Here is a confession: I am not a big environmentalist and not particularly green. While I get livid when divers and snorkelers touch sealife and really don’t understand why anyone thinks elephant riding or cuddling dolphins could ever be a good idea, I have much to learn and most importantly do when it comes to traveling green or being green in general.
I take too many flights, am not a vegetarian, definitely not a vegan, and use way too much plastic as I spend a lot of time in countries where recycling is almost non-existent and can’t drink tap water.
Via my Girls That Scuba group on Facebook I also became a member of a group called A Waste Free World. The group shares tips and answers questions on zero waste lifestyle, avoiding plastic in particular, and eco-friendly products. Great idea to get me on the right track, right? That’s at least what I thought but after being a member for a few weeks I just started to feel worse. What I joined in order to get inspiration for a better, greener lifestyle and travels just made me feel more guilty with every post I read. It made me shamefully aware that I was not only not doing enough but hardly anything at all. Or so it seemed.
I am not writing this to get absolution, I am just being honest here.
The other day I came across a thread on twitter discussing veganism. One thing stuck out to me and that was the overwhelming opinion that – no, you don’t have to become a full-fledged vegan but every little piece of meat or animal product you don’t consume helps. Admittedly that was a rather new tone in a vegan discussion which I quite frankly have never felt a part of, not because I am not vegan but because it always seemed so very extreme – you are either with us or against us sort of a thing.
This discussion was different and for so many people to just acknowledge and even praise little steps felt like a breath of fresh air and was incredibly motivating to me. More motivating than guilting me into giving up some products that I know deep down I shouldn’t enjoy but still very much like to have on my plate.
With that I thought wouldn’t it be nice to apply the same sentiment to green travel? To not chastise me for not doing enough but rather implementing more small and easy ways to live more eco-friendly? To praise me for doing something ‘right’ instead of getting mad at myself for doing so much ‘wrong’?
I don’t know how your mind works but I just do so much better with praise instead of judgment, whether by others or myself.
So I looked at the way I travel and started to focus on the things I do right, trying to improve the things that are not very green but in a rather easy way that is simple and not too expensive to implement. Have I mentioned that I am a lazy traveler?! Is that enough? Probably not. But I like to think if everybody would just be a little more mindful trying to travel a little greener we would get a lot further when it comes to eco-friendly tourism and living in general.
What to do or not to do?
Here are my 10 easy green travel tips for the lazy traveler
1. Starbucks & Co.
Many of us flock to Starbucks (despite its horrendous prices and not so great coffee) to have wifi and a free office. What I only realized recently is that most ‘to go’ coffee shops offer all their beverages in regular cups and glasses – you just have to ask for it. While bringing a travel mug is probably ideal when you are on the go, I think just asking for your coffee in a cup while you sit at Starbucks already makes a huge difference and is so easy to implement.
Looking around at a few different Starbucks lately, I still see so many people sitting there for hours on end, drinking out of plastic cups. Why? I have no idea, but I like to assume many don’t know that shops like this have real cups. If the environment wasn’t good enough reason, I also think coffee tastes so much better when not drunk from a paper or plastic cup.
Straws are a big thing when it comes to plastic pollution. Hard to guess when you look at such an innocent small looking thing. While some may argue that unless you are physically unable to lift a glass there is no good reason to even use a straw, I disagree. There are plenty of drinks that just work better with a straw. Unfortunately, chances are good that the straw will be made out of plastic and may or may not come wrapped in paper or more plastic.
I have started to really question whether I am drinking something that needs a straw. Coke, water or cocktail – no – smoothie, iced coffee, whole coconut- yes. So I will tell the waitress upon ordering that I won’t need a straw when ordering the former because chances are once it is in your drink it will end up in the trash whether you use it or not.
For all other occasions, I am now the proud owner of my own set of bamboo straws. I ordered some before leaving for Asia but unfortunately, they never made it in time. Luckily I found a pack at a cafe in Bali and ever since I just pop one in my bag for those instances when I really want a straw in my beverage. Afterward, I just rinse and repeat. Alternatively, you can buy a set of metal straws at the Girls That Scuba store here.
While many countries and shops will charge you for a plastic bag I must admit that a few cents never kept me from buying one. Traveling in countries where bags are free and easily available is even worse and very tempting.
To avoid the temptation I have now started to back my own cotton bag which weighs basically nothing and I can easily pop it into my purse when I am out an about.
I am glad to see that some places are slowly catching up – during my recent stay in Alonissos, Greece I was told that there are no plastic bags allowed on the entire island.
4. Plastic water bottles
The biggie when it comes to pollution is obviously the use of plastic water bottles. I am very partial to sparkling water (when will SodaStream make a travel version??) and so far I was too lazy and stingy to invest in a good filter bottle. That changed last month when I finally bought a Grayl bottle, many people recommended over Lifestraw. So far – I love it and have used it to filter tap water in Uganda, Sri Lanka and at various airports. I am still getting the hang of how to make it not spill but I don’t think I ever want to use a little plastic bottle again.
The only downside of it which I addressed to both, Grayl and the vendor which shipped it: it came with a huge amount of plastic and paper packaging and flyers which I found silly and thoughtless for a product that prides itself for being eco-friendly.
If you don’t have a refill filter bottle: try to avoid plastic water bottles at restaurants, use only one bottle and refill that wherever possible, and buy a big gallon to store in your hotel fridge when you are staying somewhere for longer. Still too few but some hotels will provide filtered water instead of plastic bottles and I always make a point to comment on that or ask (nicely of course) if they don’t.
5. Use what you’ve got
While I really admire people who do the zero-waste living and avoid plastic at all costs, I am just not there yet. However, when I buy something that comes in plastic I now make a really conscious effort to use every bit of it.
