It’s impossible to ignore the impact that plastics and overconsumption have had on our world. We’re grateful to see airlines, hotels, and cruise lines taking steps to lessen their footprint. But there are steps that we travelers can take too—and they’re not as intimidating as you might think. Kathryn Kellogg, founder of the website Going Zero Waste and author of the new book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste (April 2019, The Countryman Press) has dedicated the past several years to encouraging people to take small steps in their daily lives that can add up to substantial change.
It’s not always easy being green on the road: You’re in a foreign environment, you don’t have the tools you use at home, and being at the airport or on a plane sometimes feels like swimming in a sea of plastic. But that’s the wonderful thing about Kellogg: While she advocates for cutting down on waste, she’ll cut herself slack if she winds up with a plastic water bottle or orders a takeout pizza.
“It’s ridiculous to think that things might go our way 100 percent of the time,” she says. “And when you’re traveling, that becomes even more of a variable factor. You just have to relax and go along for the ride and hope that you did the best that you could.”
Here are a few ways to begin.
Plant a tree when you fly (aka buy offsets)
Flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities we participate in as travelers. “All the emissions are happening in the atmosphere, which is one reason why I try not to fly very often,” says Kellogg, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. But she still flies for work, for the occasional recreational travel—and to see her family, who live out of state. “I’m not saying I’m perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” she says. “But I think it’s important to be conscious, so I buy offsets.”
Offsets can sound intimidating or murky, but in essence they’re a way to compensate for the carbon emissions you create by driving or flying by investing in something that removes carbon from the atmosphere (such as planting trees, which absorb carbon as they grow) or prevents it from appearing altogether (say, investing in renewable energy). Offsets have been controversial—ideally, we’d avoid contributing carbon pollution altogether—but as the airline industry works to switch over to biofuels and other clean flights, offsets are one very small way to give back.
But instead of buying offsets through an offsite website, which she says can be problematic, Kellogg calculates her carbon footprint using a carbon footprint calculator and then pays to have trees planted through a verified service, such as the Arbor Day Foundation’s carbon credit program or the National Forest Foundation’s Carbon Capital Fund. A fully grown tree can absorb a ton of carbon and your spot on a round-trip, cross-country flight generates at least .10 tons of carbon. Because it takes 40 years for many trees to be fully grown, Kellogg plants a few extra for every flight she takes. “Typically, it only costs a dollar per tree,” she says. “For $10 you can plant 10 trees and feel a little bit better about making the trip.”
Some airlines offer carbon offset programs as well, such as United’s CarbonChoice program. Other airlines (JetBlue, Alaska)—and travel companies such as Amtrak—have partnered with Carbon Fund to offer offsetting options to travelers. To learn more about the basics of offsets, read Kellogg’s recent blog post on the topic or this 101 guide to offsets from the Points Guy.
Create a zero-waste travel kit
One of the simplest things you can do as a traveler is to create a kit that helps you avoid accumulating waste on the road. Think ahead to the types of things you might need while traveling, then bring a sustainable alt.
When it comes to food, Kellogg brings a set of reusable bags—such as Colony Co.’s reusable mesh bags—if she’ll be in a place for an extended time and knows she’ll want to buy groceries. She also brings reusable utensils, such as this set of bamboo utensils from To-Go Ware, which comes in a handy, travel-friendly pouch. And she brings at least one of these stainless steel, leak-proof containers for any takeout leftovers or to carry snacks for the plane.
When it comes to drinking, Kellogg has two go-to water bottles, a double-insulated one from Klean Kanteen, which can hold hot or cold drinks, and a two-in-one version from Dopper, which unscrews to become two items: the base becomes a cup and the lid, a small wineglass. “It’s great if you’re at a party,” she says. “You can have your water glass and your wine.” Kellogg doesn’t use a straw for drinking but if straws are your jam, she recommends this extra-wide, stainless steel version.
Kellogg’s toiletry kit is equally sustainable. She uses the same clear, plastic zip-up bag she’s had since high school (the kind that comes with refillable bottles) and refills the containers from her larger bulk supplies at home. She uses a biodegradable dental floss, and while she makes her own toothpowder, she notes that toothpaste bites—Pez-like tablets that foam up when you put them in your mouth, such as these toothpaste bits from Bite—are becoming increasingly popular and are perfect for travel. (Find more of her zero-waste product suggestions here.)
