Environmentally Friendly Travel: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Impact on the Road

I’ve been reading Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson’s first autobiography, Losing My Virginity, and have been blown away by his story and success. I’m also impressed at how he’s leveraged his businesses and personal profile to support social and environmental causes. Just this week I saw his post on LinkedIn about his investment in sustainable meat manufacturing given the livestock market accounts for 14% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions (equal to all forms of transportation combined!). It’s one of many initiatives the Virgin Group supports and has re-inspired my own commitment to Meatless Mondays!

Perhaps because his story is top of mind for me, I’ve been primed to notice other announcements in the news this week by brands like Microsoft and Starbucks that have renewed their commitments to sustainability and set aggressive goals for being carbon negative—not just carbon neutral—in the coming decades.

Right or wrong, when businesses, governments, the scientific community, and multiple ‘others’ begin arguing the politics of climate change and making grand gestures (some of which will be realized, some of which will not) to address their environmental impact, I usually tune out on the specifics. While these big players tackle the big problems, I’m left feeling uninformed and insignificant.

However, in the last couple of years I really started to make a concerted effort to do something about that—to learn more and to make easy changes in my day-to-day life to reduce my own environmental impact. There are definitely days where I wonder how one person’s efforts can make a difference, but there are other days where I begin to wrap my mind around the fact that if all 7.7 billion people on the planet made an effort, we would be pretty astounded by the impact.

This year I consciously made reducing my environmental impact one of my 2020 new year’s resolutions, and the biggest recent change that both Brian and I made was fully committing to composting. We added a bi-weekly service through our existing recycling service, my parents gave us our first installment of compostable bags for Christmas, and although we’re only a few weeks into the new year, it’s already been mind-boggling to see how much of what we consume can actually be composted versus needing to go in the garbage. I’m excited to see how our behaviors continue to change as we keep this commitment.

There are lots of ways to reduce your environmental impact in your own home that are well within your control, and we’ve embraced many of them. If you’re looking for inspiration, I recommend checking out the 52-Week Opt to Act plan that REI put together, which offers weekly suggestions that range from opting out of junk mail to unplugging electronics you’re not using.

What I’ve found to be more challenging is reducing my environmental impact when I’m traveling or away from home where things are either less within my control or where the recommended actions are so extreme that I don’t feel like I can do them. For instance, I was reading some 2020 travel trends around environmental travel that focused on calculating the carbon footprint of your trip and purchasing carbon credits to offset (I’m probably not going to do that) or forgoing airplane travel because of the significant environmental impact (also, primarily due to time constraints, probably not going to happen).

That said—as with my approach at home—there are a number of things I already do and am planning to do while I’m on the road to create a healthier environment moving forward that are well within my control. I’m attempting to hold myself accountable by outlining them here. Maybe they’ll offer some inspiration to others, and I’d love to add your recommendations to this list.

10 Ways to Reduce Your Environmental Impact While Traveling
  1. Stop using single-use plastics. I feel very strongly about this one. Not only are single-use plastics terrible for the environment in their end-state, the water/electricity/resources that go into manufacturing them is obscene. Instead, try reusable water bottles, reusable TSA-approved travel containers for facewash, shampoo, conditioner, etc., reusable snack containers, and more. This is my main focus in 2020.
  2. Reduce your paper use. I absolutely LOVE trees and being out in the woods. Yet, I still find it hard to reduce my paper use in everyday life because I also love books, journals, and hand-writing cards and lists. (Sigh.) Still, there are easy ways to reduce paper use when traveling—download and use an airline app instead of printing your boarding pass, ask retailers to email you a receipt instead of printing it, return museum brochures at the end of your tour for other visitors to use, etc.
  3. Minimize energy consumption in hotels/AirBnBs/etc. I think we’re pretty good at this because we apply the same principles we use at home—turn off the lights when you leave the room, drop the thermostat/keep the blinds closed when you’re away, reuse your towels instead of getting new one, turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth, etc.
  4. Take public transportation or walk. Both options are a great way to experience the local culture and give you the opportunity to see things you would have missed driving a personal vehicle around. Not to mention that walking helps you sneak in an extra work out! If you have to drive yourself, consider an economical/fuel efficient vehicle and turn it off when you’re waiting at border crossings/park entrances/etc.
  5. Correctly dispose of your trash. As more places adopt public bins to help people sort their trash, recyclable items, and compost, make sure you’re following the rules and putting things in the right place. In addition to minding your own trash, pay it forward and pick up/properly dispose of other people’s debris. Whether you’re communing with nature or walking the city streets, apply the principle of ‘pack it in, pack it out.’
  6. Forgo the packaging on your purchases. It feels to me like it’s becoming more common for store clerks to ask if I want a bag for my purchases, and I try to always say no! Stick your purchases in your own purse or backpack and eliminate carrying around packaging you’d normally throw away later in the trip.
  7. Consider the damage of your literal footprint. Reducing your impact isn’t just about ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’– it’s about any activity that helps preserve nature. When you #OptOutside, stay on designated park trails so you don’t damage vulnerable flora, do not feed the wildlife, and embrace the concept of ‘leave no trace.’
  8. Enjoy local, seasonal food. This one is easier for me because I love exploring local cuisine and seasonal is always the most fresh! There’s a lot of energy that goes into carting food around the world. Forgo foods that have to be shipped in and instead enjoy those that are locally sourced. (And don’t be fooled– just because you’re on one ocean doesn’t mean your seafood is from there. Always ask!) Bonus tip: You can also consider sharing dishes so you can try a greater variety of things while reducing food waste.
  9. Look into the ethics of animal-related activities. There’s nothing like spotting and safely viewing wild animals in their natural habitat. It’s been the highlight of several of our recent trips. But they are not there for our entertainment and it’s wise to be skeptical of animal-related tourism activities that suggest otherwise. This was not on my radar during my early travels, and I have some regrets about that. Now I look into whether the animals are treated ethically before investing my time and money in animal-related activities when we’re on the road.
  10. Prioritize environmentally friendly experiences in your itinerary. Snowmobiling v. snowshoeing? Bus tour v. walking tour? There are so many possible activities to choose from wherever your adventures take you, and some of them will be more environmentally friendly than others. Give some thought to how you can bring balance to your itinerary and prioritize experiences that have a lower impact on the environment. Often times these will bring you closer to nature, help you unplug from your electronics, and remind you why reducing your impact and preserving our natural resources is so important in the first place.

What other tips do you have?

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