Sustainable travel feels like a political buzz phrase, but is something which will affect future generations around the world.
We’ve been traveling the world for two years and seen places piled with burning trash heaps and those with pristine roads and recycling bins on each corner. These experiences have painted a clear picture of how each country implements environmental practices and which still need help. One thing I’ve learned from traveling the world full-time is that traveling is hard on our environment. The world is an incredible place, but landscapes and oceans from country to country are gradually (or sometimes rapidly) changing for the worse thanks to poor consumer behaviors.
Luckily there’s a practice called sustainable travel, which aims to promote the beauty and diversity of the world (travel) while encouraging travelers to minimize the negative effects of tourism on an area (sustainable). It’s a way of enjoying the world around us while being responsible enough to maintain these places for future generations. Seems like a win-win, right? Unfortunately, a few people practicing sustainable travel isn’t enough.
When you think about, traveling is pretty hard on the environment. the environmental impacts of tourism vary from air and land erosion to increased landfills. Airplanes are responsible for 2% of carbon dioxide emissions (a number which is growing as more people undertake air travel), we use lots of disposable goods and resources while living out of a hotel or AirBnB, and most places on a tourist’s must-see list will distribute paper or plastic materials which litter the streets.
Many countries around the world seem very dedicated to protecting their rare natural resources. We often see video presentations, museums, billboards, and organizations advocating for clean travel and energy-saving resources. These procedures are a step in the right direction to education the general public on sustainable travel and travel’s impact on the environment, but it’s still up to each individual to put low-impact travel practices into place.
The global GDP is rising as travel becomes more affordable, and social media has only helped created a frenzy of must-see places in the last decade. As the world’s population of travel-hungry citizens grows, it’s up to the informed few to make up the difference for those who haven’t been taught how to minimize their impact on the environment.
If you’re ready to take the plunge into minimal waste while traveling read on for our top tips on what to use and how to reduce your impact on the world.
How to be a sustainable traveler
Getting around by air travel is nearly unavoidable, but there are plenty of ways to reduce your environmental impact once you’re on the ground. Follow these tops ecofriendly tips to participate in sustainable travel practices everywhere you go!
1. Forgo the private car for public transportation
This is our #1 trick to reduce our environmental impact while traveling! We will hire a rideshare when necessary, but we first try to find a subway or bus system. As long as the mode of transportation is safe and secure (and, surprisingly, most are) we choose to share a ride with many more people on a vehicle going our way, anyway, instead of renting our own car.
Using public transportation while traveling isn’t just good for cutting down gas emissions, it’s also a great way to learn about and stimulate the local economy. Take the opportunity to observe the local citizens around you and even interact with them if you’re comfortable with the language. It’s almost always a cheaper option than renting a car or using a rideshare, as well, and you can pass some of those savings along in the form of a small tip to your bus driver. Believe me, they will appreciate the action of gratitude even more than the money!
2. Get your exercise on bikes, scooters, or walking
An even better way to experience a new city is to see it by foot, unencumbered by vehicle walls. Many modern cities around the world are currently jumping on the hired foot transportation craze and offer pedal scooters or bikes for mere dollars. Most require you to download an app, which allows you to “check out” a unit and pay for the distance you ride.
Not in an area with rentable Bixi bikes or Lime scooters? No problem. The old-fashioned method of simply walking where you want to go never goes out of style! Keep your camera around to capture the details you would have missed driving around.
3. Carry reusable bags with you
You’re probably not leaving your AirBnB or hostel without a backpack or fanny pack, so just stick a reusable bag inside to carry around with your keys, wallet, and phone. If a reusable fabric bag is too expensive opt for the plastic bag you last received when you forgot your own bag. Use this bag for the small things you end up buying while you’re out, or to even cover the electronics in your bag in case of a sudden downpour!
4. Deny unnecessary packaging
Street shopping is one of the best ways to learn about and enjoy a new city. Don’t feel guilty for indulging in the sweets or souvenirs you pass! Just try to be responsible with the amount of paper and plastic your treat is packaged in.
Some countries seem to take more pride in their level of packaging than others. In Hong Kong, for example, it’s not unusual to see your candy be wrapped in individual pieces of paper, added to a compartment box, wrapped in a larger piece of decorative paper, closed with a sticker, then placed in a plastic bag tied with string. Why?!?!?
Try just saying “NO” to the extras. You may have to accept the plastic cup your bubble tea is presented in, but putting that plastic cup inside a plastic bag? No, thank you. Completely unnecessary!
It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at the amount of tourists who are in too big a hurry to dispose of their cans or bottles properly when on the street. And if no trash or recycling bin is readily available? On the street corner it goes. This not only leads to unnecessary landfill additions, it makes the street look and feel dirty. Trash which isn’t disposed of properly can even lead to illnesses, which will most likely affect those who can afford it least: the homeless.
Instead, stay observant of your surroundings to note any special recycling practices. Put bottles, cans, and paper in their proper places to keep the area looking nice and promote recycling efforts.