In order to do that cut off the top of your toothpaste or lotion tube, add water to get the rest out of your shampoo, and drink every last drop from that water bottle. If you are using a plastic product make it at least count – not only good for the environment but also for your wallet.
6. Bathroom Goodies
Unless it is a really nice soap I never use hotel soaps that come in small wrapped packages and if I do, I make sure to take it with me afterward. There was a discussion once whether it is technically legal to do so but considering that the soap is already used this issue doesn’t give me sleepless nights.
I also prefer hotels that will offer big bottles for me to use while I am there and will make sure I let them know I appreciate it.
When it comes to shampoo I started to use Lush shampoo bars but will admit that lately, I have not been happy. They don’t last very long with hair like mine and are thus quite pricey in the end and what is even worse, they melt. I don’t know about you but I don’t like pink goo in my beauty case even if the goo is good for the environment.
Still, I like the idea of solid shampoo bars and can’t wait to try this one which came highly recommended. If anyone has any great alternatives – please send them my way!
I have also recently started using non-plastic cotton earbuds that I found in my local drugstore and a bamboo toothbrush. I ordered it from Giving Brush a few months ago as they had a free offer. Mind you, shipping charges still made it a very expensive toothbrush (and usually they cost between $7 to $20 which also seems excessive for a toothbrush!), delivery took forever, and all in all my parcel came wrapped in plastic to the nines. I have been using it for a week or so and while the mouth-feel (if that is a word) is definitely something to get used, I’d definitely consider using it from now on if there was a better way to buy them.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the holy grail of waste-free bathroom products: the diva cup. I finally took the plunge when my brother’s girlfriend mentioned she would also like to try it and couldn’t I just order two.
I have only had one period since I bought it and I think it will definitely take me a few more tries to get the hang of it fully. But I am determined because what a game changer that thing is! Mind you, it is definitely not for shy women – you really need to get up close with yourself and your insides… For now, I travel with both, cup and tampons because I reckon every tampon not used is better.
7. Reef friendly
Spending a lot of time in and underwater, products that are reef friendly are quite important to me. Oils, chemicals and all the bits you find in a lot of sunscreen and hair products tend to damage our reefs once they get into the water. Hawaii recently made news for becoming the first state to ban reef-unfriendly sunscreen and judging by the reactions it is a topic that not many people are aware of unless you are a scuba diver.
In the past, I used to take my chances and often ended up sporting a nice sunburn. Luckily more and more companies are trying to change that. One of them is Stream2Sea, a wonderful new company that does all reef-friendly products. Unless you can find a shop that sells them they are quite pricey to ship and even I ended up paying $19 for a tube of sunscreen. Since I only need it for my face and hands as I usually wear a full wetsuit I didn’t mind. I did mind, however, that it smeared my mask from the inside and I ended up with a non-stop ‘foggy’ mask during most of my dives which was anything but ideal.
For an upcoming Maldives liveaboard, I bought Biotherm’s Waterlover sunscreen and will report back how that one works.
Other mermaids will know that hair products are a similar issue but a must if you spend the better part of your day in salt water and don’t want to look like medusa afterward. An easy and cost-effective solution: coconut oil and a good tangle teaser brush.
For those who only occasionally jump into the waves – make sure you apply your sunscreen at least 20 minutes before. That is not only safer for your skin but also for the reefs as it minimizes sunscreen coming off.
8. Safe water & electricity
My father has installed an innate sense of saving electricity since I was a child. Turn off the light as soon as you leave a room was the motto of my childhood. However, it seems that as soon as we don’t have to pay for electricity in our own homes but are staying at a hotel or guesthouse where it is pretty much included in the price all good intentions go out of the window.
Luckily even smaller B&Bs and hotels work with keycards these days so electricity is automatically turned off as soon as you take your card out of the slot and leave the room. But many don’t and some people leave not only lights but also aircon on full blast while out and about. Don’t. Just turn it all off when you leave, the room will cool down quickly enough when you come back.
After being in Cape Town during the worst part of the water crisis at the beginning of the year, I have become incredibly conscious about my water consumption. It also made me realize that Cape Town is not an isolated incident – water is precious and rare in this world. With that in mind, I have taken a few water saving measures on the road with me: shower quickly, don’t brush your teeth and leave the water running, and since I am traveling alone I also let it mellow more often than not in the toilet.
9. Laundry at hotels
While many hotels leave a note saying you should hang up your towels in order for them to be reused this does not seem to work. Ever.
I once read somewhere that housekeeping rather gives you new towels than not as they don’t want to potentially get in trouble. I am not sure if that is true but since reading this, I make an effort to a) hang up my towels really neatly (and really, why would you need new ones every day, do you get that at home?) and b) tell them that I will reuse my towels.
10. On the plane
Traveling by plane is bad. We all know that and I have no good excuse to make for myself except that it is my job. But no, really, I get it, it’s bad.
With that in mind, I have become a big fan of slow(er) travel not just for monetary reasons and I try to offset some of my carbon footprint. I don’t do that enough, however, a lot of my Christmas presents come in form of Greenpop trees. That saves on postage for said presents and does something to make my air travel a tiny bit greener.
Planes are also a nightmare when it comes to packaging. Utensils are wrapped, food is wrapped, earplugs and headphones are wrapped, blankets are wrapped…grrrr. To avoid that I try to take my own as much as possible and get to enjoy my very own Hello Kitty earplugs, my good headphones and my own blanket. When it comes to food a lot of it is unfortunately unavoidable at times. However, now I will just take my Grayl bottle and fill it up after security instead of using little plastic cups.
When meal times roll around think if and what you are really going to consume – I was recently told by a flight attendant that juice-boxes once handed out go into the trash afterward even if you didn’t touch it.
What are your easy eco friendly travel tips? I would love to add to this list!
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