Is Sustainable Travel Even Possible? And Other Related Topics

May 28, 2018

I googled "sustainable travel" and most of the articles I found were about buying from the locals and supporting local industries - all things I support. But I didn't find much about how to be sustainable when it comes to the environment while travelling. At first I was like, okay well I guess I just won't write about it. Then I thought some more about it and I'm like, why am I only looking for things people have written about before?

 

Anyway, that's just a small glimpse into my inner monologue regarding this blog post. 

 

The real reason we're all here is to talk about travelling and being environmentally conscious... at the same time! I just came back from a weeklong trip in Greece. In my new world of being a champion for mother earth, I was a lot more aware of the vast amount of trash I had to waste in just one week. Like, for example, buying multiple water bottles every single day because the tap can't totally be trusted, or how on planes they give you the entire meal and sides even though you definitely won't eat all of it, and most of it goes to waste because it's mushy and a weird neon orange color. And not only that, plane emissions are, like, the worst thing ever. So let's get right into it. 

 

(in Santorini, by the way, it was almost impossible to find any sort of trash bin on the public streets/walkways and yet there was no trash in the street at all whatsoever)

 

What's the big idea?

 

Planes. 

 

The number one thing required to travel overseas, the plane, actually has the biggest impact on the climate system than any other form of travel. This shouldn't really come as a surprise. I suppose you could also travel by boat, but that's for another time.

 

Planes, like cars and other forms of transport, produce a lot of CO2 (as well as soot, sulphate, water vapor, and nitrous oxides). We know this. But what surprised me, personally, was that the most harmful airplane emissions occur at cruising altitude a.k.a. a majority of the flight. So that 13 hour flight I just did from Istanbul was emitting dangerous greenhouse gasses for approximately 11 hours. 

 

 CO2 intensity by type of transport

 

Contrails are those long plumes of exhaust that trail planes in the sky. Although contrails are mostly water vapor and ice, they stay in the air for hours and spread. Eventually, they trap heat that would otherwise escape from the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. 

 

Unfortunately there is no real form of regulation for this particular environmental risk. Domestic flight emissions are kept track of by each country's environmental agencies (of course, depending on the country). But international flights are treated differently. That is to say, their emissions are not accounted for or regulated at all. With the rise of discount airlines and greater direct access to different countries, it seems like more people are willing to fly as often as they can. 

 

It's all kind of concerning. I have to wonder when we can expect tesla or wind powered planes? It seems far fetched. I'm waiting ELON!

 

This whole thing is a moral dilemma for me. I think I'm probably not alone when I say travelling is the best and seeing new places is so important. But learning about all the bad that planes do is really brow-furrowing (yeah, I said that). Hm. 
 

Trash. 

 

European countries actually have a really interesting way of dealing with trash, I've noticed. In their stats, too, they measure it by how much total waste was recycled/composted. This leads me to believe they either have a great way to sort waste or people there just know better what to recycle and compost. 

 

 

 

Germany, Austria and Belgium recycle the most - about 60% of their total municipal waste. Slovakia, Serbia and Turkey recycle the least at a whopping 1%. Don't get me started on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

What I really came here to talk about was the toilet paper situation in Greece and all these other countries shown below. This is where the "other related topics" from the title of this post comes in. I've thought a lot about this ever since my zero waste day. How do environmental warriors deal with toilet paper? Well, some people use cloth and wash. If you don't mind me saying, ew. Some people use recycled paper to wipe (although there's a lot of hoopla about it being harmful for you). 

 

 

In Greece it's common to see a picture in the bathroom that instructs you to not put your used toilet paper in the toilet. That's right. Their plumbing systems are not strong enough to handle toilet paper down the drain. What they request is that you throw it in the bin. 

 

At this point you're like, Zoe what does this have to do with the environment? Well, dear reader, I'm curious. Does the bin vs. drain have any difference in impact on non-recyclable trash produced in these countries? 

 

Down the drain, the paper eventually dissolves in water and...other substances. In the bin, it's simply taken where the rest of trash is taken, and one whole toilet paper roll takes about two months to decompose in a landfill. So neither option seems that harmful to me...unless I'm missing something? I guess the ideal environmental option for countries not experiencing drought would be bidets. 

 

The most important takeaway in all this toilet research I've done is that you never ever recycle toilet paper (or any used napkin/paper product). Whether you used it to blow your nose or something unmentionable, it tarnishes the whole bag of recycling and is a biohazard to the people that sort through your recycling at a plant. 

 

What did we learn?

 

Travelling sustainably continues to confuse me. While it is definitely possible to ~reduce, reuse, recycle~ wherever you go, there are some things that are just out of your hands, like how bad planes are. It takes a lot of research (is this tap safe to drink?), it takes a lot of flexibility (where's the nearest recycling on this island?), and it takes refusing the neon-orange-mac-n'-cheese-with-a-tomato-on-top meal on your 13 hour flight from Istanbul and opting for a third cliff bar instead. 

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