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Ready, Set, Go: green tips for travel

Does the responsibility of traveling “green” leave you feeling overwhelmed, guilt-ridden, and wondering if individual efforts really make a difference? Don’t let the challenges be a deterrent!

You may be surprised to learn the variety of ways green travel is now being defined, how easy it is to make alternate choices, and the positive impact simple actions can have. Being a more ethical traveler isn’t about grand gestures, but a commitment to smaller ones that really add up.

What is green travel?
It's a broad term referring to responsible travel practices mindful of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. It also may refer to eco-tourism, the business of purposefully visiting natural areas. In other words, making conscious, informed decisions on how and where we journey is green travel.

How can travelers pursue their passion for seeing the world while making a positive impact on indigenous nature, wildlife, and culture? Where do you start and what can be done?
While it sounds like a lofty venture, there are actionable items to help minimize the negative impact of travel and be a vehicle for positive change.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
To start, consider things you likely do or are thinking about doing, at home for the environment and extend these practices as a portable lifestyle. Reducing single-use plastics, conserving water and energy, and recycling whatever and whenever possible helps curtail waste.

Citing figures from consumer market research company Euromonitor International, The Guardian has reported that 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute—or about 20,000 per second—around the globe. Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, jeopardizing our environment.

If the water is safe where you are traveling, take a BPA-free water bottle you can refill over and over again. If the water is questionable, and bottled water is unavoidable, try to purchase brands that haven’t been imported from far away countries. Personal water filters are also an option, and the best water filter is a water purifier, as it safeguards against viruses that can be found in the water of developing countries. For a comprehensive discussion of travel water treatment options, read the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) article, Water Disinfection for Travelers.

At home, do you use new towels and change bed linens every day? While traveling, many accommodations will not automatically replace your towels if you leave them hanging up neatly. Some may view the hotel’s “green” initiatives room card messaging as a clever tactic to save on labor, but it turns out laundry accounts for 16% of hotels’ water usage, translating into significant energy costs. National Geographic reporting on the data cites The American Hotel and Lodging Association noting such programs increase the lifespan of towels and linens, thus reducing replacement costs.

Other positive green practices include turning off the air conditioning, heat, television, lights or any other electric devices when you leave the room, and turning off the water while brushing your teeth.

Recycling at home can be different than recycling on the go, but here too are opportunities to make an effort to reduce waste. Although admittedly convenient, travel can invite disposable food containers, plastic utensils, and bags. Ask the hotel if it has a recycling program. Look for opportunities to dine at establishments with real plates and silverware and pack your own snacks in reusable containers. Also, consider traveling with your own utensils and straw (in metal or bamboo), a reusable cup for coffee, and a couple of cloth napkins. We know that air travel has a significant impact on the environment from greenhouse gas emissions, but consider too all the disposables left behind by passengers. Bring a reusable bag to collect recyclables, including any trash to carry off the plane to dispose of in recycling-collection containers at the airport. Airlines are making improvements with recycling efforts, but have a way to go.

What are some specific actions to support the flora, fauna, and people of the places we visit?
Research your destination and understand the political, cultural, and economic context. Talk with locals and immerse yourself with an open mind to new realities and experiences—one of the fundamental reasons why we journey! Seek out indigenous artisans for locally made souvenirs with your reusable shopping bag. When you purchase goods directly, you are supporting families and preserving culture. Avoid buying souvenir photos from anyone exploiting wildlife, or products made from endangered species. Items made with hides, shells, feathers, and teeth of endangered species may be legally purchased, but are not a good choice, and U.S. and international laws may make it a crime to bring them back home.

Remember, marked trails exist for a reason and stick to paths where appropriate to avoid harming any native flora and conservation work. Likewise, when snorkeling or scuba diving, don’t touch or step on coral and think about your sunscreen. In July of 2018, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, ingredients scientists believe can harm aquatic life. But there are likely other chemicals in sunscreen also posing an environmental threat as well, so sunscreen labels can be misleading. Since the term “reef safe” doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition, and even high concentrations of sunscreens thought to be safe may not be safe, what can be done? Don’t abandon sunscreen, as this essential protection is needed against sunburns and skin cancer, according to Consumer Reports. The site lists sunscreen recommendations and says the best way to help both your body and the environment may be to cover up with protective clothing and apply sunscreen to exposed skin.

How do you know if a tour operator implements responsible green travel practices? What should a consumer be asking?
At each stage of your adventure, consider the impact you want to have on the environment and community calling this destination home. When using the services of a tour outfitter, ask for some of their environmentally friendly practices, how they are committed to supporting wildlife and cultural heritage, and whether or not they seek the help and knowledge of local guides.

At Orbridge, we believe there is power in numbers, which is why we specialize in small group tours for less environmental impact with many like-minded associations and affinity partners leveraging education for the greater good. Ongoing sustainability efforts include reforestation, recycling, providing guests with water canteens, using services of locals, and partnering with green-focused operators at home and abroad. Whether you’re learning about the ecological role and re-introduction of the wild wolves of Yellowstone, sharing a meal and conversation with a Peruvian family in the Andes, or recalling spectacular wildlife viewing of the day’s game drives while relaxing at an eco-lodge hidden among the kopjes, ancient baobab, and grasses in Tanzania, Orbridge takes a responsible approach to travel.

Where can I learn more about green travel?
Information online abounds, and one good source of green travel information is Green Global Travel. In their article, 40 Green Travel Tips (The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel), world-traveling couple Bret and Mary expound upon the subject and additional activities to help save the planet with environmental responsibility, social empowerment, and economic viability.

Is there reason to hope?
Absolutely! Limiting personal impact on the environment does require effort, and news reports are filled with stories covering the dire condition of our planet, but things are not hopeless. In fact, encouragement springs forth in recent stories of the European Union voting to ban single-use plastics, New York and California banning single-use plastic bags, Puerto Rico working to build a massive solar grid, companies buying in to support reusable packaging collected from our doorsteps after use, solar and wind power becoming more appealing, ride-sharing becoming greener with electric vehicle options in select cities, signs of the ozone layer healing, improvement in China’s air pollution, and the Arbor Day Foundation committing to plant 100 million trees in the hopes of removing tons of chemical pollution from the air. Together we can all do something, and create a healthier, greener planet for generations to enjoy.