Someone asked me recently if zero waste travel is even possible.
Only ten days into the New Year (when I’m writing this) and we’re both deeply feeling climate anxiety. Guilt inevitably followed us as we traveled between cities, continuing our hobby that is destroying the planet.
We discussed this blog post about how to handle eco-guilt, then discussed the systematic changes necessary in the travel-sphere to make zero waste and eco-friendly travel possible.
The best part? Most of the technology and the knowledge required to implement these zero waste travel practices already exist. I’m not asking anyone to move a mountain. Zero waste travel is possible; it requires everyone at every level–individuals, businesses, and governments–to just do it.
So here is my vision for zero waste travel and the systematic changes required to get there.
If you’re not familiar with the term zero waste, please read this blog post to understand the concept of zero waste (hint: it’s more than a plastic ban or mason jar).
“Fly shame” is a growing trend of travelers who abandon air travel as a source of transportation due to its high environmental cost. Air travel contributes 2.8% of annual carbon emissions and airline passengers produce 5.7 million tons of plastic waste annually. The airline industry is feeling the pressure of the “fly shame” movement.
There are more environmentally-friendly intercity travel options than flights, such as buses and trains.
My main source of intercity transportation since moving to Belarus is the marschrutka, which are mini-vans that carry about 15 passengers between cities. Belarus is also slowly investing more into their train network, giving customers more options for sustainable transportation. For example, I recently opted for an overnight train from Belarus to Germany instead of a flight.
The Problem with Alternative Transportation Methods
Unfortunately, trains and buses are not available nor convenient everywhere or for everyone. Sailing for one month across the Atlantic Ocean is not an option with only two weeks of annual vacation, for example. Family members living in different countries or parts of the world often have no choice but to fly to spend time together.
Plus, trains and buses are not perfect options because they still emit carbon and use other resources.
In the United States, passenger trains are nearly non-existent. On the routes they do exist, passenger trains don’t have the right-of-way, meaning the train makes frequent stops so that commercial trains carrying timber or other goods can pass. Train travel in the U.S. is frequently as expensive or more expensive than flying.
While the intercity bus sector is growing in the U.S., the country is so vast that it often takes too long to travel by bus.
Additionally, many cities in the U.S. don’t have public transportation options. This makes people reliant on cars to commute. Lack of public transportation adds another financial burden to travelers in the U.S because now they must either be able to afford a rental car or Uber everywhere. Personally, the one additional expense of rental cars or Uber often makes it cheaper for me to travel abroad than to explore my own country.
Guide to A Zero Waste Transportation Sector
While there are certainly more zero waste travel initiatives the transportation sector could adopt, these are the top eight things zero waste travel would have:
- biofuel and, eventually, electric flights
- plastic-free flights, buses, and trains
- electric buses
- more bus routes
- drastically expand the U.S.’ train network, to include every major city and nearly every minor city
- 100% renewable energy trains
- additional carbon tax at gas stations, which would then supplement train fares to make it more affordable for passengers (Germany is implementing this policy in 2020)
- expand the network of electric car refuel stations
How You Can Help
A lot of these policies are beyond the immediate control of citizens. However, you can still make an impact. Here’s how:
- write the airlines you use, encouraging them to use biofuel and invest in research to develop electric flights
- encourage the airlines, trains, and bus companies you use to adopt plastic-free services
- ask the bus companies you use to switch to biofuel and invest in electric buses
- write the bus company if there’s a bus route you’d like added
- tell your senator and local representative that you, their constituent, want a bigger national train network and trains that use renewable energy
Here are ways you can personally make your travels more eco-friendly until the policies listed above are adopted:
- reduce or eliminate the number of flights you take annually
- take public transportation, if available
- drive less
- walk or bike
- pay to offset your carbon emissions (many companies are adding this as a choice at check-out)
- explore more local destinations
- travel slower so that you’re commuting less often between cities
- explore the places close to home
The hotel industry is a multi-billion dollar (and growing) enterprise. Collectively, the hotel sector contributes 1% of global annual carbon emissions. Additionally, the hotel industry is proven to excessively and wastefully use resources such as water and electricity. While the hotel industry’s carbon emissions is concerning, the greatest concern is their wastefulness of resources in general.
Note: It was difficult for me to find data on the complete accommodation sector, including hostels or B&Bs, therefore most of the data here refers exclusively to hotels. However, the information and resources provided can be applied to every type of accommodation.
Hotels have a particularly devastating affect on the local environment in parts of the world without adequate infrastructure to handle the excessive water, electric, and waste.
Some eco-friendly initiatives are increasingly noticeable in hotels, such as asking guests to hang their towels to indicate they don’t need new towels. However, the accommodation should be expected to do more since there’s so much money in it.
Guide to a Zero Waste Accommodation Sector
There are hundreds of ways the accommodation sector can be more eco-friendly, but here are the ten steps I think could have the biggest and most immediate impact.
