You know that little sign most hotels now put in the bathroom — the one that urges you to re-use your towel to save energy costs?
I don’t know about you, but this sign always makes me feel guilty and annoyed. At home, I would never use a towel once and toss it on the floor. But I confess that wantonly throwing about towels in hotel rooms has long been a guilty pleasure for me, a reminder that I am on vacation and therefore not subject to the workday practicalities of home.
But in the 21st century, we all need to think in a more global context. Today’s travelers, aware of the impact of their actions on our fragile planet, want to know how they can satisfy their wanderlust without causing undue harm. This heightened consciousness is one of the most significant trends of modern travel: 20 years ago, nobody thought about the carbon footprint of a flight from Denver to Shanghai — or the electricity generated to heat the water that washes a day’s worth of once-used hotel towels.
Some people still don’t. One of the frustrating aspects of trying to be a sensitive traveler is tiptoeing around a foreign landscape, only to watch the jaded locals toss their trash into delicate wetlands, pitch cigarette butts into a plover nest or spray graffiti on a historic building.
There are more than six billion people sharing our Earth. More of us are traveling every year; whereas the crowds outside Florence’s Duomo were once mostly Americans, Germans and Japanese, today they are as likely to be Russians, Brazilians, Israelis, Australians, Chinese. So apart from recycling towels and picking up trash, what can we, as thoughtful individuals, do to minimize our own impact as we trot through the world?
Let’s look at the biggest offender: air travel. Flying has a tremendous carbon footprint, but time is also a precious resource, and there simply isn’t a better way to cross long distances. There are several ways to reduce the ecological cost of flying, which essentially boils down to carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere from energy production and expenditure.
The simplest route is buying carbon offsets. These are, essentially, credits toward conservation efforts that offset the amount of carbon dioxide you expend traveling.
You can purchase carbon offsets through a third-party specialist such as Terrapass, a reputable company that brokers carbon offsets for individuals and businesses. Terrapass can calculate the exact size of your carbon footprint for a particular trip or activity (such as a year of average driving), then sell you a credit that supports either wind power, landfill methane reduction or methane “digesters” for dairy farms.
Another great resource is Sustainable Travel International. This Washington-based nonprofit can arrange not only carbon offsets, but also advice and referrals for myriad aspects of green travel — from eco-lodges and B&Bs to low-impact adventure tours and volunteer opportunities.
When you do fly, try to minimize stopovers. Just as with an automobile, an airplane uses more energy during takeoff; connections also typically result in a less-direct flight that expends more fuel.
Make a point of traveling green once you land. Choose a destination that allows you to walk everywhere, instead of flying and then renting a car; take trains when possible between cities. If walking everywhere isn’t an option, try renting a bike for sightseeing.
Remember that “green” isn’t limited to transportation: eating and buying locally has an impact, too. Just as the greenmarket helps support family farms and organic practices back home, buying produce at local markets and patronizing family-run businesses abroad is an investment in sustainability. Conservation isn’t limited to landscapes, either; when you bypass Pizza Hut in favor of a neighborhood trattoria or pull over to buy melons from a farm stand, you help preserve traditional culture and local jobs.
If you have the means, research lodgings that take sustainability seriously. But whether it costs $50 or $500 a night, we all can try to conserve in a hotel as we would at home. Turn off unnecessary lights; take short showers, especially in drought-prone areas; open the windows instead of cranking up the A/C, as locals do in most of the world.
Many people find it easier to let someone else do the planning. There are many options for environmentally sensitive tours, including those run by the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club. And there are certain locations — the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Costa Rica and Belize in Central America, and the Norwegian fjords, to name a few — that have become synonymous with eco-travel, with options for travelers of every budget.
Finally, consider what sustainable travel means to you. Is it consuming minimally, helping preserve local cultures, or appreciating fragile ecosystems in a
way that sets a respectful precedent? Whatever your budget, chances are that if you become more conscious of your own choices, you can travel more responsibly without sacrificing pleasure.
Sustainable Travel International:
World Wildlife Fund:
Sierra Club tours: www.sierraclub.org/outings
Nature Conservancy tours:
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