Consider the length of your trip
Here’s an argument for booking a stopover flight—or exploring closer to home. “It’s a common misconception that the best type of flight to take is a direct flight,” Kellogg says. It’s true that planes use the most fuel during takeoff and landing, but that doesn’t account for the weight of jet fuel that planes must carry for longer journeys, she says. “If you’re flying straight for 18 hours, the plane must have a lot more jet fuel on board, so the plane is a lot heavier and emissions increase.” On short flights—those under four hours—a higher proportion of the fuel is used in taking off and taxiing, she says, radically decreasing the plane’s efficiency. The most fuel-efficient length of a flight? “If you can hit the four- to five-hour mark, that’s kind of the sweet spot.”
Never check a bag
Kellogg grew up in a family whose motto was “Never check a bag.” But there are sustainability reasons to double-down on a carry-on-only policy. “It really comes down to weight,” she says. The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it needs to fly—and the more emissions it will produce. “So if you’re checking two bags and they both weigh 50 pounds and you’ve got a 50-pound carry-on, then you’re adding an extra 150 pounds of weight to the plane,” she says. (The industry-wide standard assumes 220 pounds of weight for each passenger, including the person and his or her luggage.) For every extra 6.5 pounds of a fuel a plane carries, it produces an additional 20 pounds of CO2.
Find alternatives to flying
Before Kellogg commits to a trip, she explores the most carbon-friendly way to get there. “Let’s say I wanted to go to L.A. from San Francisco—and I wanted to go with my husband,” she says. “Well, since it’s a drivable distance, the carbon footprint of us flying is going to be much higher than us driving.” (This is especially true if you have a hybrid or electric vehicle.) She uses her carbon calculator to determine the potential impact of her trip (dividing the total impact by the number of passengers making the trip). Granted, a lot of these tools can only offer estimates—efficiency differs from airline to airline and depends on a lot of factors outside of your control. But they’re a way of “weighing your options and trying to make the best decision,” Kellogg says.
Spend more time in a destination—and give back while you’re there
Kellogg’s philosophy is to take fewer short trips and emphasize longer, more purposeful stays. “My general belief on travel is if you’re going to do it, make it as meaningful as possible,” she says. “Since flying is so carbon-heavy, if you’re going to go somewhere, spend more time in the destination, instead of flying from point to point.”
Once in her destination, she looks for ways to travel lightly. “I would definitely look into renting a hybrid vehicle or an electric vehicle,” she says. “Or, for shorter distances, I would ride a bike instead of driving.” She also likes to give back to places she visits, by either volunteering or finding a project she can tackle on her own. “You could volunteer to remove non-native species from the area,” she says. “Or if you are on a beach trip, maybe you spend 30 minutes of your vacation picking up plastic or litter on the beach. You can just do something small.”
Take a closer look at your hotel
Hotels have a “surprisingly high carbon footprint, due to the energy it takes to run the buildings,” Kellogg says. Collectively, hotels are “responsible for 60 million tons of carbon each year,” she adds. Thankfully, that’s changing. Hotels across the board are rethinking their approach to sustainability: Marriott, Hilton, and InterContinental are among the brands with ambitious plans in place to cut their carbon footprints.
When thinking about a hotel, Kellogg suggests looking for one with a LEED-certified building or a hotel with solid sustainability initiatives. For example, the 1 Hotels brand, which launched in 2015 and now has four hotels throughout the United States, launched with several sustainability keystones built into its business model.
Be proactive with brands you care about
Those hotel cards that invite you to hang your towels (rather than get fresh ones every day) in the name of sustainability are ubiquitous now—but are they enough? Kellogg revealed that her perspective on things like that has changed radically in the past several years. “When I first started out, I was super hardcore,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’ll find all these brands who think they’re doing good and I’m going to call them out.’ I was very passionate, like I think a lot of people are.”
She soon realized that was a misdirection of her energy. “I was spending time condemning brands who were trying, as opposed to brands that were not trying at all, which seemed kind of backwards in my mind,” she says.
Now, if she were to engage with, say, a hotel brand, she would reach out to their marketing team or to someone in the corporate office. First, she would thank them for what they are doing. Then she would ask what the brand’s sustainability measures are, before offering suggestions for what they could do in addition. It might sound something like this: “I think XYZ is awesome. I’m so glad that you want to be more sustainable.” Then she might ask, Are you thinking about transitioning to renewable energy? Or, are you considering ways to treat greywater or collect rainwater?
“I think we should congratulate brands for what they’re doing,” she says, “and then ask them to do more.”
For more on ethical travel, check out the below To the Best of Our Knowledge episode, inspired by AFAR’s May/June hospitality issue.