- Compost. If there isn’t a municipal compost already, the hotels in the area could use their financial influence to work with the local government to establish one. This would decrease the amount of waste the hotel produces while also decreasing the hotel’s expense for garbage production
- Place compost, recycling, and other waste bins in each room and conveniently around the hotel
- Source furniture, linens, paper, and practically everything from secondhand or sustainable/eco-friendly and local sources
- Use 100% renewable energy
- Become zero waste, including serving breakfast with real plates and refillable toiletries instead of mini plastic ones in the rooms
- Instead of having a beautiful lawn, pool, and other wasteful garden standards, offer a community garden for the locals and the hotel to use the landscape for food production, a bee sanctuary, or other use of their land that gives back to the planet
- Source foods for their breakfast and restaurant from local farmers and serve seasonal foods/menus
- Serve only vegan and vegetarian meals, or at least offer a wide-variety of these options
- Donate unused foods to local soup kitchens (or equivalent) to avoid good food from going to waste
- Install energy and water-saving technologies, such as LED lightbulbs, energy-efficient refrigerators, low-water wash machines, and eco-friendly/plastic-free cleaning supplies
Although this was not one of my ten suggestions for the accommodation sector, hotels must consider and implement eco-friendly alternatives at every stage of the hotel construction process, including the planning/design and construction phases. Ideally, they’d renovate an old but existing building before constructing a new building. They can make huge environmental impacts by using eco-friendly construction sources and designing the layout in a more efficient way.
How You Can Help Make Accommodations More Sustainable
Here are ways you can pressure hotels and other accommodations to implement more sustainable methods.
- Write to your favorite accommodation’s manager, CEO, PR, and any other person you can get in contact with and encourage them to prioritize environmentally-friendly solutions
- Speak to the manager whenever you stay at a location to encourage them to make these swaps in person
- If there’s a suggestion box, inundate them with suggestions to be eco-friendly
- Leave comments on social media and share IG stories of ways they’re failing to be eco-friendly
Until there are more options for eco-friendly accommodations, here are some practices you can adopt into your travels now to make them a little more green:
- Skip the hotel and stay in a hostel
- Stay with a Couchsurfing host
- Opt for green(er) accommodation
- Don’t use the free plastic toiletries
- Compost while traveling
- Hang up your towels (to indicate to the cleaning staff that you don’t need a new one)
- Put the “do not disturb” sign up so that the cleaning lady doesn’t switch out your bed linens every day or clean the place every day, using excessive energy, cleaning supplies, and laundry
Zero Waste Travel Activities
Most people think about the environmental-impact of the transportation and accommodation sectors when they consider the impact of travel on the environment. However, the things we do while abroad impact the environment too.
Everything, from the way we eat, pack, and explore, has an impact.
Unfortunately, the impact of museums, tours, and other tourism and recreational-related activities is hard to measure. Therefore, it’s difficult to say precisely how owners of travel activity companies can decrease the environmental impact and natural resource-dependency.
Additionally, a wide variety of businesses can be branded as “travel activities” without being exclusive to tourists (for example, breweries, libraries, and bike rentals). Businesses could argue they aren’t in the travel industry and remove their role from protecting the environment or as a problem to achieving zero waste travel.
At the end of the day, a sustainable existence–in travel and not–relies on people to make “green” systematic changes because it’s the right thing to do.
Guide to Zero Waste Travel Activities
This section could be a separate blog post due to the wide range of activities, so instead I’ll generalize the main goals any travel business should achieve to be more eco-friendly.
- Carbon offset their activities
- Hire locals
- Offer a paperless experience (i.e. tickets, maps, brochures)
- Reuse maps, brochures, etc.
- Reduce or eliminate carbon-producing activities (such as 4-wheeling)
- Be zero waste in the cafe or restaurant
- Sell handmade and locally-produced souvenirs
- Have a “free pile” so tourists or locals can take things they need that other tourists may have forgotten or lost
Let me know what other ideas you have in the comments below!
How You Can Help Make Travel Activities More Sustainable
As with everything, speaking up to business owners is an important step to achieving systematic changes in the travel industry. Here are additional things you can do to make your travels more zero waste and sustainable:
- Avoid carbon-producing activities (such as 4-wheeling)
- Opt for educational experiences
- Ensure the business hires locals as guides
- Opt for a paperless experience (i.e. tickets, maps, brochures)
- Return maps and brochures when you’re done with them
- Seek cafes and restaurants serving food with reusables, or bring your own
- Buy handmade and locally-produced or secondhand souvenirs
- Eat vegetarian or vegan (the app “Happy Cow” is my favorite for finding restaurants with veg or veggie options near me at any moment)
Zero waste travel is possible. It requires a lot of changes to the current system, but it’s possible. This gives me hope for the future and I hope it gives you hope too. We know what has to be done. Together we can get there.
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