9 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Sustainable Traveler
Lists: Do you really need that "Omaha" coffee mug made in China? Eric Lucas thinks not.
04.22.10 | 11:40 AM ET
The hotel concierge was aghast.
“No, you cannot walk all the way down to Wall Street,” he said. “Sir, let me call you a cab.”
He looked at me as if I had proposed rowing from New York to London—a whim requiring herculean effort and exposing me to incalculable danger.
Nonetheless I asked for a map. I was in Midtown Manhattan, and the distance from there to Wall Street, where I had a lunch appointment, was three miles or so. If I can’t walk three miles, it’s time to set me on a rock in the woods and send me off to the next incarnation. It was 10 a.m., plenty of leeway. I shouldered my day pack and set off, concierge wide-eyed in my wake.
Thus I had a very enjoyable stroll through Manhattan, on a fine spring day. My route took me through the Garment District, where workers still careen up and down the street hauling buggy-racks of fur coats. Who knew?
I was also practicing one of the key principles of sustainable travel, a philosophy now sweeping the world’s biggest industry. More than 1 billion people will travel this year, around the globe, and today’s 40th anniversary of Earth Day is a good occasion to make our journeys more thoughtful. I preach this gospel often, and the key concepts I emphasize are:
- Sustainability is simple: No need for abstruse information or difficult endeavors, nor for discomfort or suffering. Use less, reuse more, pay attention to your buying choices—these modest concepts cover 90 percent of sustainable travel.
- It saves money. Doomsayers argue that modern society cannot afford environmental and social awareness. That’s bunk. Virtually every sustainable activity is thrifty. My Manhattan walk, for instance, saved me $2 subway fare, or perhaps $25 cab fare. I’m on the road 120 nights a year; if I save just $25 a day, the consequent total gain is enough to buy an extra week on the beach in Bora Bora.
The following nine ways to make a difference as a sustainable traveler are also good choices for everyday living, of course. But we tend to overlook unnecessary practices when we’re on the road, and were all 1 billion travelers to choose differently this year, the positive effect on the world’s environment and economy would be huge. If we keep things as they are, our grandchildren will be learning the joys of trash tourism.
It’s not only good for the environment and your budget, it’s good for you. Traveling is often disastrous to exercise routines; the opportunity to walk to meetings, attractions, restaurants and activities is almost universal in major cities. It saves money, spares pollution, helps you live longer, and is by far the best way to experience any locale.
2) Ride public transportation
When walking isn’t practical public transit is the next best option. Buses, trams, trains and the like are available and convenient in hundreds of the world’s major cities. Often they are an intrinsic part of the experience: If you haven’t ridden the Tube, you haven’t been to London.
Recreation is a broad term ranging from simple strolling to activities that burn more fossil fuel than Army tanks. Use your own two hands and feet—pedal, paddle, hike, glide, ski, skate and swing your way around the world’s playgrounds.
4) Don’t fly your food
The old axiom that you are what you eat is better expressed as, we are what we eat. Virtually everyone dines three times a day; making sure that your menu selections favor local ingredients spares the environment, supports local producers, yields better and more healthy food, and exposes you to another crucial part of local culture. Having lobster in Louisville is silly. So is papaya in Portland. Both those places have local specialties that are much better choices.
5) Don’t buy flying souvenirs
Chotchkes are often made in China, even if the coffee mug says “Omaha.” Supporting local artisans helps local economies—a key facet of sustainability—spares pollution and transport cost, and provides something genuine to take home. If you want souvenirs made in China, please go to China.
6) Reuse your towels
Seems like most of the world’s hotel rooms now offer guests the choice of reusing towels and linens. Take this option. There are more than 4.5 million hotel rooms in the United States, so let’s do the math: Two towels, 365 days, 4.5 million hotel rooms: hotels could be washing and drying 3.6 trillion towels. Let’s not.
7) Take short showers
Not only does hot water use energy, a large portion of the world’s resorts are in areas where water is scarce, such as California, Colorado, Mexico, Hawaii and Arizona. Hotels don’t always point this out, under the impression customers will resent environmental reminders. Even locales often considered “wet,” such as Seattle and Portland, are reaching their water supply limits.
8) Use glass, not plastic
Oh, those plastic bottles—6 percent of earth’s hydrocarbon consumption is for beverage bottles. It’s millions of bottles per hour in North America and Europe, while billions of people around the world would do anything for the simple gift of clean tap water. Use a glass. Leave the $4 bottle on the mini-bar—see, we’re saving money again.
9) Recycle, reuse, reduce
The three linchpins of environmental sustainability are just as valid on the road as at home. If there isn’t a recycle bin in your hotel room, ask the staff. Look for them in the airport. Pass your morning paper on to another traveler. I carry my own shopping bags, which add a whopping 2 percent to the weight and volume in my luggage. I carry my own coffee cup, too, which is not only sustainable, it keeps my coffee warm longer than a paper cup.