Traveling: Inherently Wasteful…Inherently Fun

This Spring break, I traveled to Blacksburg, VA (via Charlotte, NC) to visit my former roommate, Alexis, who is kicking butt in an English Master’s program at Virginia Tech. I hate to fly (I shake like a dog in a lightning storm the entire time, particularly if there is turbulence), but I love to visit new places, and in spite of the snowy weather that I brought with me, I had fun exploring the VT campus and eating my way through Blacksburg.

The face of VT

The face of VT

Star Hil Little Red RooStarr coffee milk stout...perhaps one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my body.

Star Hil Little Red RooStarr coffee milk stout…perhaps one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my body.

As an experiment, I decided to keep tabs of all of the trash that I generated while traveling from when I left Orono to when I returned to Lexington. On my way to Massachusetts, I stopped at the Natural Living Center to fill a sack with banana chips to snack on (I never eat full meals whilst traveling, which is a vestige of my emetophobia). I also stopped at Starbucks and filled Sean’s wonderful thermos with coffee to keep me awake during my 5-hour drive (bad idea – the caffeine, which I have mostly phased out of my diet, made me sick) and coerced the reluctant barista to also fill up my Nalgene with water. Awesome! I thought to myself. What a great zero waste start to my traveling!


Huckleberry, Alexis’s super adorable dog.

But as much as I felt like patting myself on the back, I was missing the biggest imprint of my journey – carbon. The drive to my sister’s is nearly 5 hours and sucked my gas tank dry. Then she had to drive two hours round trip to get me to the airport, where I hopped on a carbon-guzzling airplane and flew 700 miles to Charlotte, where Alexis picked me up and drove me 3 hours back to Blacksburg. Lather, rinse, repeat. Wow, that’s a lot of miles.

A pretty tree on one of the snowy days that I was there.

A pretty tree on one of the snowy days that I was there.

I started reading Plenty – a hilarious and informative book about eating locally – recently, and I had to pause for awhile after the first chapter because the author mentions footprint calculators. I had forgotten they existed! Curious how my new lifestyle has affected my ecological footprint, I happily googled off to click around on some footprint calculator websites. I have yet to find one that even allows for a zero-waste-style life (most assume you produce at least one full garbage can a week), but I did find myself stalling on the carbon-specific portion of the quiz. My air travel this (academic) year has included a trip to Arizona and a trip to Blacksburg, and my car travel has included more trips to and from Massachusetts than usual (since my sister and brother-in-law live there now). So in spite of my efforts to reduce my waste and the fact that I do not drive my car more than once every two weeks, I’m still stomping down my huge feet on our beautiful planet.

This is where I have trouble reconciling my desire to experience the world and to simultaneously save it (save being a relative term – I am not delusional enough to think that I can single-handedly save the earth, no matter what kind of stories I wrote as a kid). I think that cultivating deep compassion for the earth involves seeing as much of it as you can, and not just through National Geographic and Planet Earth. Humans are visceral beings; to care, we must see, feel, hear, smell, touch, and aside from quitting our jobs and departing on foot or in canoe, to travel, we must consume fossil fuels. I have no good answer for this. Neither does Bea Johnson (her family still travels to Paris yearly to visit her parents, an act which apparently gathers a lot of criticism).

A vegetarian gyro that rocked my socks...

A vegetarian gyro that rocked my socks…

There are, however, a few ways that you can keep your travel footprint smaller and more efficient. It involves some planning ahead, some fancy gadgets (yep, I have a smartphone, and I’m…not proud of it), and a willingness to speak out.

But before I get to that, here is the list of my traveling waste:

  • Teabag and teabag packaging (2 total)
  • Plastic medicine packaging (from my caffeine-induced illness)
  • Paper towels (8 total)
  • Sushi box (recycled) and 3 little packets (soy sauce, wasabi, ginger – the wasabi and ginger definitely could have been unpackaged, although at least in this case they left out the bit of plastic fake grass)
  • Mango candy bag (damn you, Trader Joe’s, and your at-the-register product placement!)
  • Plastic bag from grocery shopping (reused for dog poops)
  • Various food wastes from first night’s meal (composted)
  • Paper napkins (3 total)
  • Straws (2 total)
  • Candy wrapper from restaurant (2 total)
  • Paper napkin ring

Something that I noticed often while eating out was that waiters now bring water with a straw already in it, which means that the opportunity to refuse the straw is never presented to you – I learned after the first two incidences that I had to ask for “water, no straw.” I also could have avoided the paper napkins and napkin ring by refusing them before touching them and breaking out the furoshiki-wrapped set of utensils that I brought with me…but I also didn’t want all of Alexis’s friends to think I was insane. It’s no excuse, really, so here I will merely hang my head in shame.

The one restaurant where I managed to ask for no straw.

The one restaurant where I managed to ask for no straw. They have this great thing there called “luck of the draw” where you get a random beer for $2. I crapped out with lager (not my favorite), but Alexis and Ashley got some pretty tasty-looking brews.

Here are a few things you can do to keep your list of traveling waste short:

  • Make use of the Passbook (or similar?) app on your smartphone for your boarding pass – I loved this, since I tend to misplace papers or tuck away boarding passes and find myself desperately seeking them right before I have to hop on the plane. Losing my iPhone, on the other hand, is something I don’t intend to do, so I always knew where my boarding pass was. Plus, I had one less piece of paper to deal with when I was done traveling.
  • Pack (packaging-free, dry) snacks for your whole trip and avoid falling prey to flashy displays (but damn, those mango gummies were delicious)
  • Use. your. reusable. water. bottle. Seriously. No excuses. Unless you’re my dad, in which case your excuse is that your daughter stole yours.
  • Bring a thermos/travel mug for hot drinks. As much as my belly hated me, it was really helpful to be able to tote around some hot caffeine while I was traveling to keep my senses oiled.
  • Keep one of those super-compact reusable bags in your purse/luggage – you never know when you might need one, no matter how well you’ve planned ahead.
  • Bring your own utensils to restaurants that are likely to have paper napkins, plastic utensils, etc. It helps to not care what people think – any suggestions on how to do this are welcome.
  • Use hand dryers where available (I LOVE the Excel ones), and where they are not (surprisingly many places), use only ONE paper towel.
  • Refuse, refuse, refuse. With a smile and a thank you.
VT is really quite European/Hogwartsian.

VT is really quite European/Hogwartsian.

On a completely different note, if you ever happen to be in Blacksburg, I recommend the following places for some good eats (and libations):

How about you? Have you been on any trips recently? Planning any trips? Any tips for traveling with less waste?

(If you’re interested, last year’s spring break trip was to Spain: Part 1, Part 2).


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