We’ve all heard, read, and most likely posted our fair share of travel quotes. “Collect moments, not things… Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer… We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” And while these words hold truth and may inspire us to take the leap to buy that ticket and dive into an adventure that takes us across the world to see and taste and explore a place that’s completely new and different, the words that you often don’t hear, or read, or even think about are that traveling can also create a lot of pollution and a lot of waste, especially in the beautiful destinations that you’re adventuring to.
Now I know this is nothing new, and I know there are plenty of facts and science to back this, but for me personally, I didn’t fully comprehend the effects that traveling has on the planet until my first visit to Bali in September 2016. While I have spent time in Central America and currently live on the island of Puerto Rico (where we are fortunate to have a waste disposal program, but unfortunately, like many beaches around the world, trash and plastic can be found scattered along the coasts) the amount of waste I saw around the island of Bali was mind-blowing. Heart-wrenching. Left me feeling like our planet was doomed.
But wallowing in negativity is not my style, and I also didn’t intend for this article to come off as cynical or depressing, so instead I allowed this observation to serve as a wake up call, a reminder that if I want the future generations to have a planet to explore and enjoy, I must actively participate in doing my part - right now - to lessen the negative impact I have on this place that we all call home. And that was my intention with this article. Because for those of us who itch to see the world, surf perfect waves, and experience the beauty and diversity of other cultures, not traveling is simply out of the question.
So, the question then becomes: How can we travel more mindfully?
I recently asked this question, along with a few others, to my friend Maggie Dewane, a world traveler and environmentalist who currently works for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international nonprofit dedicated to keeping the world’s oceans healthy and thriving with fish so that millions of people around the globe - who depend on the oceans for their livelihoods and food - are ensured a sustainable, prosperous future. She has also worked with the Environmental Investigation Agency as well as the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Obama Administration (#badass!). Using her responses, as well as a few tips that I’ve picked up throughout my short time traveling the planet, I’ve put together a little outline below to serve as an accessible guide in hopes that it will help you on your next trip to move around a bit more mindfully! Enjoy!
First off, we can all agree that flying on airplanes, especially large commercial flights, is not the most environmentally friendly way to get around as they burn a lot of fuel resulting in carbon pollution and the emission of other planet-warming greenhouse gases. Of course flying less, or not flying at all, is one way to greatly reduce your carbon footprint, but when that’s not possible Maggie’s advice is to “opt for an airline that offers a carbon offset fee.” Usually anywhere from $1-5 USD, a carbon offset fee or program invests in a project that focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to compensate or offset emissions created elsewhere. “Some rental car companies offer this too,” she went on to tell me. “If it's an option where you're traveling, it's worth the tiny cost.”
With that being said… when you can, choose the scenic route. If you really want to make an effort to reduce your carbon footprint when abroad, put your own two feet to use! Walking is a great way to explore a new place or to really see a place that you’ve already been to. Plus, you’ll get some exercise while you’re at it. A push bike may be a nice option as well, and if so, your inner child will be stoked! If you find yourself in a place with public transportation, like a train, you’ll also help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and get to immerse yourself more into the local culture.
Be prepared and always carry a reusable water bottle and utensils with you, wherever you go, and especially when traveling. Ask the flight attendant to fill your water bottle (I'm a big fan of Hydroflask) instead of sucking down plastic cup after plastic cup of water while you’re on the plane. Do your research and try to stay somewhere that offers filtered drinking water. If they don’t, or if that’s not possible, try to avoid buying multiple bottles of water each day by buying water in bulk, like in the 5 gallon jugs that can be refilled. If you have the space in your bag another option would be to bring a small water filter with you, like a LifeStraw or a Sawyer Water Filter. And make it easy to say no to plastic cutlery and straws when you’re out and about by carrying bamboo utensils (check out To-Go Ware and Buluh Straws) and a bamboo or stainless steel straw with you. Also, it never hurts to carry an extra reusable bag if you plan on going shopping or purchasing groceries.
Do your best to try to avoid take out. Often times traveling and eating out go hand in hand. So if you don’t have access to a kitchen, or if you’re simply on vacation and don’t want to cook - which I don’t blame you, I’m the same way - then allow yourself to enjoy your time and the luxury of dining in. Take out, as nice as it is, creates a whole lot of unnecessary waste and usually in the form of plastic and styrofoam. If you happen to have a tendency for leftovers, try to be mindful about carrying some kind of reusable container to the restaurant with you (again I recommend To-Go Ware Stainless Steel Food Containers).
