My Zero-Waste, Vegan Study Abroad Experience in Florence, Italy
I moved to Florence, Italy during the end of August this year and lived there for about three and a half months. As a vegan with a zero-waste mentality, I carefully went about my day-to-day life in the city and found ways to help accomodate my lifestyle. To be honest, I wasn't able to avoid all trash during my time here, but I found it just about as easy to be vegan here as in Minneapolis! There were so many vegan restaurants that I didn't even get a chance to go to all of them. But anyway, here I'll go into the details of how I managed to live as sustainably as possible along with some advice and recommendations! So whether you'll be traveling to Florence or not, hopefully this will be of some use to you and can give you a new outlook to how a sustainable life can be achieved in a different part of the world:
As I was packing my suitcase, I made sure to be prepared by bringing things I wasn't sure I'd be able to find in Florence. Some things I packed were bars of soap (about three of each: shampoo, body, hands), reusable produce bags, tupperware, beeswax wraps, steel straws, a mason jar, laundy detergent bar... and basically a backup for every product I use. This may sound like a lot of baggage, but it wasn't so bad. Total I brought a 50 pound check-in, a really small carry-on suticase, and a small backpack with my important documents, money, a book, and food.
RECYCLING AND COMPOSTING
For recycling glass/metal/plastic there were bins along the streets where you could drop off your recyclables (far right bin), and some as well for trash and compost. For composting, I bought biodegradable compost bags at the local grocery store (Conad) and put all my food scraps in those bags in my freezer drawer (to keep from smelling). A bundle was about 2 euros and I only had to buy them twice (you can find them by the trash bag section at the store). I would take out the compst weekly, or when it got full.
As for recycling paper/cardboard, Florence has a different system so we had to literally leave it at our doorstep. We would put any paper items in a paper or reused plastic bag and leave it outside at the step of our apartment building door. Some locals also use plastic bags or trash bags to fill and put and label them saying "carta" (paper in Italian), to make it clear that it's not garbage.
ORGANIC, LOCAL FOOD
There were so many open-air markets in Florence, but my favorite was the Sant'Ambrogio Market. Not all the produce is organic, but you can tell which vendor stands are if the produce isn't as perfect and vibrant as the others; you can also just ask.
You can get organic, local, fresh produce here for a decent price and avoid the excessive plastic and weight stickers from the grocery stores. I brought my reusable produce bags, bagged up what I wanted, handed it to the vendor to weigh, payed and done! A great way to avoid waste and also get familiar with the locals and practice Italian.
I came prepared and brought with me a bunch of reusable bags, beeswrap, and reusable produce bags from home. I didn't always have time to walk 20 minutes to the local market (which closes daily at 2pm) so I did the majority of my grocery shopping at Conad grocery store. I was careful to avoid plastic by refusing the plastic produce gloves they require (to touch the produce), and used my reusbale produce bags instead. They also require you weigh the produce yourself to price it, and with this comes a plastic sticker! Hard to avoid but I made the sacrifice sometimes. I actually learned after leaving the country that stores like Coop and Esselunga have biodegradable stickers!! So check those out if you can.
With other food items, I kept to mostly organic when possible, boxed pasta, jams, sauces and spreads in glass jars instead of plastic containers. For bread, they offer it freshly baked in paper, but you can also go to local bakeries and ask for a loaf in your own bag.
The majority of my meals consisted of pasta and veggies- not a lot of variation considering I didn't have an oven or a blender. But I made do! I would find different sauces to change it up a bit. There were plenty of sauce options in glass which made it all the more easy. For breakfast, I usually stuck to toast, which I toasted on the stove, and tea.
Before leaving for Italy I ordered a box to be shipped to my study center in Florence, which consisted of 48 plastic-free, recycled toilet paper rolls by Who Gives A Crap. I ordered from their UK website where they ship to most of Europe. The box lasted me and my four roommates the whole three and a half months, and then some. I also used them as tissues for when I was sick. It was great because I avoided having to buy plastic packaged toilet paper regularly. I stocked both bathroom cabinets with the rolls, then used the box as my laundry hamper, haha.
To avoid having to buy synthetic, toxin-heavy laundry detergent in a plastic jug, I bought a laundry bar online before leaving the US from here. This bar creates liquid soap when you dilute it in water! So it was great to travel with since it's solid. I cut only a small little piece of it and filled the jar with one cup of water, and used around one to two tablespoons per load. I ended up using about half the bar during my whole time in Italy! The bar in total can wash up to 256 loads, and it cost me about $20 which is $0.08 cents per load.
