Environmental Travel – 5 Ways To Leave A Smaller Footprint

Give a hoot – don’t pollute!
Lend a hand – care for the land!”

Woodsy Owl
Environmental Travel

Environmental degradation is a serious global problem that cannot be ignored, especially when we travel. Although basic environmental awareness and protection may seem like afterthoughts in a western economy, they are enlightened by developing-world standards. Below are some socially conscious travel tips to help lighten your environmental footprint wherever you may be.

Treating water with a chlorine solution to avoid using disposable plastic bottles

Despite the tent card, straws are served with beverages in La Paz, Mexico

Leave Some For The Fish

Given the world’s dwindling supply of fresh water, and the political and military conflicts brewing over a country’s right of access to this dwindling supply, it is in everyone’s best interest to use as little of it as possible. Ask yourself, “Do I really need to take a shower every day?” Maybe, once in a while, a quick rinse is enough.

When you do shower, leaving the water running while you lather up is unnecessary. Turn the water on, rinse, turn the water off, lather, turn the water on, rinse, and turn the water off. It doesn’t sound like much, but compounded with everyone all the time, and it makes a huge difference.

When bathing outdoors use phosphate-free, biodegradable soap. Bathing a distance away from a water source allows the earth to filter the water before it enters the groundwater. So, take your bucket of lake/river water and use it bathe at least 50 feet from the source.

Treating water with a chlorine solution to avoid using disposable plastic bottles

Treat water with a chlorine solution to avoid using disposable plastic bottles

Don’t Litter

This should be a no-brainer. Anyone who has traveled through the developing world will attest to the ubiquitous trash. But, “out of sight – out of mind” doesn’t apply. Seldom is something out of sight. As small as a cigarette butt or candy wrapper may be, it’s still litter.

Most of the trash is in the form of plastic bags and non-reusable, non-returnable, non-refundable plastic bottles. Don’t contribute to this. Because bottled water is easy – it’s easy to get, it’s easy to drink and it’s easy to throw away. Treat and/or filter local tap-water instead.

Refuse plastic bags at markets and use your day-pack instead. Plastic bags and empty bottles end up in the garbage, if you’re lucky. More than likely, they will end up on the side of the road or in the ditch. Whenever possible, buy products packaged in paper or glass rather than those packed in plastic.

Few things can ruin the beauty of natural surroundings than the remains of the last visitor’s picnic. A simple rule of environmental travel is to pack out what you pack in. Pack in as little as possible, and when you pack it out, pack it all the way out. This doesn’t mean depositing it in the nearest trashcan, whose contents may well end up strewn about – probably by a hungry dog. It means carrying it back to your hotel where a “proper” landfill might be found.

Certain waste items can be responsibly disposed of in a natural environment. Toilet paper can be burned and buried. Fruit and vegetable peels, seeds and pits don’t need to be packed out. But, bury them, too. This avoids potential danger to some animals, and leaves the place more aesthetically pleasing for the next person.

Garbage Can makes using it fun in Banos, Ecuador

Baños, Ecuador

Consumer Choices

Try to choose hotels and restaurants sensitive to the environment. Choose one using renewable energy sources rather than one using a diesel generator. Also, check to see if your hotel heats its water with solar panels instead of kerosene. Does it cook with wood in an area plagued by deforestation?

Order beverages served in reusable glass bottles (like beer and wine) rather than disposable plastic ones or aluminum cans. Visiting markets and buying local produce and souvenirs uses fewer resources for transportation and requires less disposable plastic packaging.

Use public transportation or share the cost of hiring a private vehicle. This will decrease your (and everyone else on the bus or train) resource consumption. Walking and cycling are at the top of the environmental travel list. On the water, kayaks and canoes are better for everyone and everything than jet skis.

Endangered Seahorses at a food market in China

Endangered Seahorses at a Food Market in China

Menu choices have the greatest impact on our carbon footprint. Does the beef in your multi-national fast-food chain burger come from a cattle farm previously home to a millennia-old rainforest, or was the fish on your plate caught in a trawler’s coral reef-scraping drag net? Some of these questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Do your best.

Straws suck. Remember to ask your server to not put a straw in your drink. Also, if you’re doing take-out, you might not need the plastic cutlery.

Treading Trodden Trails

Hiking is a great way to explore the local landscape, and is carbon-neutral. Whether trekking in Nepal, tackling the Inka Trail, or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, stick to the marked paths. Every shortcut you make can become another path for water runoff thereby contributing to land erosion and habitat destruction, which are often irreversible. If you bring a picnic, pack out what you pack in – all the way out.

Bicycle Sharing in Toronto, Canada

Bicycle Sharing in Toronto, Canada

Be a Steward

Some travelers have a bad habit of ignoring local environmental problems, which helps deteriorate the local population’s perception of tourists. Conversely, some people figure if the locals don’t care, why should they? Because, when it comes to environmental awareness, we are generally more educated than the locals. It’s not that the locals don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.

We understand plastic is non-biodegradable, whereas many others do not. Once upon a time, food came wrapped in banana leaves or some other natural packaging easily discarded and promptly decomposed. When plastic became the vendors’ choice of wrapping, the game changed, but the rules didn’t. Cultures have a tendency to develop more slowly than “progress” progresses.

You may even want to take it upon yourself to try educating a local or two. Children, in particular, can be quite impressionable. Maybe pick up a freshly discarded piece of litter, and place it in an appropriate receptacle in front of the offending litterbug.

Nepal Logging

Logging is illegal in Nepal

Do so with humor and a smile, rather than with disdain and a look of disgust. The former is less preachy and more likely to leave someone with a positive reflection rather than feeling insulted and indignant or like they’ve lost face. They may think you’re crazy, but in doing so, they may remember the episode next time they litter, and choose to use a trashcan. An active environmental travel approach would be to pick up litter along a stretch of trail. If nothing else, it will be more appealing for the next visitor.

Environmental Travel Sign in Yichang, China

Yichang, China

Photographs and Footprints

The environmental travel adage is an old one. Take nothing but photographs (and any litter you see lying around), leave nothing but footprints (and some money in the local economy). This philosophy shouldn’t begin and end with your travels, it should be part of your everyday life at home and abroad.


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