How to travel more sustainably

Updated 02/10/19

There are certain personal dilemmas that you’ll start to dwell on, as a traveller who wants to save the planet but also wants to see it all. When you’re sitting on your 15-hour flight thinking “I wonder how many trees I have to plant if I’m ever going to balance this out”, trying to be a sustainable expeditioner can feel like a somewhat impossible task.

It’s no secret that there isn’t really such a thing as eco-friendly air travel, and there’s a lot of debate around whether carbon offset schemes are really worthwhile, but there are certain things we can do to try and reduce the impact of globe-wandering. Here are few tactics to take into consideration.

mekong_delta_cambodia

1. Travel by land when you can

Not so relevant to short breaks, but if you’re going on a lengthy trip and planning to visit a lot of countries, try and minimise the amount of time you spend in the air. Buses and trains in most parts of the world will be cheaper and easier to get around with anyway, but if you’re roaming through a number of countries it’s worth taking the overland routes as often as possible to cut down that carbon footprint. Added bonus: you’ll probably get to see loads of awesome scenery out of the window too.

2. Take the cheapest airlines

Alright, so that heading is a bit of a generalisation. But overall, budget airlines like Easyjet are often noted as being more eco-friendly than other operators, in great part because they cram so many passengers in on each flight. VietJet have recently signed an agreement with the provider of the SFC02 ‘fuel efficiency solution’ and Jet2 have bought a whole fleet of ‘next-generation’ energy-efficient planes, so don’t think that taking the cheap and cheerful option is automatically the worst thing you could do.

airasia plane

Airlines like these often have extra fees that discourage flyers from bringing too much weight, and I’ll explain in the next point why that helps make them greener. Flying economy class even on the more upmarket airlines is easier on your wallet AND easier on the planet, and you can remind yourself of that when your legs are squished against the tray table and you can’t get the armrest up.

If you’re thinking ‘but surely any flying is bad’, you might be interested in this article about the carbon footprint of different methods of transport, which notes that for long-haul journeys, economy airlines can actually be more fuel efficient per passenger than overland options.

3. Pack as light as possible

While my post about the art of minimalist packing  was really more about saving your own shoulders and not being a travel-hoarder than it was about being environmentally-friendly, there’s a lot to be said for travelling light if you want to cut down your carbon footprint.

The more weight that any vehicle carries, the more fuel they use to get to where they’re going – cut that backpack down from 15kg to 10kg and you’re reducing fuel consumption AND saving your shoulders. It’s the same logic that says the cheap plane seat is better than the bigger, heavier fancy one with all the extra ‘freebies’. Plus, let’s not forget the whole ‘being smug about your super-light bag’ thing.

backpackers in thailand

According to this list from Yellow Zebra Safaris – more of which I’ve added into this article below – the average baggage limit for the main UK airlines is 26kg. By reducing your luggage weight to 15kg you can save up to four gallons of fuel per trip you take. With just over 21.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per gallon used in a typical flight, you can save up to 86 pounds of CO2 per flight simply by packing 15kg of luggage instead of 26!

4. enjoy the sharing economy

Carpooling, dorm rooms, make do and mend – backpackers often find themselves travelling more sustainably completely by accident, or just because they’re on a tight budget. It’s not to say that if you’re going on a couples’ city break you should book yourself some bunk beds and get sharing that lighting and air con with ten other people, but if  you aren’t taking public transport for any reason then do look at anything from sharing a TukTuk with some other people going your way to booking your Uber with the carpool option. Better yet, find out if your hostel/guesthouse offers free or cheap bicycle hire and cut fuel out of the equation completely.

If you are staying in a hostel, look out for shared food shelves – waste-combatting spaces where as well as saving money by eating abandoned goodies, you can leave behind any food you haven’t used up to save it from going in the bin. Some Airbnbs and other homestays offer a similar thing, and if it combats food waste AND saves you money, what’s not to love?

mai chau cycling vietnam

5. Eat local

It might be tempting if the option is there, but don’t eat at multinational chain restaurants if you could be eating at a local business. Not only is it important to support local economies by doing this, you can also reduce the carbon footprint of what’s on your plate by eating something that’s entirely locally-produced rather than something that may have been shipped in from abroad by a chain that centrally produces its food.

The Yellow Zebra Safaris article suggests looking for restaurants that grow their own produce, or who buy it from local farmer’s markets.

6. Use ocean-friendly suncreams

Or sunscreens, if you’re American. This is a topic I’d never even thought about in the past but which I’ve heard so much about lately: opting for a suntan lotion that isn’t going to poison wildlife.

Apparently, around 14,000 tonnes of suncream ends up in the ocean every year, just from people taking a dip on a hot day. Yellow Zebra Safaris say that “Oxybenzone is found in sunscreen and is one of the worst culprits. It poisons coral reefs in a similar way to how we see everyday pollution – bleaching the coral and disrupting growth and reproductive abilities.

Look for all-natural suncreams and if possible, avoid plastic bottles (for obvious reasons). If you’re not sure where to start, check out this list from Pebble Mag.

eco friendly reef safe suncream

7. Eat veggie or vegan – away and at home

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me hopes the fact I’ve gone vegan might help to balance out some of the many, many flights I’ve taken in my lifetime. Living sustainably isn’t just something to think about when you’re abroad, and let’s face it, adjusting your every day life is going to have a much bigger impact than just taking a few shared Ubers while you’re on holiday.

I’m not about to give y’all a lecture on how cutting out meat and dairy could help to save the planet, but it does bear thinking about.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on the environment, because it lessens not only greenhouse gases, but also global acidification, eutrophication, and land- and water use.” Say Yellow Zebra Safaris.

“Vegans have the lowest carbon footprint at just 1.5 tonnes CO2E (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year, in contrast to meat lovers, who have the highest carbon footprint at 3.3 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. By reducing your meat or trying veganism intermittently you can actively help towards offsetting your own travel footprint.”

vegan vs meat infographic

Image: vegetarismus.ch

If you fly a couple of times a year but you drive regularly and eat meat every day at home, it isn’t the flying you need to be worried about. You might not be inclined to cut out, but everyone can cut down, and it’s the little everyday things you change that do the most to compensate for the impact of flying around the world.

8. Buy recycled, sustainable swimwear

Last, but by no means least, think about those specialist bits of clothing and kit which you take away travelling, which you might put less consideration into than your everyday items. Buying clothes from charity shops and other second hand stores is a no-brainer, but when it comes to swimwear and hiking gear, or other similar things, second hand might not always be as desirable or practical.

If you’re buying new, buy as sustainably as possible. When it comes to swimwear, an ideal option is to support brands like Econyl who take plastic waste from landfill and the ocean, and turn it into great-looking swimsuits and trunks.

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