There are few things so buzz worthy in the travel industry right now as “sustainable travel”.
The harsh truth is that we live on a gorgeous planet, but the way we’re traveling is destroying that. As I’ve traveled full time for years, this has become painfully clear. I’ve seen jungle roads and beaches littered with trash, droughts and shortages caused by excessive use of resources, melting glaciers and expanding deserts. And it broke my heart.
Luckily, I’m not alone in this feeling. More and more people realize that something needs to change. The travel industry needs a sustainability make-over. Fast. From positive movements, like beach clean-ups and eco tours, to negative ones, like flight shaming and greenwashing, people are trying hard to change the way we travel.
And as travelers, we hold more power than you might think. Demand dictates supply, culture and society is changed from within and (at least in a democracy) our voices and votes matter. I firmly believe that a better world starts with us. Right here, right now.
So, if you love this planet and want to see it in a way that benefits rather than harms the environment, there are lots of things you can do to travel sustainably. Join the green travel movement with these easy tips:
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Aviation is responsible for 2% of the global annual emission of green house gasses (the gasses that cause global warming). That may not sound like much but if it were a country, it would rank in the top 10 of the biggest polluters. And it increases every year. Even though flights have become a bit greener, we are flying a lot more than before. Emission from aviation annually has increased with 70% globally in the last 15 years. And it’s predicted it could grow as much as 300% by 2050.
Offset your CO2
One of the ways airlines try to be greener is by offering carbon offset schemes. For a small additional fee, your carbon emission as a passenger is “offset”. A great idea, but not as straightforward as it sounds. It’s often a form of “green washing” to make the company seem more environmentally friendly than it is. It’s usually unclear what and how much is done to offset the emissions.
Just to show you how much needs to be done to offset one flight, here is an example:
Per passenger, a transatlantic flight (say London to NYC) emits as much 982 kg of CO2. That’s more than you could offset by eating plant based for a year. So while aviation on the whole only accounts for 2% of the global annual emissions, on an individual level it’s a huge contributor to your carbon footprint.
And it shouldn’t be about breaking even, but doing as much as possible. But if you do want to offset your emissions and reduce your carbon footprint, from flying or otherwise, here are some great causes to donate to.
Take the train or bus
Unfortunately, there is no way to fly green right now. So the best thing you can do is avoid it as much as you can. Especially short distance flights, which are relatively the most polluting. Take off and landing use the most fuel, which is why a long haul flight burns relatively less fuel per km.
Instead of taking several intercontinental trips a year, try traveling closer to home and choosing alternative modes of transportation.
The exact numbers vary per type of train and bus, but roughly speaking:
- A road trip with 4 people in a diesel car emits 43 gram of CO2 per person per kilometer (an electric car will obviously be much cleaner);
- A vacation by train causes 41 gram of CO2 per person per kilometer;
- A trip by coach bus is responsible for 27 gram of CO2 per person per kilometer.
So, for your next trip, instead of booking the cheapest flight you can find on Skyscanner, look at the alternatives. I mean, is there anything more fun than a road trip and camping with friends? Or a romantic train ride through Europe? Or save some time and money by taking a night bus for a quick city trip.
Stay at eco-friendly accommodations
Once you’re at your destination, you’re presented with your next green travel choice. Where to stay?
Hotels are an obvious choice for travelers, but they also have a huge carbon footprint. All those long hot showers, clean bedding, complementary cosmetics, hairdryers and A/C really rack up a bill. In the US alone, hotels produce 60 million tons of CO2 and almost a billion kg of waste a year. Not to mention the 84.7 billion kWh in electricity and 830 billion liters of water they use per year.
Choose green accommodation options
So, regular hotels are out, but what is the alternative?
Generally speaking, small and local accommodations are more environmentally friendly than hotels. If you’re a budget traveler, Couchsurfing, Homestays and Housesitting are great ways to travel eco-friendly and cheap. Because you’re staying in someone’s home rather than a hotel, you’re not using as many resources. And it’s a great way to meet locals and connect to the culture.
As travelers have become more concerned with green travel, there has been an increase in the number of eco-friendly accommodations. Eco hotels and eco lodges have popped up all over the place. These accommodations try to offer a luxury travel experience with a smaller carbon footprint.
Unfortuntaly, they aren’t always as “green” as they seem and use the word “eco” to green wash their business. So always be mindful of legitimate eco certifications and do a little research into the ways the property is reducing its environmental impact.
Be an eco-friendly guest
And finally, there are also things you can do as a guest to help accommodations reduce their carbon footprint:
- Say no to the unnecessary luxury of fresh bedding and towels every day
- Take shorter showers and don’t run the tap
- Turn off lights and A/C when you leave the room
- Unplug appliances when you’re not using or charging them
- Bring your own toiletries
Green travel starts by changing your own habits!
Reduce your use of plastic
Single use plastic is the bane of my existence. Every single day I am baffled by something needlessly wrapped in plastic.
