Growing up in a family where we washed and reused plastic bags, grew much of our produce, composted more than anyone I knew and camped our way across America, I’ve always tried to be conscious of my impact on the environment.
But traveling through Central America this last year — watching waves of trash wash up on beaches and sewage pumped directly into rivers and lakes as well as the effects of climate change, such as great drought — has caused me to think even more urgently about living green.
The problem is, in many parts of the world, particularly poorer countries, being eco-friendly isn’t always convenient or even possible all of the time. In vast areas of Central America, for example, messaging about waste and realistic alternatives for single-use plastic are rare while large-scale recycling programs are entirely absent. Compounding my own personal mark are the tiny toiletries I’m forced to buy (small bottles vs. large bottles) thanks to living a life on the move, and the wet wipes I use constantly because of the lack of clean water, soap products and space. (I’m far from perfect.)
It’s easy for a lot of us to throw our normal standards to the wind while traveling or vacationing — when room service, eating out and sightseeing create different patterns than the perhaps more eco-friendly habits we’re used to abiding by at home.
Still, there are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint and travel more sustainably whether you’re venturing across the country or overseas — if you’re only willing to put some thought in and make moderate sacrifices.
Here are 17 ways to lessen your environmental impact while traveling:
FOOD AND DRINK
Carry a water bottle. One of the worst things we can do is buy plastic bottles of water over and over, and finding a good (bonus: attractive) reusable water bottle is one of the easiest ways you can be kind to the environment. While traveling, make sure you look for the refilling stations that are becoming more and more common at airports. Here’s what I carry.
Think about your coffee. We’re all over straws these days, but what about the tops? I get it, sometimes you really want that top — you’re running through an airport, juggling lots of stuff, whatever. But mindfulness begins with thinking each time you grab a coffee to go, whether you could go without that top today.
BYO utensils. Reusable straws are all the rage. If you’re a frequent overseas traveler, especially, you might consider going a step further and purchasing a reusable spoon and fork as well to use in street markets, where single-use plastic abounds. If you purchase a straw, make sure you get a case where the cleaning device fits, too — the way to keep this habit practical is to wash the items immediately after using them. Here’s the set I purchased recently.
Be mindful of drinking water. If you’re traveling somewhere where the water coming out of the tap isn’t high quality or safe, put some thought into how you get your drinking water. If you’re purchasing from a store, always buy the largest bottle available to keep waste as low as possible. Or, you could consider decontaminating the tap water yourself, with this UV-ray filter I sometimes bring along.
Avoid meat 1 day a week. When we get into travel mode, we stop thinking so consciously about what we’re putting in our bodies. So I often challenge myself — truly a challenge in many meat-heavy regions of Central America — to go without meat for at least one day a week, and the rest of the time, I try to stay aware of how many times per day I’m eating meat. If I can keep it to just once, I do. (Here are some of the ways heavy meat consumption harms the environment.)
Eat and drink local. If the beer you’re drinking and the food you’re eating at breweries and restaurants around town could be driven to that location rather than flown, you’re winning. As a bonus, there’s a good chance it will be fresher and more delicious, too. Excuse for a local beer crawl, established.
Make the extra effort to recycle. When we’re at home, with our handy recycling bins and normal routines, recycling is easy. Where many of us fall out of form is while traveling, when we may not have those vestibules handy in our hotels or know where they are while walking around. All of this is simpler if you go in with a plan — call your hotel or Airbnb ahead of time and ask if they recycle and how; while walking, carry a reusable bag (see below) so that you can easily tote your cans/bottles/etc. until you find an appropriate place to dispose of it.
Uber less. Since the instigation of ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, we’ve come to rely on them WAY more than we ever did cabs. It’s convenient and certainly sometimes necessary, but we should always be considering whether there are other options. Walking, renting a bike, taking a public scooter like Bird and using public transportation are all better options when they’re possible.
Pack efficiently. Keeping your backpack or suitcase small isn’t just smart for your back and for your time, it’s also eco friendly. The more planes are weighed down, the more fuel they use. I manage to stuff 3-4 months worth of necessities into a 40-liter backpack plus a front pack. Here’s my latest strategy on How to Pack for longterm travel.
Offset your carbon impact. Many airlines, including Delta, which I often fly, offer carbon offset programs that allow travelers to calculate the footprint of their flights and direct that money to other environmentally boosting projects. It’s not a significant amount of money in many cases — I calculated recently that my flight from Honduras and the six flights I have booked to get me through June had the financial impact of about $25 — but it’s a good way to start thinking about our responsibility based on the choices we take and the conveniences we opt to embrace. Here’s a list of airlines that offer such programs.
Conserve energy and water. Wherever you’re staying — whether it’s a hostel, a hotel or an Airbnb — treat it like your own home. Don’t let the faucet run longer than necessary, turn off all the lights, AC and appliances when you leave and keep your showers on the shorter side.
Reuse the linens. If you’re in a hotel, there is a good chance the policy is to change the linens and the towels daily. If you’d like to lessen your burden, leave a note for the housekeeping or use the ‘do not disturb’ sign.
Don’t toss, donate. If you’re like me and you travel for long periods at a time, inevitably you will want or need to buy new clothes, books, etc. Because of the size of my backpack, I am on a add-something, subtract-something policy, but I always try to find a place where I can donate my old clothes and books to ensure they don’t get thrown away.
Carry a reusable bag. This is another super simple way to decrease your reliance on single-use plastics, and it’s generally more efficient too (it’s much nicer to carry a canvas bag over your shoulder than two plastic bags searing into your palms). Here are a few lightweight options, but any old canvas bag you love will do.
Be respectful to nature. The old saying “take only photographs, leave only footprints” is long-lasting for a reason. Reject the temptation to take stones, shells or flowers with you and admire them right where they are! If you’re diving, be careful not to disturb sea life such as coral or other animals.
Check your sunscreen. If you’re going to swim in a lake, river or ocean, think about the sunscreen you’ve put on your body beforehand. Check the label to see if it’s biodegradable and safe for natural environments.
Rethink animal tourism. Throughout the world, you’ll encounter programs that will allow you to ride elephants, hold monkeys and pet tigers. These aren’t natural experiences, and likely are the result of mistreatment or drugging of these great beasts. It’s more loving to simple observe animals in their natural environments instead.