Confessions of a Conflicted Traveler

My attempts at being a conscientious conservationist in a world of convenience-based consumerism.

I consider myself fairly environmentally aware and consciously take many actions to help rather than harm the environment. Over the past year, I have become increasingly aware of how harmful plastics are to the earth and how much waste we, as a society, create.

In my family, we are taking conscious steps to do better — like using glass straws, using mesh bags for produce and bulk foods when grocery shopping, remembering our reusable grocery bags, and purchasing less items that are packaged in plastic. We recycle all that we can — having small bins throughout our house that we empty into a large, blue rolling bin that we take to the curb for pick-up every other week. The more I learn about the harm humans inflict on the environment, including wildlife, the more I try to incorporate fairly simple ways of offsetting my family’s impact.

It’s sometimes sad and depressing feeling that what I can do is just a drop, not even in a bucket, but in an ocean, of what needs to be done. Still, I do my part, because if many of us do the right things, it does make an impact. Even more importantly, those values become community values, and our children’s values, and then the norm for what is expected. (Yes, there’s lots more to say about that, but not right now.) I hope that by taking my own container for left-overs into restaurants and putting my produce into my own mesh bags at the grocery store, I am raising awareness while doing the right things.

Harsh Reality

While traveling cross-country earlier this month, I realized that I have an expectation of being able to do the right thing. I live close to Portland, Oregon — a very “green” city. We travel mostly to neighboring states and provinces that are also quite earth-friendly. So, after flying and driving all day to reach our destination in Virginia, I was shocked by the lack of recycling bins in our hotel room. I then looked to see if there was a sign about conserving water and hanging up the towels if you wish to reuse them rather than having them changed. I didn’t find one. (Ends up there was one, it was just not very visible.) On the plus side, the shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion were all in wall-mounted refillable containers. That made me happy.

After listening to the heater/AC fan run all night (found out it cannot be turned off — huge waste of electricity), we headed to the hotel’s breakfast buffet. We were met with a decent variety of foods, but only plastic cups, bowls, plates and utensils with which to enjoy them. As in our room, there were no recycling bins. Everything gets tossed into the garbage. The coffee cups were paper, but just like with most coffee cups, they have a plastic layer that prevents them from being recyclable. At least we had purchased reusable coffee cups the day before for use during our trip and beyond.

Reusable coffee cup in hand, we headed to my wife’s parents’ house. Visiting them was the purpose of our trip, so we knew we’d spend a lot of time at their house, and going to some touristy activities in their local area. As I am quite into environmental issues, eventually the topic of recycling came up, and my mother-in-law admitted that they don’t recycle.

At first I was shocked by her confession, but then she told me they didn’t have a recycling program. What?! How could that be? This wasn’t a small, backwoods town. I saw all the usual trappings and storefronts of any suburban area and couldn’t believe there wasn’t some kind of recycling program.

An online search told me that there was indeed a recycling program. All you had to do was sort your recyclables at home and drive them to a central location. Ugh. No curbside service. This was outside of my reality. An easy-to-use program is the only practical way to implement residential recycling — most people are too busy, too lazy, don’t have an appropriate vehicle, or are not physically able to go through the hassle of taking their recyclables to a distant location. I realized how fortunate I am to be living in an area that makes doing the right thing easy.

As the days of our trip passed by, I was constantly confronted with more and more single-use plastic waste dilemmas. The internal conflict of conscious conservationist versus wonder-filled traveler eager to enjoy my trip weighed heavily. Had I been in a third-world country, I would not have expected the conveniences of home, but within the US, I actually did expect them and it saddened and frustrated me not to find them.

Purchasing a sandwich from a grocery store couldn’t be done without buying the plastic container it was packaged in. Condiments everywhere seems to be served in single-use plastic containers. Even some cafes we visited served meals on single-use plastic plates. Straws were always provided unless I was fast enough to say, “No straws, please.”

Just a few days into our trip I realized I felt guilty about traveling and generating waste that I would not be otherwise.

I felt like another cog in a horrible, gigantic garbage-producing machine that had run amok.

As we moved from Virginia to Washington, DC, recycling containers were more prevalent and our hotel offered the option of choosing from polystyrene (Styrofoam) plates or reusable hard, plastic plates in its breakfast buffet. At least we could choose not to use the disposable plates.

Our trip home was via Amtrak. It was a wonderful experience, but even there, I experienced daily guilt as the dining car served every meal on single-use plastic, with plastic cups and utensils. I watched as each meal was cleared, with all items on the table, including the paper “table cloth” got shoved into garbage bags. In the passenger cars, the only bin I saw labeled as recycling held a mix of everything from garbage to used towels due to a lack of other containers for such things, so I didn’t hold much hope for my water bottles actually being recycled.

Everywhere we went I was confronted with the ugly reality of rampant convenience-driven consumerism.

My Solution

I loved traveling, but I hated contributing to the plastics problem while doing it. That means a few things for me. First — be better prepared next time. We can pack camping plates and sporks, and take our reusable coffee and cold beverage cups. This means less room in our luggage, but it will be worth it. Next — I want to continue spreading awareness to friends, family and anyone who will listen about easy ways to stop contributing to the huge waste problem we have created. Last — I want to become more educated and find ways to get involved in solving the problem of plastic waste on a larger scale.

As a start, I have just discovered a wonderful website called My Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry and purchased her book called Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. I look forward to learning more and increasing my own commitment to the war on plastics.


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