Traveling During the Climate Crisis: How to Be a More Eco-conscious Explorer

Blog post by: Maggie Tuer

Last January, I embarked on an eight-month adventure around Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and Vietnam. The time that I spent exploring these incredible countries was without a doubt my favourite thing that I have done in my life thus far. Travelling to new places every week, living out of a rental car, and booking flights the day of was the exact kind of lifestyle that I had always craved.  Being able to finally set out on this adventure felt truly remarkable. However, being an environmental science student and someone who is passionate about sustainability in all aspects of my life, I could not rid myself of the ever-increasing guilt that my travels were having a negative impact on my carbon footprint and my overall contribution to the climate crisis.

         I would find myself looking around and be absolutely horrified by the waste and emissions associated with my explorations. As a result, I began to document a number of the issues that I found most problematic…

1. Airplane Waste

         On the majority of my flights, meals were served in disposable, plastic containers. Almost all of these meals were accompanied by disposable water bottles. A number of times when I informed the stewardess that I did not need a bottle of water, it was simply thrown out. On top of this, many airlines lacked adequate vegetarian options, with many failing to offer them on the menu at all.

2. Airplane Emissions

         Of course, one of the most detrimental environmental impacts of travelling is aviation emissions. One round trip flight from New York to Europe creates a warming effect equivalent of 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. To put this into context, the average American generates an average of 19 tons of carbon dioxide per year. I knew that this would be an issue going into my months of travels, but I have to say that I was disappointed by the number of airlines that failed to offer a carbon offset program.

3. Disposable Water Bottles

         This was particularly an issue in countries in Southeast Asia due to their lack of access to clean drinking water. Unfortunately, as a result of this situation, almost all water that was provided on tours, in hotels, Airbnb’s, or in restaurants and cafés, came in plastic disposable water bottles.

4. Tourist Impacts on Environment

         I spent the majority of my time away in New Zealand, as I was studying abroad there for almost 5 months. I genuinely have never seen such a pristine and beautiful place – after all, the country’s slogan is ‘100% Pure New Zealand’. Unfortunately, however, I noticed that the onslaught of tourists in National Parks and other conservation areas often led to a significant impact on the natural environment through traffic on hiking trails, wilderness campsites etc.

5. Inefficient Hotel Operations

         This is a critical issue no matter where you are in the world. Many hotels clean their linens every single day, have air conditioning in operation 24/7, and lack effective recycling programs. This was no different in the Southern Hemisphere. Particularly in Southeast Asia with its viciously humid climate, the air conditioning in hotels was constantly on full blast.

         It was certainly easy to feel disheartened by all of these issues, but rather than simply accept this as a sad reality, I tried my best to do everything I could to reduce my own personal impact as a traveller. Here are some of the ways I dealt with these obstacles…

  • Airplane Waste

         When it came to airplane food, I tried to reduce my waste by bringing snacks in my own re-usable containers. I also got in the habit of requesting vegetarian meals 24 hours in advance of the flight. Airlines such as Quantas are much better about using sustainable and re-usable packaging for hot meals, and I made sure to take this into account when booking flights.

  • Plane Emissions

         While aviation emissions are fairly hard to avoid when you need to get from point A to point B, there are a number of things to keep in mind in order to lessen your footprint. Planes expend the most fuel when taking off and landing, so the eco-friendliest decision is to take the most direct flight possible (even if it costs a little more). I also found that travelling by car is not only a sustainable decision but leads to some of the best adventures. Particularly in New Zealand, every glance out of your window provides an entirely new landscape, and any backroad or beach can easily become your home for the night or week.

  • Water Bottles

         This was probably the hardest wasteful obstacle to manage. While it went against every fibre in my being to purchase multiple disposable bottles a day, I quickly found that my guilt was leading me to be extremely dehydrated. It was difficult to find an alternative, sustainable solution. After returning home, however, I spoke with my peers about how they dealt with this issue while travelling in developing countries. I was told that purchasing a life straw or another form of effective water filter can be a great option. Using one of the products, you can simply fill your own reusable water bottle when there is access to running water and can say no to disposables.

  • Tourist Impacts

         In order to avoid being simply another adventurer making a mark on an already significantly altered landscape, I always opted to take the road less travelled. Staying clear of the most heavily utilized paths not only lessens your impact on the environment, but it also makes for a much more enjoyable hiking/trekking experience. At the same time however, I was conscious about always remaining on marked trails, and only staying the night in areas where camping was permitted. While exploring the backcountry can be thrilling, it is not acceptable to put your own adventure ahead of the conservation of the ecosystem that you find yourself in.  

  • Inefficient Hotel Operations

         This one is fairly easy to avoid if you are travelling on a budget. I stayed almost exclusively in hostels and Airbnbs as opposed to hotels, and while occasionally the heat became too much to bear, I predominantly opted for ‘fan only’ rooms to save energy. Additionally, I only did laundry when I felt it absolutely necessary – although I’m sure some of my travel companions would have preferred otherwise!

         I encourage absolutely everyone to get out there and explore everything our incredible planet has to offer. In doing so, however, always try and be as mindful and considerate as possible of the fragility and complexities of our natural world. Happy travels!!

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