I’m a self-proclaimed environmentalist writing this from 30,000 feet in the air. By a rough calculation, my cross-country flight is emitting 20 percent of what my car does over the course of a year. There are myriad ways to lessen your impact on the planet — travel isn’t one of them.
But living in the world the way it is isn’t an argument against wanting to make it better. According to recent reports, individuals are statistically blameless when it comes to the planetary-scale threat of climate change (there’s a fascinating article from Fast Company if you want to read more on this line of thinking).
Still, we need top down and bottom up approaches, and a little personal effort goes a long way toward creating wider cultural shifts. You can see evidence of this already in the travel industry: airports around the globe have installed refillable water bottle stations as an alternative to harmful single-use plastic bottles. Here’s a crowdsourced collection of other ideas for making your next trip a little more eco-friendly in honor of Earth Month.
Purchase the most direct flight financially possible and fly economy. According to a report from NASA, 25 percent of airplane emissions come from landing, taking off, and taxiing. You can also help counteract your flight by buying carbon offset credits, but make sure the program you donate to is credible (as in, verified by a third party). Say no to single-use plastics on the plane, too, by bringing your own food and water if possible. If you do accept some refreshments, ask the flight attendant to keep the napkins, coffee stirrers, and extra cups.
Build an eco-friendly travel kit you can toss in your carry-on bag. Having items like a water bottle, insulated coffee mug, bamboo utensils, reusable straw, some Bee’s Wrap or Stasher bags on hand will help you cut down on the waste you create away from home.
Invest in a water filtration system so you don’t have to purchase bottled water. In countries where there’s limited potable water sources, a simple water filter pump or a Lifestraw can help. Try not to travel to locations that experiencing water crisis — you’ll only strain the limited resources available.
Research local outfitters, travel companies and guiding services to find ones with ethical practices (such as paying trail porters fairly and hiring female guides) contributes to a healthier ecosystem as whole by bolstering the local economy. Some animal “sanctuaries” actually exist just to attract tourists, so avoid those that ask the animals to operate in unnatural ways.
Look into the waste management resources available on the ground where you’re traveling — some countries have limited or no recycling programs, so it’s best to pack your plastic waste back out in your suitcase and recycle it when you get home.
Beware of “greenwashing” at hotels and resorts. Some places market themselves as “eco-friendly” and end up dumping waste into freshwater systems or the ocean, so ask some questions. Hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door for the duration of your stay to cut down on how many times the maid service washes your towels and replaces your in-room plastics. Taking the time to find accommodations, restaurants, and markets that are locally owned and managed helps contribute to the local economy (again with the trickle-down effect for a healthier environment).
Slather on reef-safe sunscreen. Ingredients in many sunscreens, like Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, can cause coral viruses and destroy fragile reefs — when the coral gets sick, it “bleaches” itself and dies. Right now, an estimated eight-million tons of sunscreen washes off people into these environments every year, leading Hawaii to pass a ban on ‘screens that contain the harmful chemicals. However, not all “reef-safe” sunscreens are created equal and can still do harm, so try to pick up ones made from food-grade ingredients, like Manda.
Leave No Trace goes for any environment, wild or urban. The best thing you can do to make your travels more sustainable is to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles in any location — stay on trails and sidewalks, pack out or responsibly dispose of waste and trash, don’t geotag locations to cut down on the human traffic that passes through, and leave what you find where you found it.
Sign up for a day of volunteering for a local environmental nonprofit on the ground wherever you’re visiting. Patagonia Action Works is a great resource for connecting with grassroots efforts in different locations. If you don’t have time to commit to a volunteer project, grab a reusable trash bag (we’ve found that seafood restaurants always have old oyster bags they can give you) and do your own mini beach/mountain/roadside cleanup.
Normalize better travel habits. The most important thing you can do is make all of these changes measurable and sustained. Share ideas with family, gift your travel companions reusable water bottles, and use those Instagram posts from your vacation to educate your friends about how to have less negative impact while traveling.