Bettering the Environment

How to Travel Sustainably

Written by Lena Milton

Choosing between sustainability and travel can be a major dilemma for those of us who love the planet and also want to experience everything it has to offer. This is your ultimate guide on how to travel sustainably!

girl sitting on luggage reading a map
Photo by Vlada Karpovich

Long-distance traveling is one of the biggest contributors to individual carbon footprints, with international flights causing an annual 3% of global carbon emissions. Even ecotourism, often hailed for promoting conservation efforts, can lead to major environmental stressors and pollution in the very places tourists want to see and protect.

So how do we balance a love of travel with a love for the planet? This article explores different ways we can travel without putting undue pressures on the places we visit.

Sustainable Transit

One of the most important things to look at when we try to travel sustainably is how we travel. Air travel is one of the most harmful things that individuals can do to the environment, with one flight across the Atlantic emitting an average of 857-kg of carbon dioxide. In fact, environmental activist Greta Thunberg recently took a trans-Atlantic boat trip from Europe to America to emphasize the importance of limiting harmful air travel.

Taking a boat across continents isn’t really a feasible option for most of us, so instead, try to find low-carbon flights whenever flying is necessary.

Also be on the lookout for trains as a source of transit. Trains are not only cheaper than airfare, but with European train lines increasingly running on sustainable electric power, long-distance trains are the greenest way to get to your destination.

Supporting Places That Need Your Help And Avoiding Ones That Don’t

Where we go plays a big part in how sustainable our travels are. Some places, regardless of what we do there, simply don’t benefit from tourism. In Hawai’i, extreme tourism has led to severe environmental pollution and degradation, as well as Native Hawai’ians being forced from their homes due to rising prices from the massive tourism industry.

In Peru, Machu Picchu suffers a severe risk of erosion and landslides from the millions of hikers that visit each year, while the Philippines, a major center of ecotourism, face oceanic pollution from tourists leaving trash on its beaches.

Unfortunately, some places no longer benefit from tourism. When we travel, it’s more important than ever to research how our presence will impact local peoples and environments. A recent study has shown that even ecotourism has severe negative effects on the environment when droves of tourists flood into environmental preservations.

Instead, look into traveling to places that will actually benefit from tourism. Many places, like Central Africa and India, rely on tourists to promote conservation efforts and dissuade poachers.

Your presence has an impact, so make sure it’s a good one.

how to travel sustainably
Photo by Oziel Gómez

Green Eating

As much as we like spending our vacations indulging in local foods and fancy restaurants, we may generate a high amount of waste from frequently eating out. The plastic generated from takeaway containers, cutlery, and plastic bags are a major contributor to plastic pollution, and can end up in the environment when we throw it away. Especially when we travel near the coast, our plastic consumption can end up in the water, or worse, in marine life.

Enjoying local foods is a staple of traveling, but we can always do it a little more sustainably. Whenever possible, support local cuisines that offer sustainable packaging for their take-out options, or dine in to avoid single-use plastics altogether.

If you have a kitchen in your travel accommodation, purchase groceries and cook your own meals. This can significantly cut down on single-use plastics from take-out meals, and is a much cheaper option for those of us who like to travel frugally.

Packing Like A Pro

Many of us have used the packing trick at least once before: bring a handful of old, worn-out clothes that you can throw away at the end of your trip to make room for souvenirs.

While this travel hack is great for making sure we have room for new keepsakes, it unfortunately leaves a stain on the local environment. Old clothes break down, leaving harmful dyes, microplastics, and old fabrics to fill up landfills. Depending on where you’re traveling to, that old shirt might not even make it to a sanitary landfill, and could end up in an open landfill or even the ocean.

Instead of trashing your old clothes, bring a small number of quality-tested clothes that don’t need to be tossed. Not only does this reduce waste, but this can help you avoid generating microplastic waste from your old clothes’ microfibers and synthetic materials—materials that can easily end up in the ocean.

Your packing list should also include green alternatives in toiletries. If you’re traveling to the beach, make sure you have non-toxic sunscreen that doesn’t leach into waters and lead to coral bleaching. The same goes for haircare and skincare products that can wash off our bodies and leak harmful chemicals into local waterways.

We don’t have to avoid traveling altogether to make sure our carbon footprints are clean. By traveling with sustainability in mind and being mindful of where we go, we can make sure that we leave our travel destinations better than how we found them.

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Claudia Grimm
Writer and nature lover, I'm a curious gal wanting to share what I've learned in personal and environmental growth. What have I realized the most? Small steps make big impacts!

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