How to Reduce Your Environmental Impact When Traveling
“Leave this world a little better than you found it.”
Robert Bayden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement
Do you want to be a good steward in your host country but you’re not sure where to start? Our guests always want to do right by the local community and environment, and we want to make it as easy as possible!
Here are some tips on how to leave the world a bit better than how you found it, with a focus on reducing plastic and other resource consumption. First, we’ll remind you why this is important and we’ll follow up with some easy tips.
Actions We Take For You
We have taken the liberty of reducing your environmental impact in many ways already. We’ve carbon offset your trip three times over, including the flights from and back to your home. We carefully select locally-owned hotels and tour operators that have solid environmental practices.
There are some things you can do before and during your journey to help not only your destination but the entire globe. Armed with the knowledge of how your actions impact the world around you, we know you’ll make meaningful choices!
What’s The Big Deal With Plastic, Anyways?
We all know the evils of plastic—but do we really though? Turns out it’s not just about a sea turtle getting caught in a plastic 6-pack ring.
It’s not a fun read, but we want to give you a quick refresher on why this matters. You’ll learn how plastic pollution hurts human health and dignity, contributes to climate change, exacerbates natural disasters, and kills millions of animals every year. Surely you’ll find at least one reason that resonates with you and inspires you to do your best.
Impact on Human Health
Let’s take a step back, before you even encounter that piece of plastic in the store or restaurant. Creating plastic is an extremely toxic process, and workers and communities near refineries face both chronic and acute exposures during uncontrolled releases and emergencies. (Source)
“99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. The extraction of oil and gas, particularly [fracking] for natural gas, releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, often in significant volumes. Over 170 fracking chemicals…have known human health impacts, including cancer, neurological, reproductive, and developmental toxicity, impairment of the immune system, and more. These toxins have direct and documented impacts on skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems, liver, and brain.”
Ok, now fast forward and imagine the actual plastic you’re familiar with–a soda bottle, a lawn chair, your phone, much of your car. Over time that plastic gets broken down into tinier and tinier pieces, becoming micro- and the nano-plastics.
“The same properties that make plastics so useful — their durability and resistance to degradation — also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break down. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just get smaller and smaller.”
We consume an inordinate amount of plastics, through eating seafood, plastic packaging leeching into food, and other plastic bits making it into our water supply.
“Microfibers were by far the most commonly found type of plastic. Microfibers shed from textiles like nylon and polyester. They often wash off clothes and enter the ecosystem through washing machine wastewater.”
We’re also breathing it in. Burning plastic garbage can release thousands of pollutants. Incinerator workers and people living near these facilities are particularly at risk to exposure. Sadly, these facilities are disproportionately built near communities of color and low-income populations. (Source)
“Microplastics entering the human body via direct exposures through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health impacts, including …cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neuro-degenerative diseases, and stroke.”
Plastic pollution can also have an impact on human health in indirect but powerful ways, too. By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic waste — especially plastic bags — can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria. (Source)
Impact on Climate Change
There are many unexpected ways that plastic is quickening climate change. Consider the following research out of Yale:
- The extraction of fossil fuels and their transportation is very carbon-intensive. Refining those fossil fuels into plastic is also greenhouse-gas intensive.
- The land around the pipelines associated with fossil fuel extraction must be clear-cut. “Assuming just a third of the impacted land is forested, 1.686 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere as a result of clearing.”
- Low-density polyethylene, one of the most common types of plastics found in the ocean, releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down in the environment.
- Microplastics reduce the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis, degrading plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
We mentioned the human health aspect of incinerating plastic, but it also has a huge environmental impact.
“Globally, burning plastic packaging adds 16 million metric tons of GHGs into the air, which is equivalent to more than 2.7 million homes’ electricity use for one year… These estimates only account for plastic packaging, which represents 40% of whole plastic waste stream.”
