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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?