It’s a fact; the concepts of Travel and The Environment have not always had the smoothest of relationships. If they were to be cast as characters in a film, the plot would probably fall along the lines of Gone Girl.
From a green perspective, it’s easy to see why the modern traveller could be cast as the villain here. Fuel-guzzling flights. Discarded toiletries. Needless deep-sea selfies, as the Great Barrier Reef crumbles away in the background?
The more you think about, the worse it gets.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve made mistakes along the way too. I like to think that I’m fairly eco-conscious in my day-to-day life. I try to avoid waste. I recycle. My meat consumption is low.
So why is it that I do my best to live green at home, but not so much when I’m away? Like many, I think the truth lies in the fact that it’s just something I’ve never thought about. But in a world where so few of us are thinking about these things, where does that leave the environment? Buckling, if recent evidence is anything to go by.
The world is crying out for us all to have those Lightbulb moments. For many, that came with the recent wildfires in Australia. For me, the switch was sharply flicked after watching a documentary series called History 101 on Netflix, particularly the episode on Plastics. If anyone else is in need of a sharp zap of reality, I’d recommend giving it a watch.
Taking stock of the effect that modern life and consumption has had on the planet was enough to make me re-think my own impact, and it got me thinking about ways I can be a greener traveller. Just a little bit of research has taught me that I’ve been missing a whole bunch of tricks here. The worst (or is it the best…?) part, is that they’re all incredibly easy to implement.
Not sure where to start? Here’s 10 suggestions for ways you can begin to change the way you impact the environment when you’re travelling:
#1 Think before you pack
Becoming greener starts at home. Have you ever stopped to look at your belongings and think about how they came to be in your wardrobe? Are your clothes ethically sourced? Which country were they made in? How would they have been transported? Now these are all huge questions, and the answers, of course, can be overwhelming. There are massive issues to be addressed in the clothing industry, and they are definitely bigger than you and I, but if you really want to become eco-conscious, it’s good to get down to basics and look at your everyday purchases.
Start researching the companies that you buy from, and consider the impact that their clothing has on the environment. It’s great to see that many UK high street retailers and designers are making steps forward, so don’t be quick to assume that all companies are evil! There are also a number of great independent companies, however, who are paving the way forward in sustainable fashion. And no, it’s not all oatmeal-blends and frumpy ponchos. Here’s a handy guide that Marie Claire have put together, if you’re looking for a useful starting point!
It’s also worth thinking about the materials that have gone into your products, from your suitcase itself to your accessories. If you’re heading somewhere sunny, for example, you might want to consider flip-flops made from natural rubber, or suncream which is reef friendly. The little steps can make all the difference. You can read my guide to ten eco-friendly toiletries to add to your suitcase here.
And if you’re worried about breaking the bank, don’t. Not everything needs to be bought from new; in fact, recycling clothes is actually one of the easiest and cheapest ways we can all do our bit to help! I’m a big fan of Ebay and have managed to bag myself some absolute bargains over the years. I always set myself a rule though that I’m not allowed to buy anything new unless I sell something old at the same time. It reduces waste, and often works out that I haven’t had to spend a penny at all! If online selling’s not for you then pop along to your local charity shops and keep an eye on social media for pop-up vintage clothes sales. Good for the mind, yes, but they also just make for a fun day out too!
#2 Consider an eco-conscious hotel
Let’s be frank; it can be hard enough choosing the perfect accommodation without throwing the green consideration into the mix! Most of the big-name booking sites allow you to filer your search by various factors like ‘distance to the city centre’, ‘star rating’ or ‘price’, but very few offer the opportunity to look into the hotel’s eco-conscious efforts. Of course, you can set yourself the mission to look into every hotel’s policies, watching out for key buzzwords such as:
- Organic food
- Renewable Energy
- Ecological cleaning products
- Green building techniques
- Waste reduction
- Recycled materials
- Energy Saving Lights
- Electric car charging points
The list, and the process, can be exhausting!
Thankfully there are a number of fab sites that can do the thinking for you. Green Pearls Unique Places, EcoBnb, Manana and Biohotels are just a few of the examples of booking sites which specialise in finding you beautiful, eco-conscious accommodation. They have strict criteria which hotels have to meet before being listed, so it cuts out the middle man for you, and can be a great starting point if you’re feeling a little lost in the sea of options!
Never be afraid, though, to approach your preferred hotel directly and ask them some upfront questions. If they’re not willing or struggling to answer, that should set the alarm bells ringing!
#3 Do you need to fly?