Plastic pollution can also exacerbate the impact of natural disasters. The floods in Bangladesh in the late 80’s and 90’s were made more severe because plastic bags clogged storm drains; the government has since banned plastic bags. (Source)
Impact on Animal Welfare
At least 8 million tons (that’s 16 BILLION pounds) of plastic end up in our oceans every year, making up 80% of all marine debris. (Source)
Over 100,000 marine animals are found dead every year due to plastic entanglement–and those are just the ones that are found. One million sea birds die annually due to plastic pollution. (Source)
From National Geographic:
Most of the deaths to animals are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. …Plastics have also been found to have blocked digestive tracts or pierced organs, causing death. Stomachs so packed with plastics reduce the urge to eat, causing starvation.
Plastics have been consumed by land-based animals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals, in some cases causing death.
We have seen firsthand how desperately hungry cows and street dogs in South Asia are affected by mistakenly eating plastic bags. We work with vets who routinely have to remove pounds of plastic out of the stomachs of cows—the ones lucky enough to get help.
To add insult to injury, “A plastic bag can kill numerous animals because they take so long to disintegrate. An animal that dies from the bag will decompose and the bag will be released, another animal could harmlessly fall victim and once again eat the same bag.” (Source)
In addition, floating plastics contribute to the spread of invasive species around the world, as marine organisms and bacteria hitch a ride around the globe on the currents. (Source) (We should point out that the photo at the top of this page is one we took of microplastics lining a beach on remote Easter Island. While it’s not the only time we’ve seen plastic end up very far from home, it was the most heartbreaking.)
We’re even managed to coat bees in plastic, for goodness’ sake.
There are some easy way to reduce your plastic consumption when you are on vacation, but the first thing to pack is a proper mindset.
When we go on vacation, we’re hesitant to deny ourselves anything (I am definitely in that club!). Multiply that by a hundred when something is F-R-E-E! But, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or a free toothbrush).
When faced with “free” goodies at your hotel, we’d ask you to reframe that thought. That plastic comb, that tiny bottle of shampoo actually have come with a great cost. Instead of thinking, “I deserve this,” instead ask “Does the planet deserve this?”
When reading the suggestions below, it’s OK if you don’t follow 100% of these tips 100% of the time–every little bit of effort counts. Also, don’t feel overwhelmed: pick a few tips and go forward with those.
How We Can Reduce our Plastic Consumption
“Alright!” you’re saying, “I get it, I get it! But what can I do?” Here are some tips to get your started–some you’ll be very familiar with, some might be new to you.
It’s really just about increased awareness and snapping out of “automatic.” Perhaps you’ll have an “Aha!” moment that sticks with you. For me that was a few years ago when we were staying in an Airbnb in Cambodia. I went to the supermarket to buy hand soap, and I bought the usual plastic pump bottle and brought it back and set it next to the sink. I suddenly realized I could have done just as well with a bar of soap packaged in paper! I had been buying on “automatic,” but with a little effort and mindfulness, we can all switch to “manual”!
Bring Your Reusable Water Bottle
This is probably one you definitely know already! Many of our destinations have 5-gallon water jugs you can refill your own bottle from; we’re working to make that available in all of our destinations.
In case you can’t refill from a 5-gallon jug, there are still more eco-friendlier options than using small water bottles. You can get the largest bottle of water (like a 1 or 2-gallon jug) to keep in your room and refill from there, or you can purify tap water with a device like a Steripen (BJs favorite), a collapsable filter like this (my favorite), or use a combination filter/water bottle like these.
Bring Your Own Toiletries
Those little shampoo and soap bottles add up! in the United States alone, 550 million empty shampoo bottles are thrown away each year–and that’s not counting condition or body wash. (Source)
Invest in some travel toiletry bottles and then fill them up with your favorite brands from home. Keep in mind you actually have to re-use them for this tip to work and not just buy another set for your next vacation! We like these bottles; they’re still plastic, but they’re thin and hardy.
Ditch the Bottle Altogether
Some people prefer to use shampoos, conditioners, and body soap in bar form. Not only does this save on packaging, but it saves on fuel during transportation because the products are so light. Did you know that shampoo is up to 80% water? That makes for heavy shipments! Ethique is a popular brand.
If You Do Use the Toiletries…
- Opt for the wrapped bar of soap over the plastic bottle of body wash.
- Use that same bar soap for your sink and your shower, no need to open more than one for just a day or two’s stay.
