I’m a hippy at heart.
Having lived in tempeh-eating-Prius-driving-grow-your-own-vegetables Seattle for the past 6 years, being environmentally conscious has simply become a way of life.
Nearly everyone here owns a compost bin, buys their granola in bulk, and owns a bicycle that they aren’t afraid to ride in the rain.
It is part of the culture here to care about the environment and the animals and people living in it.
This is a mentality I carry with me no matter where I go.
However, I know that it can be difficult to keep these things in mind when you are on vacation.
But have no fear! You don’t need to let all that go out the window even while you are in another country (that may or may not have the same standards of your home culture).
Side note: maybe you aren’t a hippy at all, and are just looking for some easy tips on how to live a more conscious life. If so, congratulations! The Earth thanks you.
So, do you want to be an Earth-friendly traveler?
If so, then this guide is for you!
Here are some of my best sustainable tips for being an Earth-friendly traveler!
Less Plastic, Please
Plastic is bad, mmmkay? We use way too much of it, it ends up in our oceans, and then cute little turtles end up eating it. No one wants that. In reality, it is pretty easy to avoid using plastic once you make a habit of it, and these simple tips will help you use less plastic as your travel
- Before you leave, find out whether the local water supply at your destination is safe to drink. If it is not, invest in a water filter and reusable, lightweight (BPA-free) water bottle. This will significantly decrease the number of plastic bottles you use. And it probably saves you money in the long run (Don’t quote me on that…I haven’t done the math).
- Don’t order your meals to go. As much as possible, dine-in at restaurants or prepare your food at your hotel or hostel. Taking your food to go often involves plastic ware, bags, and Styrofoam containers that are not compostable. If need be, ask for cardboard containers. Or if you’re really hardcore, carry your soup in your hands.
- Ditch the straw. I know it makes you look fancy, but it’s just not worth it. Straws are a very small convenience for something that takes years to breakdown and often ends up in our oceans (and the critters that live there). Many places will automatically give you one, so feel free to refuse rather than tossing it in the garbage.
Bring Gear That Can Go the Distance
- Invest in travel gear that will last. That cheap, fold-up travel backpack may seem like a good idea, but the thin material will wear down much faster than if you were to buy that $50 daypack. It may also be tempting to buy drawstring bags and purses at gift shops, but these, are often poor quality as well. Unless you are willing to fix it if it were to break, this is likely to be another thing that ends up in a landfill.
- Buy travel gear that is second-hand. If the idea of buying previously owned items makes you go “Ew”, sorry, there is no hope for you. Just kidding. But it will save you money! I have joined several hiking/travel groups on Facebook that have gear exchanges and for sale pages, and this has been a great place to find sweet deals. I was in need of a new backpack and found one for $80 and in great condition. That saved me over $100 and kept that pack from ending up in the garbage. Good for the wallet and for the earth.
- Go for sturdy shoes. A cheap pair of flip flops may seem like a good way to save money, but if they break you are back at square one (I have seen this happen many times in my travels). Not only can it be hard to find shoes and clothing in your size in another country, but flip flops are just not practical outside of the beach. I recommend buying some sturdy sandals like these $17 ones. They are comfortable, are perfect for trekking, and are likely to last me a long time.
- Don’t bring ALL your crap. It is very unfortunate, but I have met several travelers who have simply brought too much stuff with them, just to have to toss it when they get to their destination. Maybe they realize their pack is too heavy or that they don’t actually need a rain jacket in the desert. It can be hard to find places to donate such items, so they often end up in the garbage. Try to pack things that you absolutely need, and leave the rest at home. You will always surprise yourself by what you can live without. Do bring enough underwear, though.
Use Green Products
- Bring sustainable toiletries. This one can be hard, as we all have our favorite products we don’t want to live without. However, bringing biodegradable soap can be a great, small thing you can do to be more environmentally conscious. In many places, you may be showering outside or somewhere that doesn’t have a proper sewage system. Whatever products you use on your body will thus be flushed out to the environment and can be detrimental to plants and animals. I use Dr. Bronner’s soap in the travel size, and wash my hair with baking soda (I told you I was a hippy). You can learn more about the “No Poo” Movement here.
- Use environmentally friendly sprays. Whether it be bug spray, sunscreen, perfume, or hairspray, make sure the sprays you are using are also safe for the environment. For bug sprays, this means DEET-free (there are many great options online, like this one). For other sprays, they should be aerosol free and devoid of other harmful chemicals. It is also beneficial to your own health. (PS research shows that you don’t actually need SPF 100 sunscreen. Look it up).
