Sustainable travel

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I’m sorry.

I’m going to apologise to you, first, but then also to the planet. Because the truth is that as much as I tried to be mindful and sustainable while we were travelling as a family last year, I failed more often than I succeeded, and I suspect I could have tried so much harder.

I realise this confession is not very helpful, especially if you happen to have opened this post in the hopes of finding tips for sustainable travel (perhaps we could brainstorm ideas together?). But I think confessions are an important. I fail all too often when it comes to taking care of the world we live in, and I think it’s important to own my failures, and to let myself feel the shame rather than sweep it under the carpet, so that I can do better next time.

Also, maybe if you sometimes feel that everyone else is a zero-waste champion, carrying around a year’s worth of waste in a single mason jar while you forgot to bring the reusable bags to the supermarket last week… my confession might help you feel a little bit better, and perhaps a little less alone. We have a better chance of success if we support one another.

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(A bit of context: we were on holidays for one month. There were five of us, three adults and two children, making our way from Dinan in France to Scotland, via Paris and London, staying in Air BnB homes along the way. Our time in the village hadn’t been a brilliant success at sustainability (I shared some of our experiences and ideas here), but it turns out that life on the road can make things a lot more difficult.)

Things that did work well

First, the positives. There were some things I did that worked really well, making life easy and practical for us on the road while also going a small way towards minimising our footprint. They included:

  • We used public transport as much as possible. From the time we left Australia in August to our return at the New Year, we took trains and buses almost everywhere. We only hired a car for one week, in order to travel in the Scottish highlands, and only took a taxi on one late night in London, and two extremely early (one of them 4am) mornings

  • I packed three beeswax wraps of varying sizes when we left for our trip, and used them to cover just about anything. They were especially useful in Dinan, but also came in handy when, for example, we wanted to transport a half-eaten cucumber from one Air BnB home to another, without using plastic wrap or take-away plastic boxes

  • I had also packed a square, collapsible, insulated lunch bag. Again, back in Dinan this was great for carrying cold things home from the market, but it was also handy once we hit the road, not only carrying food from the shops but also storing it and taking it with us from one place to another, rather than throwing things away

  • I bought some tourist-style biscuit tins. I love to use tins at home for storage, but they were also very helpful while we were travelling, slotting and stacking neatly in my suitcase, and carrying everything from food to stationery supplies to first aid. (Clearly I had already eaten the biscuits. I did it for the planet)

  • I packed two heat-proof drink-bottles with me when we first left Australia. One was glass and I accidentally smashed it in a ceramic sink in our London B&B, but the other was wood with metal insulation, and is still going strong. I’d fill this with water before leaving from the day, so that we didn’t need to buy plastic bottles of water

  • I packed two tote bags for carrying groceries, and bought a couple more when I needed them. I also wore a back pack every day (this one), rather than carrying a handbag. It could expand to create a surprisingly big space, and I’ve carried full-sized blankets in it, bottles of milk and wine, stacks of books, and secretly-stashed Christmas presents. Mostly I was pretty good at bringing bags with me, even for things like Christmas shopping. I think we used three or four plastic bags in total in the month we travelled, and those I saved to use as garbage bags in our B&Bs

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Things we really should have done better

  • I didn’t bring a reusable coffee cup. In France, this didn’t matter. I drank tea at home and coffee in cafes and, knowing this would be the case, I just didn’t add it to the luggage I was packing. But in London and Scotland, often my husband would go out early while I was getting the kids dressed, and bring back two coffees and the newspaper to read. It was so nice to have a ‘proper’ latte after all that time that my conscience grew weak.

    Lesson: I should have said “no thanks.” Or waited until I could leave, too, and had the coffee in the cafe. I did sometimes, but mostly I didn’t, and I’m sorry.

  • I took a big bag of soap nuts with me when we first went to Dinan, and used them for several months. But then the ancient washing machine in our rented apartment tore apart the little muslin bag I used for them (as well as several items of my clothing). I didn’t know how to replace it, so I had to buy ordinary laundry powder to use on the road. I tried to find earth-friendly detergent but still ended up with a kind of contact-dermatitis on my legs and torso, which doesn’t bode well for the waters it drained into.