This is a tough one, because inevitably, it can be very difficult (or genuinely impossible) to travel without getting on a plane, yet we’re all aware that flying has one of the worst possible impacts on fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. While many of the major airlines are making serious advancements in reducing their carbon footprints, there’s still a long way to go.
It’s always worth asking yourself whether there might be an alternative to flying. I only learned recently that the most environmentally harmful points of any flight are take-off and landing, as this produces the highest levels of CO2. Domestic flights, or those with layovers, are considered the most harmful. If you’re only crossing land, is there a bus or a train that you could take instead? Sometimes, it even works out similar, time-wise. For example, I usually travel between Edinburgh and London at least once a year. The train takes 4 hours and 20 minutes. Add on the 20 minutes it takes me to get the station and we’re talking just under 5 hours travel time in total. The flight might only be an hour, but when you add on getting to and from the airports (particularly in London, when most airports take at least an hour to get to from the city centre), plus checking in, security, the obligatory pre-flight drink, boarding and disembarking, the time quickly adds up to a minimum of four hours!
If it’s possible to take a ferry, train or bus between points, then it might be worth considering! Plus, you get to sit back and enjoy the views that way! If it’s not possible, and you need to fly, then consider ways that you can do it in the most environmentally-friendly way possible. Take the bus to the airport. Bring your own food, rather than the plastic-heavy pre-packaged meals on board. Consider purchasing Carbon Offsets if your airline offers it.
#4 Make the most out of public transport
On a similar note, one of the easiest we can all reduce our carbon footprint when visiting somewhere is to make use of the public transport on offer. Shared transport not only reduces fuel production, but works out considerably cheaper! Before planning your holiday, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there a direct bus, train or tram from the airport to the city centre?
- If arriving late, could I share a minibus to the hotel?
- Do I really need to hire a car, or are there other options available?
- Is it worth paying a little more to stay central, so that I can do everything by foot?
- Would it be possible to hire a bike?
- Does the destination I’m visiting offer an incentive to use public transport, such a discount card? Budapest, Copenhagen and Berlin are great examples of cities which offer cards that combine entry to many of the local attractions with unlimited travel.
#5 Avoid single use plastics
It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. It’s a thought that makes my skin crawl, especially knowing that it’s something which could be avoided.
Recycling has its merits, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s not the only answer towards fixing the problem. Quite frankly, the scale of the problem is so big that we need immediate intervention. We need to be looking at prevention, rather than cure.
There are so, so many ways you can help as a traveller, but equally there are many pitfalls which can be easy to fall into when heading outside of your normal environment for a few days. With a little bit of forward-planning, it is possible to use less plastics on your travels. Here’s a few tips to help get you started:
- Bring a re-useable water bottle and fill it as you go. If you’re concerned about the quality of the local water then purchase a bottle which comes with a built-in filter. Grayl are a great brand to look at.
- Avoid straws. The simplest method is just to decline them altogether, but if you prefer drinking through a straw, then bring your own metal one with you.
- Buy reusable bottles for your miniature toiletries, and avoid opening hotel freebies if you don’t need them. Some hotels, such as Manon Les Suites in Copenhagen, only provide large, refillable bottles for their complimentary shampoos, conditioners and body washes. Give these places a massive thumbs up!!
- Consider an alternative to plastic-packed toiletries, such as shampoo bars and deodorant stones.
- Bring your own shopping bag. Sounds simple right, but how easy is it to forget to pack one for shopping on holiday? Treat supermarkets abroad exactly as you would at home and avoid accepting single-use plastic bags.
- If you’re sitting in at a coffee shop, don’t be afraid to ask them to serve your drink in an actual mug, rather than a plastic one! It’s incredible how many companies (looking at you, Starbucks et al!) will allow a whole floor full of customers to sit sipping away from disposable cups, when they have a stack of mugs sitting ready behind the counter!
- Bring your own reusable utensils. Many of us are used to asking for our takeaway coffees in flasks, but have you ever thought about other wasted utensils, like cutlery and plates? Head to any street market and you’ll quickly see bins full of discarded and non-recyclable plates, forks and knives. This could so easily be resolved if the stigma about bringing your own was dropped. We’re not there yet, but if more people were willing to flash their own tupperware or bamboo cutlery sets, we could soon start to challenge the norm!
#6 Be mindful of electricity and water consumption
This is good practice at home, so why not do it abroad too? The amount of money and power that hotels must lose through excess water and electricity consumption is staggering, so it’s surprising that more establishments don’t have stricter methods in place. I suppose in order to give customers the ‘luxury experience’, however, they have to hand that power of over to the guests. The onus is on us to make sensible choices here.
