I've got another trip over the Tasman coming up in a couple of weeks. Every time I click 'confirm and pay' during online checkout, my eco-conscience has a little wobble. No matter how hard I try to manage my carbon footprint, I often make certain lifestyle choices that make me wonder if a handful of large footprint actions aren't blowing my credentials out of the water. For me, this mostly boils down to driving a car to work, air travel and mostly unavoidable food miles.

My own personal challenge comes from living remotely, in a big country. This makes me pretty much dependent on big footprint resources to be able to get around, and eat. This is a larger back story and a subject in its own right -  but presuming you're also the kind of person who loves the planet and enjoys getting out and seeing some of it, what green travel choices can we make to reduce the impact that living out of a suitcase can bring about?

What's your carbon cost?
Using an online carbon calculator, I've worked out this trip will set me back around 1.93 metric tons - a big chunk of the average 17 metric tons per person for Australia (which, on a global ranking, is already massive). There are a lot of websites that can help you calculate and offset the carbon emissions from your travel (including the option to offset your carbon when you buy your plane ticket) - and depending on where you're traveling to, you may have the option of less carbon hungry transportation. The main resource for people out there who want to offset carbon is via tree planting  - which is always a good idea, but for this to be a truly effective solution they need to be long-lived trees that form part of a healthy ecosystem. However, there are other options that you can do in your own time that are also worth considering. For example, taking some time out to collect trash out of the environment and sending any recyclables off to your depot can earn you a bunch of carbon brownie points - recycling cans uses 1/12 of the energy to make them from raw materials and you can save 315kg of CO2 per tonne for recycled glass. You could also pay it forward by supporting microfinance loans such as Kiva and help people in developing countries with small loans that can help them offset their own carbon emissions.

What you bring:
A refillable water bottle and a few lightweight shopping bags will go a long way towards helping to avoid some unnecessary plastics during your travels, and while you'll need to have an empty water bottle to pass through airport security, many airports have water filling stations you can use before you board the plane. Avoid the temptation to pack everything but the kitchen sink and reduce the weight on airlines to do your little bit for lowering fuel consumption. It's tempting to pack right up to the weight limit but if you've gone on even a handful of trips, you'll quickly figure out that you rarely use a good portion of what you packed. Other useful accessories to take along include a lightweight cutlery set, a travel cup, a couple of bowls and containers as well as rechargeable batteries for torches, cameras and the like. I still have a memory burned into my brain of a fellow traveller I met during one trip who was buying and using cheap and inefficient batteries for his energy hungry digital camera. He was only getting a few hours per set and I watched in horror as he dumped out dozens of dead batteries into the trash at the end of every day. With a little forward planning and a rechargeable battery kit he could have significantly reduced his toxic trash footprint.

What you buy:
I've travelled far enough and often enough to completely get over the idea of buying big on souvenirs when I go overseas - particularly when most of it is mass produced and not even made in the country of origin. Rather than filling up on I Love NY t-shirts or Eiffel tower snowglobes, I prefer to spend more on fewer things and only buy one or two small items made locally - supporting independent artists. The added advantage is that I have a collection of keepsakes that are quite original and quirky. It pays to be very careful when buying anything made of natural products - particularly wood, shell or coral - as the trade in these products may come from unsustainable sources.

What you do:
If you're planning on going on any nature based tours, do your homework first. Many animal sanctuaries that you might choose to visit to see local wildlife could have very poor ethical practices going on behind the scenes. Elephant tours, tiger sanctuaries, backwater zoos - there's a long list of places to be avoided but luckily these days it's pretty easy to use online resources to check if you're supporting something beneficial or not.

Another thing to be wary of is anyone asking you to pay for pictures taken with wildlife. I came across this a lot in North Africa, with the worst moment being when someone shoved a trembling, barely conscious fennec fox into my arms. It's worth considering reporting any practices like this to local authorities - a good place to start is an email to both the department of tourism and the department of the environment for that country, this information is usually easy enough to find online. Nothing may ever come of it, but negative feedback from tourists in large enough numbers can help bring about changes in common practices (plus I have been known to not be above loudly lecturing people who throw mistreated animals in my direction).