Buy Better Knick-knacks
- Don’t buy “tourist clothes”. Many items like flowy harem pants and a T-shirt that says “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” are things you are unlikely to wear again and are probably not sustainably made. They are often mass produced at a cheap price by people who do not receive fair wages and in poor environments. Unless you are certain you will wear it often, save your money and invest in something that is truly meaningful and made to last. After all, you would probably rather bring back something that is special rather than something every other tourist has.
- Buy from local artisans. These items can be a bit more expensive, but at least you know the history behind the item and that it is likely one-of-a-kind. That makes the item even more unique and you can rest easy knowing it wasn’t made by a child in a factory somewhere.
- Don’t buy items that exploit animals. Things like shark teeth and elephant tusks may look cool, but if there is a market for it, you know that someone out there is killing these animals just to make money. This is not ALWAYS the case, but it is better to play it on the safe side. You can usually buy figurines and postcards that look like the animals, but with none of the guilt.
- You know this one already: don’t be a litter bug. Leave no trace. Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t throw your shit on the ground… I WILL FIND YOU, and then throw YOU on the ground. If you bring food wrappers, bottles, clothing, etc. with you on a day trip, bring it back with you and dispose of it in the right way. Preferably, wait until you find a recycling bin to dispose of plastic bottles, cans, and clean paper. Many places may not have a place to compost, so try to avoid bringing things that will go to waste (like a bag of chips that you aren’t going to finish).
Think of the Animals!
- Don’t feed the animals. Not only does feeding the animals interrupt their natural eating patterns and diet, but it encourages dependency and aggressive behavior. Animals that become used to receiving food from tourists often lash out when they are denied food from people in the future. Also, you probably don’t know what’s an appropriate thing to feed a monkey, and may actually be doing more harm than good. Side tip: keep food out of site from wild animals, even if you weren’t planning on feeding them. Animals like monkeys and dogs have been known to bite humans just to get at their food.
- Don’t touch wild animals. By wild animals I also mean any animal that is unfamiliar to you. That doggy might look super sweet, but he may not be, and getting bitten is both dangerous for you and the animal. Not only can wild animals carry disease, but certain insects and reptiles can be poisonous. You often can’t predict how an animal is going to behave, so it is better to stay on the safe side. (I met 2 people who got bitten by moneys in Thailand. They had to get shots and it was not a good time.)
- Do not ride the elephants. Or pet the tigers. Or wrangle the gazelle (I made that one up). Do research into any activities you plan on doing that involve animals. In order to make wild animals like elephants and tigers docile enough to be safe for humans, they must be captured, often sedated, and trained. These trainings often involve beatings, limit on their food supply, and punishments for misbehavior. I spoke to a man who ran an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai who said that the elephant trainers must ride along with the tourists and poke the elephant in the neck with a sharp metal prod, otherwise the elephant can take off running. First, that sounds super dangerous to me! Second, it is not kind to the animal. There are often plenty of sanctuaries where you can view and interact with rescued animals, just be sure to do some research ahead of time.
People are People, Too!
You are a visitor in another culture, and it is important to respect the customs, practices, and beliefs of the local people even if you do not agree with them. Some things may be highly valued and revered, and showing disrespect is a good way to draw unwanted attention to yourself, and even get in trouble with the authorities. Always research your destination beforehand to avoid offenses, faux pas, and breaking local laws.
- Ask before you take a picture of someone. I know it can be oh-so-tempting to snap that picture of the woman in beautiful traditional garb, or of the little kid playing by the road. But, if you have a traveler mentality, you will begin to see that the people are not there for your entertainment (unless it is a show or performance), and thus you should ask permission before taking a picture of them. Even if you don’t know the language, you can often mimic taking a photo and most people will understand. I always like to imagine how I would feel if a stranger took a picture of me just eating my lunch on a bench in the park… kind of creeped out. Asking permission is just a polite thing to do.
- Don’t give money or candy to children. As difficult as it may be to see children in poverty and feeling that burning need to help, don’t do it. Giving money to children often perpetuates poverty because it creates a cycle of dependence, as children will skip school to get handouts from tourists. It the long run, the child and their family probably won’t be better off. Also, if tourists are seen as easy targets, they can be exploited and victims of scams and theft. In such cases, families may rely on their “cute” children to steal from visitors. Consider looking into other ways to give back, like a donation to an ethical charity, helping a small business, or buying products from local artisans.
