When I fly from New York City to Denver for the Fourth of July, I will be able to spend my time at cruising altitude reflecting on the fact that I’ll be helping melt nearly 14,000 pounds of glacier ice, courtesy of the 430 kilograms of carbon dioxide my trip will emit.
Other than feel guilty or stay home, what’s a prospective traveler to do?
Clearly staying home isn’t good advice: In 2018, the tourism industry grew by 3.9 percent, and the sector is also responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Traveling can offer important benefits, like improving your mental health and reducing stress. Besides, our mothers would kill us.
“It’s not about closing ourselves in and building a wall,” said Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International. “We need to create bridges, and we need people to find solutions for the issues that we’re creating. Just because you’re sitting at home does not mean that you’re not producing carbon emissions.”
Instead of castigating yourself, or burying your head in the sand, there are some practical choices you can make to reduce the carbon footprint of the trips you take. Chances are, you’ve already implemented some kind of sustainability at home, and you can take that mindset with you.
1. Think about how you’re going to get there.
Out of all business sectors, transportation generates the most greenhouse gas, and it’s sometimes an easy way to reduce your trip’s carbon footprint.
If you’re traveling a regional distance and don’t need to fly, compare the efficiency of your transit options by looking at the passenger mile per gallon. You’re usually choosing between a plane or a car, and sometimes also a train or a bus. The International Council on Clean Transportation has calculated the pmpg of planes and trains at a consistent 45 pmpg and 51 pmpg, respectively. Inter-urban buses like Greyhounds clock in at 152 pmpg.
Cars are a whole different ballgame. The pmpg varies not just depending on what kind of car you drive, but also based on how many passengers are in it. Traveling alone in a medium-sized sedan, it would be 36 pmpg (worse than taking a plane). Carpooling with three other people would increase the trip’s pmpg to 135 (almost as good as a bus!).
If you’re traveling to a destination that requires a flight, either because of distance or time constraints, there are some things that you can do to offset your carbon emissions.
Kelley Louise, founder and executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, recommended taking direct flights instead of flights with a lot of layovers for optimal fuel efficiency. You can also look into buying carbon offsets, which will plant a tree or clean up the ocean in your honor.
“When you’re down on the ground, try to take a walk or bicycle,” said Zapata. “Limit riding in cars as much as you can.” If you’re in an urban area, take public transportation.
2. Make less trash.
By now, it’s pretty well-known that plastic floating around the ocean is a problem, and it also contributes to greenhouse gases throughout its life cycle. Avoiding single-use plastics and other disposable items is one of the easiest day-to-day ways to take a more sustainable vacation.
Zapata encourages learning about recycling facilities in your destination. You can find the closest recycling facilities to you as well as how to recycle specific items with a quick search. Bring a reusable water bottle that you can refill instead of buying plastic water bottles.
“Always bring your own reusable bag in case you do any shopping. Always say no to the straw,” said Jessica Blotter, CEO and co-founder of Kind Traveler. “If you’re eating out three times a day and could potentially have three sets of plastic cutlery, just by carrying your own and keeping it clean, it’s a great way to eliminate plastics.”
And if you happen to come across an empty bottle or two that someone left on a beach? Up your travel-karma points by recycling it for them.
“If we all participated and helped clean up trash, we would help keep it out of our waterways and out of our oceans,” said Blotter.
3. Save energy throughout your trip.
A few sneaky, mundane things can make your trip less sustainable.
“When you’re in the hotels, a lot of times, people leave their AC on the entire day,” explained Zapata. “Turn off the lights, turn off the AC.”
Central air conditioning units uses 3.5 kilowatts per hour. If you were to turn your AC off for eight hours while you were out exploring, you would save 28 kilowatts of energy. That’s the energy equivalent of more than two gallons of gasoline, nearly 22 pounds of coal, and charging 2,525 smartphones.
Use your towels and linens for a few days before throwing them in the wash, which many hotels already encourage.
4. Be careful about what you bring home.
Souvenirs can sometimes be a highlight of a trip. The best option is to go for a souvenir that’s authentic to wherever you’re visiting (no factory-made knick-knacks). Still, there are some factors to watch out for.
“When you do buy local artisan products, make sure they are not sourced from animal materials,” said Blotter. “You may be promoting illegal wildlife trade.” Some materials to be on the lookout for? Coral, starfish, fur, ivory, hide, feathers, teeth and eggs are all contributors.
If you find something made out of ivory, definitely save your money. But if you want to buy leather goods from a local craftsman, you’re probably okay.
At the end of the day, it’s really the experience that matters. found that 57 percent of people were happier after making an experiential purchase (like a trip). You can bring home all the souvenirs in the world, but more than likely, it’s the memories that will last.