It’s almost that time of spring semester when we collectively heave a sigh of relief, leave our midterm stress behind, and eagerly rush off to partake in spring break festivities. Whether your plans include traveling to far–off and exotic lands, staying local, or heading home, there is a common price we'll all pay over break: the price of our environmental impact. A 2018 study from the University of Sydney cites global tourism as the source of 8% of our carbon emissions, which is 5% higher than estimates from previous years. Besides the greenhouse gases that are generated by the physical act of travel, emissions stem from shopping, food consumption, and hotels’ large carbon footprints. Unsurprisingly, we can all do our part to make travel—and really any element of our modern lives—more sustainable by turning to the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Read on for ways you can pack your environmental consciousness with you this spring break.
Before even setting off, the location that we choose can determine the impact we will have. According to Martha Honey, Executive Director of The Center for Responsible Travel, “Overtourism is one of the most critical issues facing the tourism industry today.” And what is “overtourism,” you might ask? Just think of uncomfortably packed tourist destinations: cities overcrowded with tourists (think Barcelona or Venice), or damaged and depleted wildlife due to nonstop human visitors (tropical beaches littered with trash). This is not to say that we shouldn't visit these places—rather, it's a reminder to treat your surroundings with respect and preserve the sights and attractions for both the local residents and future visitors. Overall, mass tourism has proven to be a double–edged sword: more people than ever are seeing the world and contributing to the global economy, while at the same time many locations are becoming damaged past the point of no return. Moral of the story: choose your travel destination wisely and respect your surroundings.
After you've chosen your destination, you're faced with the decision of how to get there. Whether by plane, train, or automobile, your travel will have a detrimental impact on the earth—some means of travel more so than others. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, aircraft travel accounts for 12% of all U.S. transportation–based greenhouse gas emissions and overall, 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. One standard airplane—say, a Boeing 747—burns about one gallon of fuel every four seconds and guzzles about five gallons of fuel per mile. On the other hand, the fuel efficiency of cars varies, but most average about 23.6 miles per gallon of gas. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that railroads only contribute 2% to U.S. transportation greenhouse gas emissions, a relatively low amount compared to cars and planes. Basically, what all of these statistics tell us that it is best to avoid traveling by airplane—and even to opt out of driving—if at all possible. Instead, choose the train.
Lastly, an immediate and visible way to reduce your impact is to refuse single–use plastic, whether it be in the airport, at a restaurant, or in your hotel room. Start small, by bringing a reusable water bottle with you and go on to challenge yourself to say no to as much single–use plastic as you can. If saying no to plastic is not an option (like, you are really thirsty), reuse it later on! Final option—and this one's a no brainer—recycle that jawn post–hydration.
Alain F. Plante—a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science Department at Penn—stresses that while it's great to minimize our immediate impact by targeting “the small things” (see: single—use plastic), we will be the most sustainable if we stay focused on the big picture. His first suggestion is to not fly at all—and if we must, to then find reputable ways to offset this greenhouse gas emission. Plante encourages us to keep in mind that in the order of the three R’s, “Reduce comes first.”
Incorporating sustainable practices into our lives can be a challenging endeavor but like any midterm, this daunting task is something we all can get through. As spring break approaches, keep these tips in mind– or better yet, bring them back with you as a souvenir.