they’re selling inflatable plastic beach toys!

How to dispose of your waste in Madrid

Our apartment just had one bin and the street bins close to it weren’t segregated so we sought out recycling facilities, which we found in a nearby residential area.

photo of recycling bins

It seems that most residential area in Madrid have large communal recycling bins on the side of the street where people can dispose of their waste. The yellow ones are for cans, plastic bottles and tetrapak, the blue is for paper and cardboard, the green is for glass bottles and jars (without lids) and the black one is just for general waste. Unfortunately there is no stream to enable organic waste to be composted so any paper food packaging waste will end up in landfill / incineration here. For more information check out this link on how to recycle in Madrid.

Travelling around Madrid Sustainably

Most places in Madrid are accessible with the metro, albeit sometimes with a bit of a walk. Compared to Dublin we found travelling by metro and buses to be very inexpensive in Madrid. Individual journeys cost €1.50 – €2 depending on the distance and a bulk buy of ten journeys on the metro costs just €12.20. We got a transport card at the airport which we loaded with ten journey and topped up as we needed this. We were advised to do this as you don’t have to work out the price of ticket every time you make a journey on the metro. When we were flying home we gave the plastic card to someone just arriving into the country so they didn’t have to get one. I’m not sure if that’s allowed but it sure beats having another bit of plastic floating around the world.

Refilling your water bottle around Madrid

I loved the number of water fountains around Madrid. It’s great to see a country taking the care of it’s citizens seriously. Apparently Madrileños rarely buy bottled water, and are actually very proud of the natural water sources that feed their city, which come from deep, pure, underground reserves that have been untouched for millennia (source: Go Madrid). I didn’t get around to mapping the ones I found and I can’t find one online but they’re in fairly reasonable numbers if you’re out and about.

At the airport there were varying levels of water refill points. We flew into Terminal 4 where there were a lot of water fountains but on the return flight out of Terminal 2 there was only one near passport control.

Elaine & Paul

PS – This time in previous years I published a recipe for Homemade Tortillas and a compendium on Sustainable Ethical Shoe Brands

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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