Top ten simple ways to lower your travel carbon footprint in 2011

carbon footprintIt’s almost a new decade, and the earth ain’t getting any younger, cooler, or less crowded. As travel enthusiasts (even if it’s via an armchair), there are plenty of small changes we can make that cumulatively have a significant positive impact upon the planet. When you consider the amount of fossil fuels required to fly or even take a weekend roadtrip, it makes even more sense to try and offset that footprint by traveling (and living) mindfully. Notice I don’t suggest actually giving up travel: I’m eco-conscious, not delusional.

Fortunately, the eco-travel industry is exploding (be sure to do your research, to make sure companies aren’t just using the term as a buzzword). If you’re a business traveler who doesn’t have a choice on where you go or stay, there are still a number of things you can do to minimize your footprint. And FYI, there’s a growing choice of eco-gear and luggage available for all types of travelers these days.

While it’s simply not realistic to devote every waking moment to living a greener, cleaner life (I confess I love my car, and I certainly can’t afford to buy green or organic products all of the time), doing the best you can does make a difference.

Below, my suggestions for painlessly lowering a travel carbon footprint, no treehugging required.

1. BYO water bottle
It takes over a million of barrels of oil to fulfill our lust for bottled water in the U.S. alone, and those empty bottles have to go somewhere (hint: a landfill). Buying bottled is also just a waste of money, unless there’s a legitimate reason to drink purified water. Get a BPA-free bottle, and carry it to work, on the road, and in the air. You can even go one further and bring your own filter or iodine tablets, so you don’t need to purchase water at all in areas where the supply is untreated.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Brave Heart]

carbon footprint2. Bring a reusable shopping sack/use Ziplocs
These amazingly convenient little guys convert into stuff sacks and are the size of a deck of cards. Many have clips so you can hook them on your belt loop or day pack. Try ChicoBags or Foldable Bags for fun, practical, affordable options.

Ziplocs have dozens of uses, but one of their big bonuses (especially if you buy the heavy-duty freezer ones; if you can find industrial-strength bio-bags, even better) is that you can repeatedly use them to store snacks and leftovers; just wash, turn inside out, and dry. Now you have a place to put those juicy blackberries you found while hiking, or stash that crottin from the farmers market.

3. Use refillable bottles for toiletries
Who doesn’t love saving money? Whole Foods and other stores of that ilk have bulk body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and soap (often biodegradable/paraben-free) so not only can you top off for under a dollar, but get an earth-friendly product, to boot.

4. Conserve electricity
This is as simple as turning off the light, heat, A/C, or ceiling fan when you leave (you’ll survive the slight increase or decrease in temperature upon your return, I promise). If you’re staying somewhere long-term, unplug devices or appliances when not in use, since they continue to draw energy.
carbon footprint
5. Walk, rent or borrow a bike, or take the bus
Think of it as getting some exercise so you can eat more of the local food. It’s also an eye-opening, and often enlightening experience to travel with locals, or explore a place by foot.

6. Pack collapsible flatware and utensils
I realize not everyone travels with a bowl and spoon when they’re not camping, but travel writers don’t earn the big bucks. I usually end up buying a bag of granola and picking up yogurt or individual cartons of soy milk (which don’t require refrigeration if unopened), so I can cut down on food costs when I’m traveling. I even reuse and carry compostable utensils I acquire from dining out, and stash them in my car and backpack. There are all different makes and materials for collapsible dinnerware; REI has a great selection. As long as I don’t turn into my mother and start slipping half-gnawed dinner rolls into my purse, I think my little habit is harmless.

7. Shorten your showers/turn off taps while brushing teeth and shaving
Water shortage is a life-and-death issue in much of the developing world. At home, practicing water conservation is also important, even if you don’t live in a drought-stricken region. But when you’re traveling? It’s not just courteous, but critical.

8. Pick it up!
Your trash, as well as trash you find during hikes or other outings. At the beach (or lake or river), collect discarded bottles, plastic bags, and other flotsam that can kill or injure aquatic life or pollute delicate marine ecosystems (which ultimately affects human health). I always make a point of doing a beach clean-up during my sunset stroll when I’m on a coastal trip. I keep a couple of trash bags stashed in my car and backpack. If you can afford it, get
composcarbon footprinttable bags, which can now be found at just about any decent-size grocery store, but be aware most are pretty flimsy.

This beach clean-up behavior has garnered me baffled looks and even finger-pointing and snickers in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and of course these items aren’t going to get recycled. But if getting them off the ground and out of sight can temporarily tidy up and preserve the natural beauty of a place, I feel like I’ve done something positive for the planet and the local people.

9. Learn what not to purchase
Ivory, sea turtle products, rhinoceros horn, tiger penis, endangered animal pelts or pets, certain species of plants: just say no. The same goes for shady tour operators. Do a bit of research and talk to fellow travelers to get feedback on what trips or companies to avoid.

I’ve been seduced by slick promotional materials and operators in the past. This would explain how I’ve variously ended up at a squalid Burmese refugee camp (not a “Thai Hilltribe village”) full of downtrodden people who most definitely did not want a bunch of gawking backpackers in their faces; ridden some horses that were little more than walking skeletons; floated on a raft made from endangered wood; seen my tripmates buy drugs off of our guide, and literally had to make a run for it after a clueless guide had us set up camp in a flash flood zone. I realize I’m deviating a bit from the eco-theme here, but my point is, be careful.

For more information on what animal and plant products to avoid overseas, click here.

10. Give back
If I’m headed to a developing nation, especially if I’m doing a trek or other outdoor trip with guides, I pack old clothes and shoes, and donate them when it’s over. Sometimes operators will ask clients for donations if they have anything they’d like to part with. This isn’t greedy, tacky, or sketchy; when you consider what the average Quechua porter on the Inca Trail makes in a year, you can see why your gift of a pair of child’s mittens is important. Bonus: Packing light and donating articles reduces the weight of your luggage, which burns less fossil fuels on the drive or flight home.

I do still feel uncomfortable making unsolicited donations, but one of my favorite travel memories is from a culinary tour I took in Morocco a few years ago. On our final morning, a couple of us collected a bag of clothes, shoes, and toiletries to donate to the poverty-stricken community we’d passed each day on the way back to our accommodation. After seeking out an old woman who was clearly the village matriarch, we used sign language to explain our motive. With a huge, toothless grin, she began passing out items to the crowd that had suddenly gathered around her. They thanked us profusely, and we went on our way.

That afternoon, on our way to the airport, I spied an ancient, wizened Berber man scuffing down the dusty road. He was clad in skull cap and jellaba, and a pair of size 11 running shoes that had belonged to a 5’11 woman in our group. He kept pausing to hold up one foot, then the other, staring at them with wonderment. I have very mixed feelings about spreading Western culture when I travel to developing nations, but if those Air Nikes found a second life and enabled an old man to walk more comfortably, then so be it. And you know, he looked pretty damn fly.

[Photo credits: bags, Flickr user foldablebags.com; bike, Flickr user Pörrö; sign, Flickr user Beau B]