I cringed at the overflowing trash bin of empty plastic water bottles as I set yet another one on the floor next to it. Unfortunately, I had no other option — the hotel’s filtered water dispenser wasn’t working and I needed water — lots of it.
It was the first night on a 12-day trip to Turkey and I was feeling all the symptoms of a horrible cold. In a desperate attempt to flush out toxins, I opened yet another plastic bottle — and cursed myself for enlarging my own carbon footprint.
As I lay there — laden with sickness and guilt — I thought about how my newly-created mass of single-use plastics contributed to the detriment of our planet. I added that to the impact of the 10-hour flight I had just taken from New York City. Sure, I had forced myself to travel with just a carry-on to lighten the load, but still, my carbon footprint wasn’t looking great — and it was only day one.
In the age of a global climate crisis, we often hear that travel is one of the worst ways individuals wreak havoc on our precious planet earth. In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we need to take serious action by 2030 or it may be too late to reverse the damage. But logistically, we can’t all sail across the Atlantic Ocean like Greta Thunberg, so does that mean we should give up travel altogether? “It’s a looming deadline and thinking about the consequences can be scary,” Impact Travel Alliance Founder and Executive Director, Kelley Louise, said.
“Cruises and airlines are the two top carbon footprint contributors in the tourism industry and it’s important to take that into account when we’re planning a trip. But that doesn’t mean we should stop traveling entirely. Rather, it’s about taking steps to become more eco-conscious.”
Book Travel Mindfully
Although it’s tempting to grab the cheapest vacation package or flight, we have to understand the true cost of our travel choices.
“Taking a direct flight, opting for a slower style of travel (such as a train), or choosing to visit a closer destination are all ways we can reduce our carbon footprint,” Louise said.
According to NASA, 25% of emissions are released during take-off and landing, so cutting down on flight segments lessens the impact. Additionally, there are also tools to easily make the most eco-friendly choices. Louise suggests using Skyscanner to book flights labeled as “Greener Choices.” Goodwings, which calculates in carbon offsets for hotels, and Wayaj, which has a carbon footprint calculator with an eco score, also help you estimate the amount of impact. If those don’t lead you to the right options, there are other ways to make better travel choices.
“Book with eco-friendly hotels and tour companies that are transparent about their marketing and green initiatives,” Louise added. One such business is global small-group travel company Intrepid Travel, which has been committed to sustainable travel since its founding in 1989, and has amplified efforts through its Intrepid Foundation, which was established in 2002.
According to Intrepid Travel’s Chief Customer Officer Leigh Barnes, the company became carbon neutral in 2010 and is currently working to be climate positive in 2020 from offsetting operations by 125%.
They recently launched a monthly subscription service through Offset Earth at only $6.50 a month, which allows people to offset personal carbon emissions by removing 22 tons of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere a year and planting 12 trees, which are matched with another 12 from the company.
“We know travel can be a significant source of global carbon emissions, which is why we’re committed to doing everything we can as a company to reduce our own emissions as well as offset our output,” Barnes said.
Along with other organizations and businesses, Intrepid also emphasizes the issue of climate emergency and is committed to taking actionable steps to preserve natural resources.
“We believe it is our responsibility in the tourism industry to preserve the future of our planet. After all, if we don’t act now, travel to many places around the world will no longer be possible in the decades and centuries to come," Barnes said.
Whether you’re booking a group tour or curating your own trip, a quick internet search can help you make healthier choices for the planet when traveling. Dining at sustainable restaurants, choosing accommodations dedicated to environmental stewardship, and using public transportation are all ways to offset your carbon footprint. All you need to know is what to look for.
“We can all make a difference and we can all vote with our wallets by supporting businesses who prioritize the environment," Barnes said.
Small Acts Make a Huge Difference
Although your booking choice makes a difference, so do the items you use. Whether it's opting to carry a reusable water bottle or using environmentally-friendly sunscreen, there are a lot of little things you can do to contribute to a larger impact.
Barnes suggests packing a reusable shopping bag and reusable cutlery set to minimize the use of single-use items. Major players in the travel industry such as Marriott, Delta, and Alaska Airlines are starting to step up to cut back on plastics too.
“Change needs to come from within the businesses to truly move the needle in the right direction,” Louise said. She points out that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled — and it doesn’t have to do with which bin we put it in.
On a more local level, you might start a trend just by packing consciously. For instance, last spring, I was stopped by TSA on my way to Bermuda. As I did a mental inventory scan of the items in my bag, I couldn’t think of anything that could be suspicious. But then I thought of my handy metal spork that I bought at the Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education in New Taipei City, Taiwan. The handle was curved enough to be used as a butter knife. I pointed to the little pouch, which also held my steel straw.
Sure enough, my reusable utensils were the guilty items. I sighed. I should have thought to just leave them at home — if they weren't confiscated now, surely they would be on the return trip.
“Wow, is that a reusable straw too?” the TSA agent marveled, as one of her colleagues came over to look at it. Their curiosity caught me by surprise, but I told them I had simply ordered my Kleen Kanteen Steel Straw on Amazon and that it came in a set of four with a cleaner for less than $10. They couldn’t believe it was so cheap — and chic.
“I’m going to order a set tonight,” one of the agents said, before putting my pouch of reusables back together and handing it to me. I breathed a sigh of relief — I was saved by eco-consciousness. Sure, my little act may seem small, but every step counts.
Weighing Our Footprints
While your main instinct might be to stop doing something that has negative repercussions, it may be the opposite with travel. We have the potential to increase our positive impact on earth by traveling more when we do it responsibly.
"Although travel is responsible for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is also responsible for a lot of good in the world. Travel allows us to learn about other cultures and everyday lives and challenges. [It] brings income to communities that rely on tourism and makes us more open-minded," Barnes said.
Louise is also positive about the benefits of travel.
“The flipside of the narrative is that there’s an opportunity for an alternative and exciting future. Emerging technology and a regenerative approach offer experiences like carbon-neutral flights, urban vineyards on rooftops, and thriving natural landscapes. We live in a beautiful world and setting goals and benchmarks gives us a way to protect it," she said.
Sometimes it can feel like our seemingly insignificant daily actions don't mean much, but it’s that type of thinking that we need to alter. As for the big question — how guilty should we feel about traveling in 2020? — it’s all about looking at the inherent power we hold as a human race.
“Rather than sitting on a soapbox and telling everyone to stop doing the things we love, it’s more important to advocate for innovation and change. Travel has this wonderful ability to open our eyes to the world around us," Louise said.
"We do not fight for the things we do not know. Without the opportunity to connect with nature, we wouldn’t know how important it is to protect it with everything we have.”