Reusable bags and no elephants: travel the world without trashing it

Reusable bags and no elephants: travel the world without trashing it

Travelling is one of life’s great joys but the environmental impact is harsh. Our new series Life Swaps looks at ways to explore more sustainably

Costa Rica is a world leader in renewable energy, a fact worth considering when choosing a holiday destination




Costa Rica is a world leader in renewable energy, a fact worth considering when choosing a holiday destination
Photograph: Johner Images/Getty Images/Johner RF

Holidays can be a trashy experience – environmentally speaking, that is. From the fuel and resources burnt to get to wherever we’re going to the piles of rubbish left behind, travellers leave a hefty footprint on the world we’re so intent on seeing.

Yet hunting down ethical travel choices can be frustrating. The internet is often a muddy territory of green-washing designed to capitalise on ecotourism’s growing popularity. There are ways to travel more sustainably though, so here are some tips to consider before taking off.

Choose your destination wisely

Look beyond the glossy holiday brochures and consider a destination’s environmental track records before booking. Costa Rica, for example, has 1.1m hectares of natural reserves and a 93% reliance on renewable energy. Cambodia, on the other hand, has one of the world’s worst deforestation rates and wildlife poaching is rife.

Check Yale and Columbia universities’ environmental performance index before deciding on an overseas destination; it ranks countries’ performance on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Australia is currently third, after Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Think carefully about where to stay. Look for leading eco certification badges, such as the non-profit Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Denmark’s Green Key program now operates in 56 countries (France has the most awarded sites), while Los Angeles-based Green Globe measures businesses in 90 countries against 44 criteria. Beware TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders program, though; it’s a self-reporting system that gives hotels room to make claims with little external verification.

For closer-to-home holidays, non-profit Eco Tourism Australia represents 500-plus environmentally responsible ecotourism operators across Australia, while Green Getaways lists Australian eco resorts, luxury eco cottages and green hotels.

Opt for sustainable modes of transport

The curse of living in Australia’s wide brown land is that getting beyond one’s own state often involves flying, one of the most polluting ways to move from A to B. According to Choice Australia, airlines spewed forth 781m tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015 – if global aviation was a country, its emissions would rank seventh in the world, between Germany and South Korea. Airline carbon offsetting programs attempt to address this with limited success, as few passengers choose to pay the extra fee.

“Offset programs are worthwhile,” says Petra Stock, Climate Council’s energy and climate systems analyst. “The best offset programs are those that reduce pollution at source through renewable energy or energy efficiency programs, for example.” Prevention is better than cure, however, as planes also release black carbon, nitrous oxide and sulphur oxide, which further contribute to the heat-trapping greenhouse effect. “Offsets shouldn’t be thought of as a free pass to pollute, but rather as an additional solution after first trying to avoid and minimise transport pollution,” Stock says.

If flying is unavoidable, pack light, as every extra luggage gram adds to the flight’s fuel burn and emissions. When travelling long haul, fly non-stop where possible: taxiing, taking off and landing are responsible for the greatest carbon emissions. If possible, choose public transport for short-haul travel, especially when you arrive at your holiday destination.

Avoid creating mountains of rubbish

Too many travellers leave a trail of trash – sidestep this by thinking ahead. Fly with your own headphones, for example, rather than relying on the plastic-wrapped airline offerings, and take a reusable shopping bag to skip plastic bags.

Plastic water bottles are the major scourge left behind by travellers to clog streets, rivers, parks and beaches, so avoid them by carrying your own flask. Not sure if tap water abroad is safe to drink? In-bottle filters such as Sawyer or Fill2Pure make removing nasties as easy as filling a bottle, screwing the lid on and drinking.At the very least buy one large plastic bottle and refill a smaller day bottle, rather than turfing multiple small bottles each day.

“Forty per cent of the rubbish reported to us by volunteers is plastic. Of that just over half is plastic bottles,” says Terrie-Ann Johnson, Clean Up Australia Day managing director. “These bottles simply won’t go away – they’ll outlive us – and they won’t find their own way to the bin for recycling. So we all need to take responsibility.”

Say no to other single-use items. Avoid tiny shampoo and conditioner bottles, as any opened products get ditched as soon as you leave. Or choose hotels that work with non-profits such as Melbourne-based Soap Aid, which collects waste soap from 300 hotel groups and redistributes them to schools and homes in developing nations.

Support local people and animals

Tourism has a big impact on small local communities, and travellers’ choices can dictate market movements. Elephant riding is a classic example: long revered as a selfie opportunity for tourists, multiple damning reports now make clear these animals are suffering, and traveller demand only perpetuates the agony. A World Animal Protection report documenting the conditions of 3,000 elephants used in tourist venues across Asia found three out of four endured poor living conditions such as chaining, inadequate food and stressful interactions with visitors.

Paying to ride elephants or walk with tigers or lions also supports an industry that illegally captures, transports and abuses thousands of animals each year. In 2016, TripAdvisor stopped selling tickets for wildlife experiences where tourists come into contact with captive wild animals, in recognition of these concerns. But demand is the ultimate driver for change – vote with your dollar and avoid supporting animals used for entertainment when travelling.

Make choices that benefit people. Opt for small group tours with local guides, and buy locally made souvenirs that support artisans over cheap mass-made junk. Beware the scourge of voluntourism, short-term volunteer projects in developing nations that can do more harm than good. Such trips can rob locals of jobs and cause abused and abandoned children to form unhealthy emotional attachments, a 2010 report found. A more ethical option is volunteering at home, through organisations such as Conservation Volunteers Australia, NatureWise and Volunteering Australia.

So next time a holiday beckons, consider the small actions travellers can take to leave a lighter footprint on our planet.

  • Additional research and reporting by Nicole Lutze
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