- If you do use a bottled toiletry and don’t finish it, don’t just leave it—bring it to the next hotel and finish it there (then you can leave the next one untouched!)
Bring Your Own Toothbrush and Comb
I fully understand how tempting a brand new toothbrush is—I really do—but please do your best and resist that urge, which introduces so much plastic waste into the local environment.
Avoid Bringing Individually Wrapped Toiletries
These days you can find sunscreen, insect repellant, moisturizer, and all kinds of goodies in individual, single-use plastic packets. Consider if might make more sense to bring an entire bottle of that product instead of so many ”single servings.”
Boycott Unnecessary Packaging
Check out this small roll of emergency toilet paper packaged in a hard-plastic clamshell. Granted, it’s a more elegant presentation than the wadded-up Kleenex in my pocket, but Howdy Doody, that’s a lot of plastic! Before you support any company with your hard-earned money, make sure they’re not making awful packaging choices such as this. (And you don’t need to bring toilet paper on tour, we promise!)
Unwrap Things at Home
If you buy new products with packaging, take off as much packaging as you can before you leave home. Yes, the plastic waste still exists, but no need to make it our kind host country’s problem.
Ditch the Plastic Razors, Picks & Q-tips
While you’re at it, ditch anything plastic and disposable that you can, especially those plastic dental floss picks! Also, if you’re a Q-tip user, make sure you’re getting ones with a paper handle, not plastic.
Break Free from “Freebies” or “Swag”
Sometimes you’ll be offered free things like water bottles, t-shirts, tote bags, or keychains from your tour operators. As much as we’d love to see “RetreaTours” emblazoned on a whole host of goodies, we just can’t do that in good conscience. Again, we know it’s hard to turn down free stuff (I mean, IT’S FREE!), but please think about whether you will really benefit from or use a product enough to justify its inevitable end in a landfill. Sometimes the answer might be Yes, and many times the answer is No.
Bring Your Own Reusable Bag
This might be another one you already implement at home. We do have a hot tip on what kind of bag to use, though—the one you already have! There’s a lot of debate about what kind of bag–plastic, paper, cotton, organic cotton—actually has the smallest environmental footprint, depending on what factors you consider (marine littering, transportation costs, water consumption, etc). The takeaway is to use what you already have and not accept another free giveaway one (see the above tip!) Here are some great articles on this subject by National Geographic, The Atlantic, and The Verge.
Reduce Other Resource Consumption
Cutting Back on Water, Electricity, and Food Waste
It’s not all about plastic, believe it or not! There are plenty of additional ways to be a gracious guest in your host country!
Water is a precious resource in short supply in many of our destinations, particularly Ladakh, the Galapagos, and while on safari in East Africa. A great way to prevent water waste to get wet, turn off the water as you lather up, then turn the water back on to rinse.
In the same vein, don’t keep the water running as you shave or brush your teeth (you’re not rinsing with tap water, are you?) You can also consider using dry shampoos on tour.
When we take off for the day’s exploration, please make sure you’ve turned off your air conditioner. We promise it won’t take long to get your room back to a perfect temperature when we return! Close your blinds while you’re away, too, to keep the room as cool as possible.
Avoid Food Waste
I know that my eyes get markedly bigger than my stomach when I encounter a delicious buffet. Know that you can always go back for seconds, thirds, and fourths! Wasting food goes beyond the actual food on your plate–it’s also the water, fertilizers, and fuel for transportation that are inherent in every bite.
More often than not, we order family-style for our small groups to avoid food waste; that way you can try a bit of everything without committing to one dish (and then I am committed to eating any leftovers!)
Why, yes, we did save the best for last! The restaurants you’ll be eating in serve up the best in local cuisine, avoiding the carbon footprint that comes with shipping food halfway across the globe. So how can you do your part? Drink local beer! It’s fun, it’s new, and you’ll be supporting the environment and local businesses!
Just one of the many, many ways BJ and I are trying to do our part.
We hope you’ve found a few tips above that resonate with you (and maybe you’ll even put into practice at home!) If you think of anything we’ve missed, please email me or leave a comment below!
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Any other thoughts or suggestions about how to be a good guest in your host country? Leave them below!