The Challenge of Traveling Green

I grew up in a family that goes places. My Jamaican parents met and married in London and raised my younger sister and I in Britain, Jamaica and Canada and now she and I live in the USA. My aunts and uncles and cousins are fortunate enough to be able to connect no matter how far apart we are. And like so many people I have friends and family scattered about the planet who I dearly love and thus love to visit.

I’m also a wanderer. I’ve always been one to go to foreign places — whether domestic or international — on my own and on a whim and on a dime. And as a remote worker, who is always on the hunt for a travel deal (thanks to Skyscanner, Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal), I am bounded only by my teaching schedule as to what day I get on that plane or take that train, bus or automobile.

But as someone who is a die-hard greenie I feel conflicted about the impact of my travels on the environment. I am a yellow/mellow — brown/down, dry my clothes on a rack, recycler and composter, glass instead of plastic, organic, locavore, Sierra Club-member kind of greenie. I love being out in the great outdoors. I kayak and camp and sail and hike and stand up paddle board and even got certified as a scuba diver. So I care about keeping water clean because I like to be in it. The trees matter to me because I love seeing them, being among them and I like how they clean my air. I recently gave up my car, and am a huge fan of uberPOOL, but it doesn’t mean I never drive. I still need a car to drive across Montana to get to Glacier Park after flying on a plane that pollutes.

So how do I reconcile my love of travel and my desire to care for the planet?

First, I care about how I go. Some methods of travel have been shown to be more destructive to the planet than others. Cruise ships have been maligned for dumping sewage into the ocean and generating tons of garbage, though they have been taking steps to change that image. They also generate lots of garbage and the impact of dumping thousands of people into a city for one day has caused cities like Venice to fight back with regulations that limit how many ships visit the city. Planes also pollute and I wince when flight attendants don’t separate the garbage they collect. As much as possible I use public transit while on the ground (I recently gave up my car) and when I’m not in the air I try as much as possible to ‘live green’ in an effort to ‘net-zero’ my travel carbon footprint. Speaking of footprint, so much of my traveling involves walking as it’s the best way to explore a locale. It’s also a great way to burn off the calories I collect from sampling the food.

2. I care about where I stay. I choose eco-friendly places as much as possible. I like hotels that brag about how they care for the planet but these days I’m mostly at Airbnbs so no housekeeping for me. When I do stay at hotels, I skip the house-keeping and re-use my towels and glasses.

3. I minimize my waste. I drink tap water as much as possible to limit my use of plastic or glass and if I have the choice I choose glass or cans. I bring my own tote bags to carry my purchases.

4. I eat local. Enjoying the food of a country is one of the joys of being there. So buying imported food runs counter to that. This also means that if I’m inland I opt out of seafood. And when buying food I prefer to buy unpackaged and as close to the food supply as possible.

5. I buy souvenirs made from local and sustainable materials and follow local laws about what is legal to buy and transport out of the country.

As a frequent traveler and digital nomad I have to own the negative impact that my flights have on the planet that I love so much. And I know there is more that I can do to assuage my environmental conscience as I wander about the planet. One of those things is to choose airlines that best suit my tree-hugging sensibilities, so I am doing research in that area.

Ultimately, I am only one traveler and the little I do is not enough to make a big impact. But my hope is that by engaging in conversation with other travelers, and advocating with vendors to do more, travelers will become more conscious of the choices they make, and the impact they have on the environment as they roam around the world.