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Responsible and Sustainable Travel Habits


16 Simple Ways for Travelers to Save the Planet

By Eric Lucas
Reprinted and adapted from MSN.com, April 2009

“No, I don’t need a clean plate,” I tell the server at a New York convention luncheon, I’ve come back for seconds, and I’m asking him to place the food on the same china plate I started with a half-hour ago. He shakes his head in amazement.

That’s the same headshake I get when I tell hotel housekeepers I don’t want my room serviced – no fresh towels, no thanks. And the same headshake that greets my refusal of a plastic bag to carry three bananas and an orange.

Saving the planet when you’re on the road doesn’t mean enormous sacrifices that spare 21 tons of carbon dioxide at a single whack. Instead, the cumulative impact of many small, incremental changes is what will transform the overall picture. Every year, worldwide, about 1 billion people travel. If each of us changed our behavior 10 percent, we’d effect a massive improvement in the global environment, economy and culture.

Here are 16 simple strategies that really do make a difference.

responsible and sustainable travel habits1. Walk: Yes, you can walk from here to there. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the planet. People will argue with you about this. I’ve had concierges tell me I could not walk 10 blocks to a meeting on a fine spring day.

2. Ride: If it really is too far to walk, subways, buses and bicycles are excellent choices and often save gas, money, time and hassle. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and most European cities have excellent light rail or subway systems.

3. Get a charge out of driving: Virtually every rental-car company offers hybrid or high-mileage vehicles. Usually there’s a premium of 20 percent, but if you’re driving any distance, the savings in gas makes up for it.

4. Paddle your own canoe: The same idea applies to play as to getting around town. The more you use your own muscle power, the better for you and the planet.

responsible and sustainable travel5. Fish don’t fly: Local food is what’s freshest and most sustainable, and shipping food around the world is a waste of fuel and money. I’m forever explaining to visitors to the Pacific Northwest, where I live, that it’s ridiculous to dine on lobster – the crustaceans flew farther than they did.

6. Watch in peace: Choose low-impact, non-motorized wildlife-watching venues whenever possible. Watch whales from shore or hop in a kayak; keep your distance from bears, eagles, turtles and dolphins.

7. Choose your lodging wisely: Research hotels that are adopting sustainable initiatives – energy and water conservation, waste reduction, supporting the local economy. Before you book, ask for specifics.

8. Use your towels and linen more than once: Do you change your sheets every day at home? Do you use three towels: one for the shower, one for the bath, one for the pool? Don’t squander resources, even if they’re not your own.

9. Bring your cup: I’m on the road 100 nights a year and I have coffee every morning. If I drank from a new paper cup every day, in about five years I’d have used up a tree. Is it worth bringing my own mug to save one tree? It’s hardly an imposition.

10. Unchain your heart: Yes, you can find McDonald’s in Beijing. Planet Hollywood is everywhere. So is Holiday Inn. While all these companies do hire local workers, they are likely to ship their hamburger in from Omaha and their coffee in from Newark, N.J. Supporting local enterprise is the essence of sustainable travel, especially local merchants and artisans who rely on tourism to make a living.

11. Turn off, tune out, unplug: Charge your phone, then unplug it. Use your computer, then turn it off. Turn off the lights when you leave. Open the window and hit the “off” button on the air conditioner. Or disable the heater that you probably don’t need anyway.

responsible and sustainable travel habits12. There’s an art to souvenirs: That cheesy plate that says “Grand Canyon”? The silly T-shirt that proves you were in Chicken, Alaska? They were made in China or Vietnam, so that souvenir is about as real as a Hostess Twinkie. Even in many upscale art galleries, what seems local may not be. Ask where something was made before you buy it.

13. Get a brand-new bag: Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year – that’s three per person per day. Carry a canvas shopping bag, or if you must use plastic, just stick a few in your suitcase when you travel. And there are so many occasions when you just don’t need a bag at all.

14. Give and take: Pass your newspaper along to another traveler in the airport. When you need something to read, ask the fellow sitting next to a discarded Wall Street Journal if he’s done with it. And if you can’t find someone to pass your reading material on to, make sure you put it in a recycling bin.

15. Look across the pond: While American hotel operators are installing high-tech gear that will curtail power usage when hotel guests aren’t in the room, European hotels have a simple solution: Your room key operates a master switch that disables power functions when you leave.

16. Take a stand: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, said Mark Twain. So explain why you do all these things to anyone who’s remotely interested. I’ve heightened the awareness of fellow travelers, chefs, baristas, waiters, hotel staff, grocery checkout clerks, family members, friends, colleagues, customers and business owners.

Hard-core Luddites would argue that the most sustainable approach is not to travel at all. I disagree vehemently – travel is a sound way to help developing economies, it broadens our perspectives in a way no other approach achieves, and it’s fun. If the earth’s billion travelers all adopted sustainable principles, it would make a huge difference all over the globe.

Eric Lucas lives in Seattle. His work appears in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Michelin Green Guides and numerous other outlets. He has traveled in all 50 states and 20 foreign countries.

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