All of those plastic packages, cutlery, straws and bottles end up in landfills, or worse, the ocean. Here it is left to break down into microplastic and seep into the soil and water. It gets ingested by animals and fish and in turn, us. The average human consumes about a credit card worth of plastic every year!
Not to mention the harm all that trash does to sea creatures and animals that get trapped in plastic netting or suffocate on plastic bags.
And it’s so easy to use less plastic. While traveling, and in day to day life, I carry reusable cutlery, straws and shopping bags. I ask for take-out in my own containers and bring my own cup.
It takes a little getting used to and a bit of mindfulness, but you’ll be surprised how quickly living low waste becomes second nature.
Eat local and eat fewer animal products
Few things have such an immediate positive environmental impact as switching to a (mostly) plant based diet.
Agriculture is the biggest contributor to pollution, climate change, global warming, deforestation and species extinction. The way we grow and produce food on a global level is completely unsustainable.
Eat more plants
Factory farming of animals is the biggest culprit. Animals kept in horrific conditions to just produce as much meat, eggs and milk as possible. The waste they produce sinks into the ground water and rivers and leads to pollution and green house gases.
But what about the water and space used for growing vegetables? Well, 75% of all crops are produced as animal feed. And since it takes about 50 kilograms of grain and 16.00 liter of water to create 500 grams (or one pound) of beef, that doesn’t seem like an efficient use of resources to me.
Rainforest is leveled to graze cows and grow crops for animal feed, leading to deforestation and soil depletion. The results are catastrophic for the environment and biodiversity. The same can be said for overfishing, which leads to a decrease in ocean biodiversity.
The solution is simple: reducing our intake of animal products and embracing a more sustainable form of agriculture. One that puts respect for the planet and animals first. We don’t need to all be vegan, but we need to all do better.
Eating plant based while you travel
I’ve been on a mostly plant-based diet for years now and it can be tricky while traveling. Food has such a big emotional and cultural component. For me, trying local food is a huge part of the travel experience.
Luckily, I have never been anywhere that didn’t provide some vegetarian of vegan option. In most of the world, meat is a luxury, so it’s easy enough to find plant-based meals. Especially if you’re not eating strictly vegan.
And as more people embrace a plant-based lifestyle, restaurants start to cater to vegan guests with creative twists on traditional dishes.
Remember those aviation emissions? Those also apply to the transportation of food. So instead of buying fruits and vegetables that have been shipped halfway across the world, try eating local produce. It’s also going to taste a lot better.
Eating local is easy enough when you’re traveling, especially outside the Western world. Pick local restaurants that use fresh produce from the region and shop at local food markets. The more traditional the food, the bigger the chance it has been made from local products.
And isn’t that one of the best things about traveling? Exploring the local culture through food and traditional cuisine. I for one don’t go to Southeast Asia to eat taco’s or pizza.
Out of all the resources we have on earth, fresh water might just be the most precious. And we’re running out.
Melting glaciers and water pollution are drastically reducing our sources of fresh water. In 2018 Cape Town, South Africa came frighteningly close to Day Zero, the term for the day a place runs out of clean drinking water. It was through the conservation efforts of the local population that they managed to tide themselves over until the rain.
But in most of the world, we are very careless with out water. Long showers, running taps and watering our gardens are just a few of the ways we waste liters of fresh water a day.
Water conservation is even more important when traveling to places where it is scarce. It is in dry areas that we need to be more mindful of our water use, especially as guests. Is there anything more rude than wasting something your host already has very little of?
Filter your own water
So when traveling, do as much as you can limit your water waste. Carrying a filter bottle is a great way to reduce your save water, plastic and money. I always travel with a reusable water filter bottle, like Lifestraw, Grayl or WaterToGo.
I’ve spent months in Southeast Asia and North Africa drinking water out of my Lifestraw bottle and I never got sick once. It filters out almost all harmful contaminants, viruses and bacteria. I also use it when hiking because you can refill it in any body of sweet water (it doesn’t filter out salt).
Saving the planet starts with us
The best thing about green travel is that it doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. With the right knowledge and preparation, you can go on more environmentally conscious trips and contribute to eco-friendly tourism.
You don’t have to give up travel altogether, but embrace the joy of a different kind of travel. Change your habits and home and while traveling, so that we can keep exploring this beautiful planet in a sustainable and responsible way.
COVID-19 and green travel
I’ve always been a glass half full kind of person, someone who tries to see problems as opportunities. To me the current COVID-19 crisis offers exactly that: a chance to flip the switch and embrace green travel like never before.
Together, as travelers, industry professionals and governments, we can take this opportunity for wide-spread reform of travel and tourism. Promoting sustainable travel practices, like slow and local travel. Ecotourism companies that benefit the environment and local communities can take the place in the market left by traditional travel companies that have gone under. We need strong laws and regulations (and enforcement) to protect the environment and fragile ecosystems and limit waste. And a greener mind-set from travelers.
What are some things you do to be a more eco-friendly traveler? Feel free to share them in the comments.
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