For drying, I just hang dried my clothes on the clothes line outside our window, as there are no dryer machines in most of Europe. But even if there were, I still prefer air dry because the dryer is the most energy intensive appliance in the home. Air drying also makes your clothes last longer.
All tap water is completely safe to drink in Florence, and there are multiple public water fountains throughout the city. I would normally fill up straight from the sink in my kitchen at my apartment, but when on the go the water fountains were extremely convenient. No plastic water bottles here!
Another thing about water: at restaurants they charge for it, so just say no water if you don't want to pay. Sometimes they'll come in glass bottles, but mostly it'll be large plastic water bottles.
There were actually more bulk places in Florence than I thought there would be, but they're pretty low-key, which is why it took me so long to find them. The first is at a Conad City, (larger than a normal Conad), but I'd recommend bringing small bags instead of jars since they don't have a tare system to subract the weight of the jars themselves.
The next is from the indoor part of the Sant'Ambrogio Market which has tons of options, and they're more than happy to use your own bags! You just ask nicely, tell them how much you want (an approx. weight) and then they fill for you, weigh, and charge (be ready to pay in cash- the markets aren't really card-friendly).
For notebooks and pencils, I brought everything I needed so I didn't have to buy it in Florence. I used one notebook per class, which you can find second-hand at nearly any store, or you can find some with recyclable paper content. I also brought plently of pencils/pens.
For food between classes, I brought a jar and a metal tiffin for lunch. For coffee, I didn't bring my travel mug (and would've never used it because Italian coffee culture is more focused on "drink your coffee and leave"). So for breaks during class we'd sometimes go to the cafe around the corner (Volume), drink a quick coffee in their mugs, and go back to class.
For studying, there aren't a lot of cafes that are study friendly, but there is an American cafe called Mama's Bakery that a lot of abroad students study at that I found nice. But heads up, they don't have mugs, only take-away cups, so bring your to-go coffee cup if you get a drink! You can also go to Volume cafe on Piazza di Santo Spirito to study.
Another place is the local library, Oblate, that has indoor and outdoor seating, a cafe, and an amazing view of the Duomo. You'll find abroad students there, as well as a lot of local Florentine students.
For products, I brought a lot of things in small containers for the sole purpose of being able to take them with me when I traveled around Italy/Europe on flights, and to save space. But for toothpaste and deodorant, I brought two smaller glass containers for travels. I always just brought my backpack with me- kept it minimal which was convenient for when we had to walk around cities with our luggage.
Since flying is really energy intensive and emits a lot of carbon emissions, I tried to keep it mostly to train travel (Europe has a great train system). It's also just more convenient and less time consuming (cheaper too). But when I had to fly, I tried to get a direct flight, if possible.
GoEuro and Trenitalia are where I would usually get my train tickets online. They send you your ticket via email so when you get on the train, the ticket-person will come around and just scan the code right from your phone- so 100% paper-free!
The only thing that was kind of inconvenient was that Florence has a small airport, so to get anywhere by flying we usually had to train to either Milan or Rome first and catch a flight at one of their international airports.
There was a store called Eco-PopUp that had a ton of vegan snacks, bar soap, bamboo toothbrushes, sustainable gifts, some clothes, and other eco-friendly products. I didn't buy anything there since I already had everything I needed, but it was nice to see the store in town and to know I had that resource if I needed it. There was also a Lush in the city where they sell plenty of unpackaged body products.
To avoid toxic-cleaners packaged in plastic that will pollute the environment, public health, and marine life, I chose super cheap and biodegrable options: apple cider vinegar in glass and baking soda in cardboard. I used these for cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen. I just sprinkled some baking soda on a surface and splashed some ACV on there and srubbed away, then wiped down with a damp rag. The baking soda acts as an abrasive and a deodorizer, while the ACV is acidic so it will kill bacteria.
For the floors, I used castile soap and tea tree essential oil I brought with me from the US. In a mob bucket, I filled it with hot water from the sink and dashed a few drops of the soap and about 10-15 drops of the tea tree oil. While the soap cleans, the eo is anti-bacterial and leaves behind a nice, fresh scent.
EATING OUT VEGAN
Coffee: just about any cafe you go to will have soy milk or other nut milks. Just order your coffee and say "con latte di soya" (with soy milk) and they won't question it. If you're not sure if they have it, you can ask "Hai latte di soya?": "Do you have soy milk?" Soy milk is the most common nut milk, but sometimes they'll have almond, too ("mandorla").