- (Pet peeve alert!) Don’t haggle like an asshole. Some friendly bargaining can be fun, and is even expected in some cultures, but learn when to recognize when enough is enough. Some cultures have a need to “save face” and aggressive haggling can be an offensive embarrassment. I definitely recommend having your wits about you to avoid scams, but sometimes you really are being offered a fair price. Sometimes walking away from a potential argument (or worse) is worth it compared to the ten cents you may have saved. And, you can almost always find someone else who is more open to negotiating.
Getting from A to B
- Avoid private tours and transportation. Not only will this save you a ton of money, but carpooling is much better for the environment. Side tip: many guides and drivers will try to persuade you to take a private tour and this is often a rip off. For example, in Bangkok I was offered a private long boat ride along the Mekong River for 1500 TBT, and they said this was the only often. I walked a few blocks to the north and found that I could buy a full day pass for the local ferry boat for 100 TBT. Not only did I get the best deal, but I shared a boat with many other people and cut back on the amount of fuel used to transport just myself.
- Find a buddy. Much like my last point, try to carpool with others when you can. For one, it is usually cheaper than riding by yourself, two, you are saving on the fuel and energy to get there, and three, it can be a great way to meet people. Several times in my travels I have asked other backpackers if they were going to the same area and have been able to share rides that way. And, if you get lost, then at least you aren’t alone!
I’m Gettin’ (less) Paper
- Keep it digital. As much as possible, keep your photos, travel notes, and information on a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. You can download your hotel reservations, maps, and flight itineraries, and take pictures of travel brochures, all to be stored on one device. Doing this takes up less space, saves paper, and keeps things organized. It is also less likely that your important documents will get ruined by the elements. Of course, you can keep hard copies of things like your passport, ID, and credit cards for emergency purposes. Downloading your favorite books to a tablet or Kindle also saves on paper, space, and weight in your pack.
- Recycle leftovers. If you can’t reuse any paper that may otherwise go to waste, dispose of it in a recycling bin if one is available.
Water is the Essence of Life
In Western cultures we often take advantage of the fact that we usually have clean, drinkable water at our fingertips whenever we want. We also have the luxury of hot showers, large bathtubs, and flushable toilets. In some countries you will encounter, these things are scarce or unavailable. No matter where you are, it is good to limit your use of water, as it is a valuable resource.
20. Choosing a shower over a bath saves a ton of water.
21. Turn off the sink when you aren’t using it.
22. Avoid flushing sanitary products and other things down the toilet. In some countries, you shouldn’t even flush toilet paper down the toilet, as it is hard on the sewer system and is often sent back out into the ocean and rivers
23. Save on laundry. If you need to wash your dirty laundry, wait until you have a full load to do so, rather than several small loads. In some areas it may be possible to air dry you clothing, which saves on energy, and you have the option of washing your clothes by hand (which can be kind of fun). I loved having my quick dry Paktowel because it air dried quickly and I could reuse it several times without it starting to smell bad (as usual bath towels do). You may also want to consider using environmentally-friendly soap if it is available, otherwise baking soda also works.
Food Is Good
24. Whenever possible, compost any unfinished food in an available compost bin. Also consider how much food you order or buy in order to avoid waste.
25. Eat vegetarian*. I am including this one because a vegetarian diet really is a great way to avoid consuming animal products, and to save on water. Many animal products are not ethically sourced (often involving poor living conditions for the animals), and meat production relies on a a huge amount of water (for feeding and production methods). I must say that I myself am not a vegetarian, but if you are committed to living an eco-friendly life, you may want to consider this option.
26. Go local. Local food products are often the most ethically-sourced and sustainably produced. They travel a shorter distance from farm to table, thus using less energy in transport. Local products often have better living conditions for their animals since the focus is not on mass production. Further, the financial limits of a small farm often means that they cannot afford things like genetically modified crops and strong pesticides. Feel free to learn more about local products in your area- information is power!
27.Unplug electronics when they are done charging. To save on energy, be sure to unplug things like cell-phones, laptops, and tablets once they are done charging.
28. Turn off lights, fans, and AC when you leave your hotel room. Don’t leave the hair dryer on. You will wake the neighbors.
29. Leave the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door for the duration of your stay. This limits the use of energy, chemicals, and water needed to clean your room and laundry.
30. If you choose to rent a car, you can often opt for an electric or eco-friendly vehicle. Ask what your options are. Priuses are pretty comfy.
With technology changing every day, what it means to be environmentally friendly is constantly evolving. Hopefully this guide gave you some ideas on how to keep the Earth a happy and healthy place for everyone!
Feel free to leave a comment below if there is something awesome YOU do to be an Earth-Friendly Traveler!