So, when it comes to eating, and shopping for that matter, try to choose restaurants and shops that are environmentally conscious and that promote sustainable practices. Use your money to make a point. “Buy less disposable products,” Maggie explained to me. “This works on a number of levels: The less you [or a restaurant] dispose[s] of, the less garbage that ends up in landfills, rivers, oceans, and then in animals' bellies that think plastics and trash are food. The less you purchase, the less that companies will make disposable items due to simple supply-demand economics. With companies producing less, there are less fossil fuels being used to produce and transport goods. Slowly, companies are starting to get on the reusable bandwagon. Encourage companies that are doing that by taking your business there.”
The same goes for where you choose to stay. Do your research. Opt for a home-stay or a smaller hotel over a large resort. Choosing a home-stay tends to be more sustainable for the local economy and large resorts typically use way more water and produce way more trash than a smaller hotel. Participate in helping your hosts save water and energy by letting them know that you don’t need fresh sheets and towels every single day, if that’s an option, and be mindful about turning off lights and air-con units when you’re not in your room.
And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Avoid pointing fingers or coming off as judgmental, but let the management or hosts know that you really do care. Let it be a conversation and let them know you are curious about things like what happens to the trash, whether or not they recycle, where the showers and toilets drain to, and if you will have access to filtered drinking water.
Before you even leave your house, be mindful about the products you pack. Organic shampoos and conditioners are best as the majority of the products we use in the shower slip down the drain and wind up in the soil, rivers, and eventually the ocean. The same goes for sunscreens so bring one that’s reef-safe (like Raw Elements - you can even use my code SALTY10 for a discount) and never underestimate the saving grace of a wide-brimmed hat. When it comes to cosmetics in general, bring less and use less. Because not only do toxic chemicals from beauty products harm us and the planet, but most of them come in plastic containers, and like we talked about earlier, the less you use the less waste you create. So opt for bringing something like Dr. Bronner’s All-in-One. And ladies, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend investing in a menstrual cup! I've used a Luna Cup for almost a year now and I absolutely love it! You’ll save money not having to buy pads and tampons each month and you’ll also create way less trash.
I finished up my conversation with Maggie by asking her one final question: From her experience, what kind of sustainability practices or lifestyle changes seem to carry the most effect? She answered, “Living by example has the most profound impact on creating a more sustainable world.” She went on to tell me that in the past year she has become a voice in her social and professional circles simply because she’s talking about sustainability - not preaching it - and sharing useful techniques that have worked for her. “Now, people are looking to me as a source of info,” she said. “I'm by no means an expert, but isn't that a saying? ‘Let change begin with me.’”
So as you can see, traveling mindfully doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, a few preparations and a little research before you leave for your trip will actually make your time abroad much easier and much more enjoyable! Plus you can feel good knowing that you are doing your part in helping to keep the planet healthy and clean for others to enjoy. And you never know how your actions could maybe inspire someone else to do the same :)
So, I'd love to hear from YOU! How do you bring mindfulness into your travel? How do you explore on a more sustainable travel? Any tips that I haven't mentioned that you'd like to share?
Let me know in a comment below!
Maggie Dewane is an environmentalist currently working for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international nonprofit dedicated to keeping the world’s oceans healthy and thriving with fish so that millions of people around the globe, who depend on the oceans for their livelihoods and food, are ensured a sustainable, prosperous future.
Prior to MSC, Maggie worked with the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international nonprofit that exposes environmental crime around the world and proposes tangible solutions to those problems. She also served as Executive Assistant to then-US Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, as well as his constituent service representative for military, veterans, and LGBTQ issues. She has worked for the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Obama Administration and for lobby group WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
Maggie has a Masters of Public Administration in environmental science and policy from Columbia University and a Bachelors of Science from Seton Hall University in Diplomacy and International Relations. In both college and graduate school, the learning opportunities extended beyond the classroom. At Seton Hall, Maggie served as Managing Editor to The Stillman Exchange, the country’s first undergraduate business newspaper, for three years. She also studied abroad in Costa Rica, Italy, the Czech Republic, and at Oxford University. At Columbia, she joined the Journal of International Affairs as its Online Senior Editor and interned at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia’s Earth Institute.
In 2017, Maggie undertook several personal professional development projects. She traveled to Antarctica to learn about climate change so that she could engage in conversations with a more credible, firsthand voice. She also traveled to Cuba to gain local perspective into issues of climate and resources; and she took a two-month sabbatical to explore Southeast Asia to volunteer, meditate, and explore. Following her adventure in Asia, Maggie contributed to the Huffington Post UK with an article on climate refugees, and produced short promotional videos for Free the Bears Rescue and Elephant Valley Project.
These days, Maggie lives in Washington DC and volunteers with the National Park Service. She enjoys painting, writing, playing soccer, running, camping, and hiking with her dog Argos.