Gelato: all gelaterias will have sorbets which will usually always be vegan. But my top favorite place was Edoardo's on Piazza del Duomo where they have vegan cones and gluten-free cones, and various vegan flavours (my fave was the almond ohmygawwwd).
1. Il Vegano
2. Le Vespe (order the Dundus!)
3. Gusta Pizza (Marinara pizza- one of the best pizza places in Florence)
4. Le Fate
5. Universo Vegano
6. Luisa ViaRoma (on the pricey side, but has all organic food and many vegan options)
Those are the vegan places I went to but there are plentyyyyy more. You will not be disappointed. If you google 'vegan Florence Italy' you'll find others.
There were times where I didn't get a say in where we ate out (usually if I was with a big group), but it was never an issue and they almost always had something I could eat. I just made it clear to the waiter that the food didn't have dairy, egg, or meat and it was usually fine. Just remember to be specific because a lot of people aren't familiar with veganism. A simple spaghetti with tomato sauce or a marianara pizza is usually safe and never disappoints.
For leftovers at restaurants, I usually always brought my container with me and filled it up after I couldn't eat anymore. I tried doing this discreetly because it's not super common to take leftovers, but the times waiting staff noticed they didnt't really care.
It can be really easy to fall under the fast-fashion frenzy, especially in a place like Florence where the weather transitions with the seasons: I went during the end of the summer when it was hot and humid, so I had to bring warm-weather clothes. Then I left during mid-December when it was cold and rainy, so I also had to pack cold-weather clothes. I realized I didn't bring as much as I would have liked, and got really bored re-wearing the same things over and over, which can also lead to loss of quality in clothes. If I had known this I wouldn've brought more clothes with me, and it also would have avoided making unnecessary purchases. But Florence has some really great vintage/second-hand stores like:
2. Tartan Vintage
3. Rewind Vintage Selection
4. Ceri Vintage
I had four lovely roommates that I lived with for four months while studying abroad. None of them were zero-waste or even knew what that meant, but they were really supportive and I showed them how I recycled and composted, and they caught on pretty quickly, so we had no issues and I continued living by example. They sometimes would bring home plastic bags from shopping, so we'd reuse those for recycling paper and trash-bin liners.
Food in Italy is pretty cheap compared to the US, so my average weekly grocery run was about 20 euros ($22.88). I bought food out of the house maybe once or twice a week, so I was able to stick to a good budget. The one thing that cost the me the most money was traveling.
Mosquitos are an issue in Florence year round, so to prepare I brought some natural bug spray and would spray my bed before going to sleep only when we slept with the window open. Once it got colder we didn't need the window open so I didn't need to spray anymore.
BARS AND CLUBS
My roommates and I didn't go out to too many bars, but some that we went to were Kikuya (lots of Americans), Red Garter (also a lot of Americans) that has Trivia Night on Monday nights, and La Ménagère.
For clubs, we went to Space and YAB, and those are the best to go during the weekdays, never on Saturdays or Sundays (trust me). The best times to go are Mon-Wed around midnight. Space is free to get in before 1am and is usually filled with Americans and abroad students. YAB will typically have an entrance fee from 10-20 euros (it changes) and has more locals.
Florence is a big student-city, so you'll find that most people speak some English. I already speak Spanish and was in Italian level 2, so I got on okay, but I recommend doing a little Duolingo before you leave and look up some basic phrases. They appreciate when you try to speak Italian instead of assuming everyone speaks English and not putting in an effort.
While abroad I couldn't really avoid my seasonal allergies, and all the traveling around created a larger risk of me getting sick. But to keep my immunity up I tried to eat healthy, walked a lot, and also took oil of oregano every few days, or when I wasn't feeling my best.
Also, if you're a big Advil/Tylenol person, bring that with you. It's super hard to find in Florence (so I've heard).
Florence is a medival city so has very little vegetation. When I wanted some fresh green air, I liked going to the Boboli gardens, just behind the Pitti Palace. Another place to go is Fiesole, about 30 min bus ride from Florence, but has a great view of the city. You just pick up the bus at Piazza di San Marco. It has some nice hiking trails, too.
That's all the advice I can think to give as of now, but if you have any questions or want me to go further into detail about any of these things don't hesitate to shoot me a message on Insta!
So if you're studying in Florence, or another city in Italy, or just visiting, I hope you found this helpful!
Ciao for now,