Sustainability and Travel

Road going off into the distanceRecently, I had the opportunity to take a vacation in the form of a road trip from Olympia, WA to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. While traveling, I had several chances to think about sustainability and how action on trips can help to reduce the impact of your travels.

When traveling, of course, you’re basically required to expend more in the form of energy than you would otherwise, whether that’s gasoline in your car (or the plane you fly on), the energy expended to check into a hotel, use their resources, and check out, or the energy to simply pack your bag and leave in the first place. Inevitably, you increase your footprint in the world, at least temporarily. So what can you do to help negate that increased footprint?

It seems unreasonable to simply say “don’t ever travel anywhere for any reason, since it results in more waste and energy expended”. Instead, here are some suggestions:

  • If you intend to stay longer than a single night in any one hotel, keep the “do not disturb” sign on your door. This stops housekeeping from cleaning your room daily – you can always reuse towels and sleep on the same sheets. You’re saving some small amount of water and electricity by not needing clean linens daily.
  • Recycle when recycling is available. If it’s not available and it’s practical to do so, carry recyclables with you until you find someplace that does recycle.
  • Pick lodgings that are dedicated to reducing their own footprint through internal sustainability programs. Quite a few of these establishments now exist – you just have to look for them.
  • Consider purchasing a carbon offset for your trip. Expedia has now partnered with TerraPass to offer these offsets when Expedia users purchase plane tickets. There are, of course, many other offset services and sustainability charities worthy of a donation to help compensate for your increased footprint.

Neutralizing Human Impact

I very recently became part of a program called TerraPass, which provides a way to counterbalance the amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated by cars and planes by funding various renewable energy and forestry projects. I purchased a TerraPass Hybrid membership, which offsets the 6,000 pounds of carbon dioxide my Prius is expected to emit over the next year.

Wind FarmTerraPass has long been an item of interest for the media (as well as other offset programs such as Drive Neutral, Climate Care, or the very interesting Better World Club). Expedia recently announced that it would begin offering TerraPass flight offset programs to its visitors booking flights, which is an admirable move, but certainly not the only way of purchasing such an offset (a user of Orbitz or Travelocity, for instance, could simply purchase an offset independently).

These programs feel backwards, because they don’t create a visible result – it’s certainly not the case that you no longer see carbon dioxide rising from that exhaust pipe! So what’s the point? Some argue that it’s a “feel good about yourself” move, which, to some extent, it is. I prefer a more holistic view: this is a way to create positive change and to begin to neutralize your own impact, whether that is through controversy or through the funding of programs that promote cleaner energy technologies and a greener environment. Human generation of massive amounts of carbon dioxide isn’t our only problem, but it is a problem. We must do what we can to help minimize the impacts of our existence in what is, at best, a fragile world.