Still on the subject of wildlife, no matter how exciting, novel or majestic your exotic international critter may be, always keep a respectful distance from wild animals, even if they do appear to be relatively tame. Avoid feeding any wildlife where possible as well (I say where possible because they're not exactly above stealing your food) as it can lead to a lot of negative effects for their health, behaviour and also for tourist safety. Shout out to our monkey cousins in particular. Monkeys are awesome but will not hesitate to knife you in your sleep to steal your bananas. A monkey's mood changes faster than the speed of viral memes and I've witnessed tourists going from friendly interaction to getting their hair ripped out in a split second.

Lend your support to any local initiatives that are beneficial to the local community and environment. Make a bee-line for low impact eco-tourism that supports local economies, such as green travel ventures, bicycle tours, supporting protected reserves and in-situ breeding programs and buying locally grown food. You could also consider taking some time out to show some love to the country you're visiting; take some bags down to a local beach or camping spot and do a mini clean-up, or take some time out to do some voluntary work on a community project.

Where you stay:
If you're staying in a hotel try and keep your use of resources to a minimum (water, fresh towels, electricity). It's tempting to take advantage of that free selection of shampoos and soaps, but you'll be doing the planet a small favour by skipping the low quality freebies and extra plastic by just using your own. We can all be forgetful and occasionally I will use (and then take) a soap if it's needed, but for the most part I avoid using anything disposable on offer. As travel and the online community evolves, alternatives options also start to blossom. Consider trying some of the increasingly popular services such as Air BnB or check out the couchsurfing scene as a way of getting out of the traditional disconnected tourist bubble. It can also be a great way to meet new people and make contacts.

If you’re drawn by the allure of free camping, either to stretch your dollar further or get off the beaten track (or both), you need to be just as mindful of your impact and your waste – including bodily waste! Having lived as a local in several areas highly favoured by tourists during certain seasons, I’ve seen many common-use or out of the way areas taken over and/or trashed by inconsiderate campers and in some places this has led to a crackdown by local authorities. Living free on the road sounds romantic and adventurous but the collective poop from a steady stream of wandering souls is not.

What you consume:
Where you can, shop at farmers markets, stop by orchards and farms that have a shop and support independent businesses rather than chain restaurants. This isn't always easy and in some countries you have to be more careful about what you eat and drink (as earth conscious as I am, I wouldn't recommend anyone put their health at risk to save buying a bottle of water). Be very careful of consuming any unusual local delicacies, unless you're absolutely certain about what you're eating. One of my friends once quite naively boasted about trying a new kind of animal that went by a local (and not immediately recognisable) name when in Asia. He wasn't too thrilled when I informed him he'd been dining on a seriously threatened species.

What you bring back:
As well as avoiding the usual suspects such as prohibited foods or natural materials that have the potential to cause havoc in your home country or contribute to environmental issues in their country of origin, there are also some things you could consider bringing back that will reduce your impact for that country - namely, your trash. This really only applies to travel in countries that aren't equipped with recycling services, which are also generally the same countries where it can be difficult to avoid trash in the form of packaging waste. This option simply may not be practical if you are travelling for a long time or have been unable to avoid generating a lot of waste, but if it's just a case of a small collection of disposables, pack it up with your dirty laundry, ethical souvenirs and travel memories and pop it into your recycling bin back home.

Hopefully these tips have been useful for encouraging eco-conscious travellers to think inside the green box -  it's turned into a much longer piece than I'd originally planned! I'd love to hear any more suggestions from other earth-loving nomads.

1 comment

  1. I always feel really bad opening up the hot towel to clean your hands before a meal #greenconfessions. IT FEELS SO GOOD