    Lesson: I’m not sure. Learn how to sew my own little muslin bags? There’s no way I could have carried a month’s worth of clean clothes for five people travelling in winter. Can you help? What would you have done?

  • I used traditional Christmas wrapping paper, even though I knew it probably couldn’t be recycled. There was a lot of angst around this (for me) and in the end, I chose paper because a) by the time we arrived in Edinburgh, where we’d be for Christmas, we only had two days left to organise everything, b) I couldn’t find brown paper and didn’t have time to decorate it anyway, c) my husband doesn’t like furoshiki wraps because he thinks they don’t get used, and anyway I couldn’t afford to buy enough for all the presents, d) the children didn’t have Santa stockings or sacks, so I wanted to create some kind of ‘unwrapping’ experience for them, and e) we didn’t have a tree or much in the way of decorations, so the other adults travelling with me quite rightly felt a bit of festivity was in order.

    I didn’t want to be the wowser in the group, and perhaps by this point was feeling a bit (or a lot) hypocritical about pushing the issue, given all the other slip-ups and outright failures we’d been making along the way. It’s hard to be vigilant about recyclable wrapping-paper while sipping coffee from your take-away cup.

    Lesson: In retrospect, the smartest thing would probably have been to bring two stockings or sacks for the kids, so that the Santa presents didn’t need wrapping, and then to use a combination of cloth, tea-towels, ribbons and other ideas for our presents to one another. Also, I’m going to teach myself how to properly use furoshiki wraps, so by next year, my husband might accede to their usefulness.

  • Food waste and recycling was tricky. I did manage to sort-of minimise our food waste, but we were limited in terms of recycling options, depending on the rules of each home we stayed in. I’ve written before about the challenges of not bringing things in, rather than figuring out what to do with the things on the way out, but I don’t think I was particularly good at this, especially once we hit the road.

    Lesson: Really, there’s not a lot you can do in these situations, other than to be mindful of what you bring in, and I just needed to be more vigilant in that respect. It’s a lot harder to cook at home while on holidays, and can sometimes be counter-intuitive (the amount of ‘things’ we’d need to buy for just one meal in terms of food ingredients that wouldn’t get fully eaten, and all the jars, tins and plastic they come in, would possibly be more wasteful than a single take-away pizza box or plastic container), so I guess the answer is to think hard and creatively about what comes in, every time.

  • Air travel. This is the giant, white elephant in the room when it comes to sustainable travel. Here we are as ‘responsible’ human beings, travelling with our keep-cups and tote bags, while just to get where we want to go, we are participating in an industry that is responsible for more than 2 percent of the entire world’s carbon dioxide emissions by burning finite fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gases, and leaving contrails in the atmosphere. In addition, airports and the related infrastructure (terminals, runways, ground transport, maintenance facilities and shopping) use up huge amounts of energy, water and resources.

    Lesson: Clearly, the easy answer is not to travel by plane. But I am selfish and I do want to travel, at least sometimes. Australia is an island, so any international travel requires flying. It’s a start to participate in a carbon offset scheme (where trees are planted to ‘offset’ the fossil fuels your journey burns). I did this and don’t want to discount it, but to me that feels like a tiny drop in the ocean.

    I have had another thought: I’ve read that the per-passenger-per-kilometre carbon emissions of air travel are roughly the same as travelling by car. So now, back home, I need to be even better at not taking our car, walking instead, or using public transport if necessary. (Although to get from Melbourne to Paris, and then to get home from Edinburgh to Melbourne, we flew 33,682 kilometres. Multiplied by the five of us, that’s 168,410 kilometres, so I have a lot of walking and tram-rides to do before I even break even from this one trip, environmentally-speaking. It’s not a perfect system).

    What do you do? How do you combine air travel with your environmental conscience? What are your top tips for thoughtful, sustainable travel?

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