6. Support local businesses
Perhaps the best way to ensure the future of a community is to support it’s members. Opt to hire a local tour guide over a company, and eat at local restaurants or food carts instead of international brands.
Putting money back into the hands of local citizens not only helps them sustain their lifestyle, it most often leads to better experiences. A fresh meal prepared with local ingredients will nearly always be better than a burger and fries from a large chain, the insider knowledge from a local tour guide will supersede any agency, and talking with the creator of handcrafted souvenirs will make those trinkets even more special than ones made in China.
If you’re nervous to interact with local people and step outside of the comfort zone you’re probably already stretching, just take a deep breath and smile. They will be thrilled to help you, and only want to know that you have a sincere heart.
Reusable Travel Essentials for Sustainable Tourism
Doing as many sustainable practices as possible is one way to be an environmentally conscious traveler, but the other side of things is to reduce the inevitable waste you incur while traveling. These reusable travel essentials will help lower your impact on the environment!
1. Reusable Grocery Bag
A reusable grocery bag is good for so much more than just groceries! I use ours to pack my second pair of shoes away from my clothes, as a laundry bag for use at laundromats, as well as packed inside my day bag for random shopping trips during the day. It’s an item I almost didn’t bring on my trip around the world, but has come in so handy!
What I love about this reusable travel bag is that it is lightweight but still strong and foldable. It will take up virtually none of the precious carry-on space you need in your backpacking bag, but will still carry what you need while out. It also comes in a variety of fun colors and patterns to help you express your personality!
2. Microfiber Towel Set
A towel set can be used for much more than a day at the beach. Use a beach towel is wonderful, but it can also be a quick blanket on bus rides, a bath towel in hostels, a place to sit at outdoor venues, and more. Honestly, when could you not use a large rectangle of fabric?
This is the travel towel set we bring with us around the world. We use it as cushioning around our electronics when traveling, and for a ton of uses once we arrive at our destination. I love that it is quick drying, lightweight, and has a clip at the end to hang onto things!
3. Reusable Sandwich Bags
Sandwich size bags are one of the products we didn’t realize we’d need so much when we left for our trip. As we started to stay in hostels and AirBnBs we realized we needed to provide our own small containers to keep leftover foods or day snacks, and that they would come in handy when organizing our travel bags. We started buying a box of plastic sandwich bags every few months until I found some reusable ones to use long term.
These reusable sandwich bags have been such a lifesaver, and really help us feel like sustainable travelers! Now we aren’t contributing as much plastic to the local landfills, we’ve reduced our travel weight, and we are saving money and time by not flocking to the store for more bags every few months.
4. Reusable Travel Straws
Saying “No” to plastic straws and their wrappings won’t save the environment, but it is a start. Denying plastic straws isn’t meant to have a huge impact, but it is a great way to send a message to those in power about our consumer habits. If enough people forgo straws business managers will start to take notice, and perhaps order less from their suppliers or end the practice completely. Eventually less straws will be manufactured, which will have a great impact.
It may feel like a hassle to bring your own straws (and cleaner, I hope) everywhere you go, but you’ll inspire those around you to question their own behavior!
These reusable travel straws are amazing. They not only help you say no to unnecessary plastic use, they are collapsible for ultimate space-saving portability, include their own cleaning brushes, a keychain attachment for easy use, and are made of high-quality stainless steal.
5. Reusable Travel Utensils
Plenty of third-world countries bring meals out in to-go style: food piled high on a styrofoam plate with plastic utensils stuck in. What’s even worse is that those pieces end up disposed of improperly, which feeds into the problem of landfill crowding and the spread of illnesses.
One way to combat the unnecessary trash is to politely decline any plastic utensils. This may have to be done with gesturing, but once you get in the habit of carrying a travel utensil set around it’s easy to show it to your waitress to indicate that you don’t need theirs.
What we love about this travel utensil set is that it’s made of bamboo, which is antimicrobial, lightweight, and approved for air travel. Each set also includes a straw and chopsticks and comes in a small, portable case. Perfect!
6. Collapsible Water Bottle
Using a reusable water bottle is probably the most basic travel essential for sustainable tourism. It’s become mainstream to see travelers using their own bottles, but what makes me cringe is the amount of space they are sacrificing for that super cool bottle. When backpacking you want as much available space and the least weight possible. Believe me.
That’s why I’m currently in love with this collapsible water bottle. It’s made of BPA-free silicone which rolls up and ties closed when not in use. How cool is that?! When full it fits 20 oz. of liquid, stands on it’s own, doesn’t collapse when being used, and is leakproof. But once you finish your water on that hike? No need to keep carrying a giant metal bottle!
We hope these sustainable travel ideas and lightweight reusable travel essentials inspire you to be an ethical traveler on your next trip! While every step can help the environment, don’t forget that you’ll also be serving as a valuable example to the travelers around you. When it becomes the norm to bike around and carry your own travel utensils then we will have made a huge difference in preserving this world for future generations!