Most hotels these days work through electric key cards, and so the power in your room will automatically cut out when this card is removed. This is isn’t necessarily linked up to the heating systems, however, and we’ve all been guilty from time-to-time of leaving the air conditioning running while we’re out of the room so it’s cool when we come back. Cue a collective Face Palm. The answer here is simple: If you’re not in the room, turn it off! I promise you, the air-con will kick in before you know it.
Controlling water consumption too sounds easy on paper, but still, it’s worth looking at your actual habits and seeing where you can make improvements. Does your shower really need to take 20 minutes? Do you need the tap to be running while you brush your teeth? And for goodness sake, hang your blooming towel up!
#7 Support local businesses
It’s so important to shop and eat locally when you’re visiting somewhere new. Not only does it immerse you properly into that culture and its heritage, but it helps support the communities that have welcomed you in as a traveller. Major corporations are always going to have support across the world, but many independent businesses depend upon the trade that they get from visitors, and for many, their business is their heart and soul.
Shopping locally and from independent companies also contributes towards greener business. Buying local food and goods means that your purchase has not had to travel long distances to reach you, which reduces demand on air travel and creates less waste due to packaging. If you want to bring home an authentic souvenir but you’re not sure where the product has come from, don’t be afraid to ask. If you can, try to buy artwork directly from the artist or their workshop, and spices, wine or olive oil direct from the farmers.
Do a little research before you leave home to find out if the community you’re visiting holds a weekly market; this can be one of the best ways to meet the sellers and makers directly!
#8 Get involved in nearby environmental activities
If have time to spare, why not consider volunteering with a local green initiative, so that you can give a little back to the community?
In Sweden, for example, there’s a trend called “plogging”, where joggers collect trash and dispose it properly after their run. This could easily be incorporated into your travels, by sorting out litter as you find it on your walks, or at the lake or beach. Who knows, you might even inspire others to follow suit!
If you would prefer to be active in a group, do a quick internet search (particularly looking for local groups on Facebook) to find out whether there are any groups that meet to take part in clean-ups. Trash Hero help organise groups like this, so could be a good place to start.
#9 Plant some trees!
If you’re particularly worried about your carbon contributions as a traveller, consider offsetting your footprint by giving something back to nature. Planting trees essentially increases the world’s lung capacity and helps produce the oxygen needed to keep the planet alive. With the constant destruction of rainforests, this is needed now more than ever, and it’s estimated that it takes about 1025 trees to offset the average person’s annual emissions.
There are plenty of companies which can help you restore some of the damage we all, as a race, contribute to the environment. Savingnature.com has a handy tool which helps you estimate your personal lifestyle’s carbon emissions, and the number of trees which would be needed to offset your carbon footprint. You can donate directly to the cause of planting trees. As a guide, it costs around £45.00 to plant enough trees to offset an average US consumer’s emissions for one year.
#10 Spread the word
Lastly, I’m going to go back to my original point, which is that in order for change to happen, we need to learn what change is needed. We all need to do our bit to help promote greener, more sustainable travel, and one of the best ways to kick start that way of thinking is to pass the word on. If you’ve picked up some great tips, or found a business which is knocking things out of the park in their efforts to keep things green, share the news! Social media is an incredible tool when used right, so don’t be shy or afraid of tagging and sharing away. If you’ve any ideas for me, join in the conversation below.
And now for the afterthought…
So there we have it. A few suggestions to get you started on the path towards becoming a greener traveller.
Of course, I’m under no illusion that these alone will save the planet, nor will they even come to close to counteracting the impact that travel can have on the environment. The cold hard fact is that while planes are still in the skies and plastic is still being produced, the world will continue to be impacted.
Does this mean we should all stay at home forever more? I think we all know that’s not going to happen. Travel and adventure lie in our DNA. It’s part of what makes us human. We can blame our earliest ancestors for that one! But just as the causes of the problem lie in human fault, so too do the answers. We’re not even close to reaching them yet, but all change starts with desire, and if our desire takes us down the path of wanting to learn and make improvements where we can, I think we’re headed in a good direction. Who knows? Maybe one day Travel and The Environment’s relationship will have more of a Kramer vs Kramer outcome…?
We all have a responsibility to care for this world. After all, it’s a privilege to be able to explore it, not a right. Once we start embracing that, we might start treating our planet with the respect it so rightly deserves. Change should start at home, and should follow wherever the map takes us.