Frequent traveling has an incredible impact on the world – today we want to be at the other end of the world faster and cheaper, tomorrow we don’t want to do without our favourite products while we travel, and the day after we wonder why there is so much rubbish in the streets. The privilege to roam the world freely and reasonably affordably takes its toll on the environment, and the more I travel the more aware I am of the footprint I’m leaving behind.
Take only photos, leave only footprints – is the idealistic romance of impact-free travel (or at least free of negative impact), but the reality of takeaway coffees, cheap flights and throwaway travel clothes looks different. I didn’t always think so much about my personal impact on the environment, particularly not on my own travels. But over the years experiences have piled up that make it impossible to look away nowadays. There was the article that advised travellers to leave their lights on at home, so burglars wouldn’t know that they were away. People wonder how to pack light and way too often the answer seems to be, ‘just buy cheap clothes at a local market and throw them away at the end of your trip’. And then there is the eternal quest for better deals, cheaper flights, more affordable tours – but at what expense? Somebody carries the true cost of these things, and way too often it is the local people who are not paid fairly for their services, or who have to deal with the rubbish others produce.
We – and with that I mean highly educated travellers from the West in particular – are in the privileged situation of being able to travel, finding ways to do so cheaply, and having been educated about things like global warming and the massive impact of plastic on our eco-system. When we travel, we should not leave our responsibility at home but rather find ways to create a healthier and greener way to travel. Here are a few easy things that everybody can do in order to travel green.
1) Bring a re-useable water bottle…
Always carry a re-useable water bottle with you so you don’t depend on buying plastic bottles. If you are traveling in countries where tap water is not safe to drink, consider investing in a bottle with a filtration system, like the LifeStraw Water Bottle.
2) …and a re-useable takeaway cup
I personally always travel with my KeepCup, especially if I’m going on a road trip as I know I will buy takeaway coffee at some point. I recently found out about collapsible cups, which is definitely on my Christmas list for this year! If you don’t have your cup with you, think twice about it – are you really so short on time that you can’t sit down and drink that coffee from a regular cup?
3) Avoid Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are the worst – and an easy way to avoid them is to simply bring your own re-useable bag with you! I always have some tote bags in my suitcases & backpacks to make sure I won’t forget to bring them along.
4) Embrace Slow Travel
Instead of flying somewhere, could you take an overnight bus or train? Do you really have to go half-way around the world, or is there a destination closer to your home that you haven’t explored yet? Slow travel is the ultimate environmentally-friendly travel lifestyle and on top of saving the planet, you also get to know another culture better than you ever would as a fast traveler!
Imagine you are in a new city and want to get a feeling for its layout and the distances – what is the best way to do that? You are correct: by walking or cycling! Many cities have a public bike rental scheme these days, so it’s not only easy but also cheap to explore the town on two wheels.
6) Go off the beaten path
The environmental impact around major tourist attractions, especially famous natural landmarks, is always greater than in lesser known parts of the country. Think about the number of people that walk the Inca Trail every year, or up on Kilimanjaro – and then find out whether there are similar, but less frequented places you could visit as an alternative!
7) Eat Local
Try to stay away from imported food and instead eat the food locals eat or even grow themselves. Buy local products in the supermarket for your home-made dinner or packed lunches, eat at a street market, and stay away from international restaurant chains.
8) Support Local Everything
Buy from independently owned local businesses, shop for traditional arts and crafts and accept the (maybe higher) prices, as this is after all people’s livelihoods. Show a real interest in how people live and work, and they will probably be happy to open up and tell you more about their culture.
9) Book sustainable tours and experiences
If you want to experience a cultural performance or unique tour, make sure that they benefit the local community. Is the tour operator locally owned? Do they employ local guides? Are they trying to deliver an authentic experience?
10) Stay away from animal tourism & people tourism
Animal entertainment comes in all forms and shapes all over the world, but no matter how you twist and turn it, it is a cruel industry. If you want to see wildlife on your travels and maybe even get up close, have a look into animals shelters or rehabilitations centres as these are usually about educating their visitors rather than entertaining them.
The same goes for people tourism, like tours around favelas or slums – if you can’t do without it, make sure that the tour company you chose does not exploit the local community and puts their well-being before the entertainment of their customers.
11) Choose eco-friendly accommodation and enquire into a hotel’s waste management system
Hotels produce an incredible amount of waste, so I like to find out about the recycling and water-use policies my accommodation follows. But waste management is only one side of the coin. I’m also interested whether the hotel employs the local community, buys local produce or gives back to the place and its people in other ways.
12) Minimise your water and energy consumption
Be aware of how much water you use in the bathroom, switching off the lights when you leave your room or apartment, and unplugging electronic appliances when you don’t use them.
Your home country might literally swim in disposable fresh water (lucky you), but that is not necessarily the case in your holiday destination!
13) Take your rubbish with you
Not littering is a no-brainer – every time I see someone litter in the streets, a little part of me dies. How are people still not aware of this? But there is more to be done than placing your rubbish in a bin – like not leaving a country that is not equipped for recycling with the responsibility to take care of your waste.
When I was in Zanzibar last year I saw numerous signs that asked travellers not to leave any plastic on the island, as the local authorities are not dealing with the waste properly. In cases like this it is better to reduce your waste as much as possible and take it with you until you can dispose of it somewhere where there is a good recycling system in place.
14) Don’t join the throw-away fashion culture
Fast fashion is one of the worst things that has happened to our society. Every time I read about someone who bought cheap clothes somewhere in South East Asia only to throw them away at the end of their trip, I wonder why they don’t think about the consequences of this. Cheap clothes even in SEA are not cheap because they are often produced in factories there (saving on transport costs, ey?), but because they are being produced under terrible conditions.
I like buying clothes that are produced under fair and environmentally friendly conditions. They might be a bit more expensive, but they last much longer than any t-shirt I ever bought from a regular retailer. Two of my favourite online shops with beautiful clothes for affordable prices are Braintree and People Tree.
15) Share your experiences!
It’s great if you become more aware of how to travel responsibly and how to minimise your impact – but it’s even greater if you tell other people about it! You as an individual may only be able to make a very small change, but by spreading your knowledge with others, you nurture a culture of sustainable and green travel that will hopefully become mainstream someday soon!
Are you aware of your impact when you travel? How to you minimise your foot print? Share your top tips and favourite eco experiences in the comments!