It’s the year that the Swedish concept of flygskam, or flying shame, hit headlines around the world. Now, it’s November and time for holiday travel. Unfortunately, you might feel like you’re choosing between hurting the environment and hurting Grandma’s feelings. If you find yourself traveling this time of year, here are some zero-waste tips to take the edge off your travel shame.
Planning for zero-waste travel
A green trip starts with good planning. If you’re traveling by plane and/or staying in hotels, check out their sustainability policies. Airplanes use a staggering amount of plastic, which they mostly don’t recycle, but some carriers are striving to improve. Air France pledged to switch out 210 million single-use plastic items with sustainable alternatives by the end of this year. Qantas is ditching single-use plastic by the end of 2020. Alaska Airlines traded plastic stirrers for ones made of bamboo or white birch.
Consider buying carbon offsets. Because flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, carbon offset programs aim to balance human destructiveness by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gases, such as planting trees or improving forest management. Several airlines offer this option.
Most hotels post info about their sustainability efforts on their websites. You can also opt to stay in an Airbnb or similar, where you’ll be able to cook your own food and eat on reusable plates. Learn more about sustainable hotel resources at Green Key, Green Traveler Guides or Kind Traveler.
Don’t forget to prepare your house for travel. Eat, freeze or give away perishables. Unplug lamps and other small appliances. If it’s plugged in, it’s sucking energy. Turn the thermostat down — but not so low that the pipes will burst if you live somewhere cold.
Packing for zero-waste travel
In a world of disposability and access to cheap stuff, it’s easy to throw something away when it is only slightly damaged. I was going through security in Canada when the agent wanted to look in my backpack. The zipper stuck because of loose threads around a rip. I said, “Oh, I have to get a new one … or maybe sew it.” I truthfully had no intentions to do so.
She looked at the tear and said, “It’s a good backpack. You should fix it.” Of course I should! I’ve sewn that tear a couple of times now (I’m obviously not that good at sewing), and the backpack is still traveling with me. Aim to repair, not discard.
Most travel experts advise packing lightly, both for ease of travel and to keep weight down on airplanes. I’m more of a medium packer, because I know from experience that if I travel too light, I’ll buy more stuff while traveling.
Capsule wardrobes have garnered a lot of press lately as a light packing strategy. This is a set of clothes like tops, pants, skirts and sweaters that can be endlessly mixed and matched together, often in a neutral palette like tan, gray, black and white. If you go neutral, consider including some bright scarves or big necklaces to rev up your look.
Pack reusable versions of things that get trashed the most while traveling. Freelance travel writer and animal advocate Lavanya Sunkara said, “I always bring my S’well water bottle, so I never have to purchase a plastic water bottle, plus it keeps the water cold for a long time. I just decided to bring my own coffee mug as well as some non-disposable forks/spoons for the road. I also bring my own soap, shampoo and conditioner in reusable bottles.” For even lighter packing, consider shampoo bars. Don’t forget to pack a reusable bag for grocery shopping or souvenirs, too.
Some countries have great train service. In most regions of the U.S., trains are infrequent and cost-prohibitive. However, if you have the time, live in a busy train corridor or are traveling a short enough distance overland, look into trains and buses. People in the Northeast have more trains to choose from. New bus services like Flix Bus, Bolt and Megabus are trying to make bus travel more pleasant; even Greyhound has on-board Wi-Fi now.
Consider whether you’ll need a car at your destination. If you’re going to a city with decent public transportation, a bike share program, walkable areas and/or plenty of cabs and ride-share services, maybe you can forego a rental car.
If you find yourself soaring through the skies in an airplane, avoid the so-called “service items” — i.e., trash. You brought your own water bottle, right? Well, fill it up at the airport (after you’ve made it through security) so you won’t have to waste cups on the plane. Bring your own snacks and say no to straws, napkins and ice.
Minimizing waste at your destination
Think how you can be most environmentally conscious at your destination. If you’re snorkeling in the tropics, use reef-safe sunscreen. If you’re strolling the streets of Paris, sit at a sidewalk cafe and drink out of a real cup, rather than getting a disposable cup to go. Travelers doing their own cooking in an Airbnb kitchen can shop for ingredients at farmers markets or in the bulk sections of grocery stores to minimize packaging waste.
One of my biggest sources of eco-shame has been using plastic bottles while visiting countries where waterborne diseases are prevalent. But Terry Gardner, an inspiring sustainability warrior who writes for the LA Times and other publications, has convinced me to try a SteriPen next time. “I’ve used a SteriPen in China, Mexico and twice in Peru,” she told me. “I’ve also used it to purify water from lakes in the U.S. I like the USB one that is rechargeable. In China, where we were encouraged to drink bottled water from single-use plastic, I refused and used my SteriPen. I felt good about avoiding the plastic and remained healthy. In Peru, the SteriPen worked great in Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu, but I couldn’t use it in some places in the Amazon where the water was polluted by hazardous waste (I think it was uranium or some mining byproduct).”
In keeping with the zero-waste ideal, Gardner advises, “One of my most important sustainable travel tips is focused on trying to treat every place like a national park — do your best to Leave No Trace.”
Depending on your destination and the length of time you’re staying, considering volunteering in some capacity. Maybe instead of trashing a place, we can learn to leave it just a little bit better.
Images via Shutterstock and Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat