Traveling is not eco-friendly.
Looking at the data, flying one less trans-Atlantic flight a year is the third most powerful thing you can do to reduce your individual level of carbon emissions.
Or second, depending on how you look at the study, since the “having less kids” in number one only applies to the top 1%.
But that’s on the individual level. Really, only 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Your individual choices to reduce your carbon emissions, while still important, pale in comparison.
And sure, you might live in a city where everyone is forced to start taking environmentally friendly action, but a recent Yale study summarized here says that citywide actions to reduce carbon emissions will not be enough to slow down these impacts. They argue that we need change at the national level. So if entire cities committing to reducing their emissions is not enough to make a strong impact, why would your individual sustainable choices?
But most of those posts don’t go into that. They are largely about buying certain products. If they talk about sunscreens that don’t contain harmful ingredients to coral and bodywashes without microbeads (which are already banned in the US anyway)– that makes a lot of sense. Buying carbon offsets can make sense if you think about it like “hey, I reduced as much as I can but still would like to be closer to carbon neutral” not “I can travel freely and excessively because I’m going to dump money into offsets and feel like a good person”. Plus many airlines are offsetting their flights independently anyway- thanks to the UN.
Buying reusable products is where most of the focus is, yet it’s more nuanced. Reducing the amount of single use plastics you use is important because it creates less waste. Or at least it sounds like that makes sense. According to this study, using a single plastic bag once and then reusing it (for example, as a trash bag- go first gen immigrants!), could be the most environmentally friendly thing- since so many resources go into making reusable paper or cloth bags, only paper bags biodegrade, and most people don’t reuse all 30 of their cloth bags enough to offset the resources that go into making them. So reuse your reusable stuff instead of buying more!
If you’re worried about plastics in the oceans or beaches, then you should be worried about proper waste management. For example, even though the US by far uses the most single use plastics, plastic waste from the US makes up only 0.9% of plastic waste in the ocean. It’s because of the lack of proper waste management infrastructure in other countries that there’s so much plastic floating in the ocean. You can bring your reusable water bottle, but if you forget it on a bus in a place that mismanages its waste, you’re likely still responsible for stuff going in the ocean. I mean, plastic sitting in landfills is not good either. And cigarette butts in the ocean are more of an issue than straws in the ocean. But no one cared until the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose.
Anyway, proper waste management is, again, really a government or corporate level issue. They also have the power to ban single use plastic bags/straws outright, which many cities who are working towards zero waste do already. But somehow, smoking cigarettes and leaving them on the ground is still trendy.
Posts that don’t go over these nuances are just plugs for capitalism, not attempts to address how we as travelers can actually have a strong impact on the environment. “Buy these bamboo straws, and you can save the planet” ignores the issues above of resourcing, reuse, waste management, and its low impact on the larger issues that the environment faces, like the fact that the planet is heating up. And how many resources go into delivering it to you? Does it balance out with reusing the straw?
Your choices to buy eco-friendly products and tours, and stay in eco-friendly lodges are still important, though, because it sends a message to companies that this is important to consumers. And spreading awareness to other travelers helps increase the movement, getting more people to start thinking about their choices to the environment.
But if being an eco-friendly traveler means you buy reusable products, but still fly 20 times a year or vote for people like Donald Trump, then you are not being eco-friendly.
So what can you do?
There’s the obvious “fly one less trans-Atlantic flight.” If you are that person who’s lucky enough to fly tens of times over the year, try cutting back. You don’t need to decrease the amount of time you spend in new places- you could try traveling locally by bus or bike more often, or grouping your trips so that you are making the most of your time there (like, fly to Europe once and spend two weeks there, instead of flying to Europe four times a year for a few days).
If you’re already only able to go abroad a few times a year, I don’t think you should feel guilty to reducing it. Traveling is important and enriching, and like stated above, your individual actions aren’t as impactful as national actions- especially if you’re not the excessively consuming class who fly a multiple times a month.
And if you really care about the environment, not just trendy consumerism, you need to vote for climate focused leaders.
Note: This is coming from a US perspective, the country with the second highest carbon emissions, most plastic waste, and also the country that ever since January 2017, has been moving backwards in terms of national level actions to address climate change. Climate change denying leaders keep getting elected here. People from other countries are doing a lot better though, in which case, yeah- just buy those bamboo straws, you’re doing great! It’s probably harder to travel by plane less in, like, New Zealand anyway.
You need to vote, engage your friends and family to vote, or support organizations to get out the vote for politicians who will make a commitment to tackle climate change. They exist, just not on the party of white nationalists (who else remembers 2008-2016 when we made plans to raise fuel emission standards, limit the amount of coal pollution that goes in our water, and join the Paris Agreement- all of which are no longer true in 2018).
We need change at the corporate and national level. If you’re able to, go to protests, organize rallies, attend town hall meetings, write to your congresspeople. Make your crazy family members stop supporting right wing extremists who deny climate change. Get your school or city to divest from fossil fuels, volunteer at beach cleanups, raise awareness when you go places that these issues are happening. It’s harder than buying bamboo yoga mats, for sure, but it’s a much more impactful choice. The environment will thank you.
If you want to be a more eco-friendly traveler, reduce, reuse, vote, and stay engaged.
Agree or disagree? The environment is a complex issue, and I’d love to hear your thoughts- let’s talk more in the comments section!