I travel a lot and I care about the environment. I am very conscious of the ways that travel creates waste. Lots of things are packaged in single-use containers. Services are provided to either meet code or to attract customers. Many of these practices produce a lot of waste one way or another. There are some actions I take from time to time to minimize the amount of waste my travel produces. Let’s be clear, I don’t do everything on this list on every trip. But I keep these practices in mind every time I have a decision to make.
If you only travel occasionally, some of these tips probably won’t be practical. But if you travel a lot, the way I do, you might keep them in mind on your next few trips and see how it turns out. Another thing you may notice is that these tips are often cheaper in one way or another. If you pay your own travel expenses, they’ll save you money. If your company pays your travel expenses, you save it money (which may—or may not—come back to you later). If you have a customer paying your travel expenses, you save them money and you’re sure they’ll appreciate it. If it saves hotels and other companies money, then they have less pressure to raise rates. I believe that saving money is good all around, even if the money you’re saving is not your own.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
I know it’s trite, but you remember it. What people may not remember is that they’re ordered. Try to reduce your use of stuff if possible. If you can’t reduce it, try to reuse the things that you have to use. If you can’t reuse things, recycle them.
I try to think about the products and services I’m going to receive and try not to order stuff that generates more waste than useful product or service. It’s surprising how much can be avoided.
Pretend you pay for everything
At home, I fall into a bit of the classic dad model: “who left this light on?” or “why is the thermostat set at this temperature?” I’m always watching out for electricity, water, and other things that might be wasted around the house. I still think about these concerns when I travel, even though I don’t pay directly for my electricity or water usage. Just about everything that causes pollution also costs money. So, if you think about minimizing what it costs (anyone, not just you) to travel, you’ll probably reduce environmental impact, too. Not polluting is generally much cheaper than polluting.
A baker’s dozen ideas you can consider. Some are easier than others.
1. Bring your own soap / shampoo
Chances are, you already pack some toiletries. Pack a small bar of soap. Where can you get it? Just take it with you the next time you go to a hotel. They can’t reuse that tiny bar of soap you showered with once. They’re going to throw it away. Put it in your bag and take it along. The next hotel won’t have to give you a bar of soap. Frankly I find that I can get quite a few uses from a single hotel-sized bar, meaning that each one of them I reuse probably saves 5 or 6.
Shampoo is the same thing. Bring along your own small bottle of it. Bring one that a hotel gives you and use it until it runs out. If you can, refill it at home with your own favorite shampoo. No need to keep throwing the little bottles in the trash.
2. Drink tap water
When you can, drink tap water. The water coming out of the tap in the majority of places is fine. Obviously if you’re an American going to India, this advice is not good. But if you’re a Virginian going to California, there’s no reason not to drink the tap water. Bottled water creates a ton of waste. Bring a nalgene or other reusable water bottle with you and fill it at water fountains or sinks. This is a great, free way to get water after you’ve passed the security checkpoint at the airport. Empty water bottles pass with no trouble. Reusable water bottles will save you a ton of money, given that bottled water is many times more expensive than gasoline.
Drink that tap water in your water bottle if you get a quick, to-go meal at the airport. Not only do you save money, but it’s also healthier and you prevent one more disposable cup from going to the landfill.
3. Use a shuttle van
If you have a choice of using a shuttle van or taxi, and the shuttle service makes sense, use it. They’re usually a fraction of the cost of a taxi, at the expense of making you wait until enough people are going in the same direction as you. Shuttles are spotty. Sometimes you wait 5 minutes, sometimes it’s 40 minutes. Any time you can share a ride on a trip, you’re clearly saving money as well as pollutants in the environment. One van dropping nine people is far better than nine cars dropping nine people.
This one is hard for me, since I often rent a car to get to my customers’ offices. At home, a taxi costs about $17, the shuttle costs $20, and parking my own car costs $16 a day. Getting from my house to the airport is essentially the same cost, and the convenience of my own car is a real temptation. The main time I use shuttles is when I’m going somewhere like a conference and I’m pretty much going from the airport to the hotel, and then going back to the airport a few days later.
4. Reuse towels and sheets
Many hotels offer to allow you to reuse towels if you hang them up. Some will only change sheets every few days unless you ask them to. This is theoretically a great way to save the environment. It radically reduces the energy, detergents, and waste water that hotels use laundering linens. Less laundering also gives those linens a longer duty cycle, requiring fewer replacements over time. Many hotels tout their commitment to the environment and their love of mother earth, blah, blah, blah.
I always do this. I find that the housekeeping staff, however, replaces the towels regardless most of the time. You may as well try. If you hang the towels up just like they looked when you got into the room, maybe then they won’t be changed. Maybe. Anyways, we should all get in the habit of doing this, so that the towels will be reused someday when the housekeepers are finally instructed to leave used towels hanging.
5. Turn off the air conditioner
This is a big way to save the environment. Air conditioners at hotels are notoriously inefficient. They’re ill-maintained, energy wasting, and many have either no thermostat or a very crude one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed at hotels where the dial on the thermostat could have been labeled “freeze your nuts off” on one side and “sauna” on the other. And then there’s the “high” and “low” speed settings that determine how soon you will either freeze your nuts off or roast. Most of these units run more or less constantly, wasting a ton of energy.
If you’re like me, you leave your hotel room in the morning, do stuff away from the hotel all day long, and then come back to sleep. I often don’t even go into my room until after dinner and drinks. From 8:00am until 9:30 or 10:00pm, that air conditioner/heater is running constantly for nothing. I turn the thing completely off when I leave in the morning, and turn it on when I get back in the evening. It may run a little harder for the first 30 or 40 minutes when I get back, but that’s nothing compared to the savings of not running at all for 14 hours.
Many hotels have installed motion sensors that are attached to the thermostat. If you’re in the room, the thermostat does what you say. A short while after it detects that you have gone, it allows the temperature to rise or fall quite a bit, still keeping it reasonable, but allowing it to get much hotter or colder than you had originally set. I overheard a property manager at a Marriott talk about having such a system installed. He was telling a colleague that it was expensive to install, but it paid for itself in just a few months because of all the electricity it saved.
Until your hotel has motion sensors, turn off the A/C when you leave the room for the day.
6. Watch the electricity
We all know that wasting electricity creates pollution. There are a lot of ways you can save electricity when you travel. The air conditioner is an obvious and big one. But it’s important to do simple things, too. Housekeepers, in my experience, have a “leave it as you found it” approach to making up your room. Even though you’re gone all day, if they find a light on in the morning when they come in, they’ll leave it on when they’re done. Thus, the light you leave on in the morning will burn all day until you get back. Turn off the lights, TV, and so on. If you don’t, they’ll run all day, wasting electricity and contributing to pollution.
7. Decline the newspaper
Many hotels now provide a newspaper to your room every morning. If you look at the fine print, you will often discover that you can decline the daily newspaper and save yourself anywhere from $1 to $2 per day. Not only that, but you save one more newspaper from being recycled.
Obviously, it doesn’t work quite like that. Theoretically, though, they order one fewer newspaper, which means one fewer is printed, which gets back to our primary goal of reducing. In practice, it may not really work out that way. They may order a fixed number and the paper you decline just ends up in a pile in the lobby. But if everyone did this, they’d definitely order fewer papers, and that would be good for the environment. Start small, do your part, and everyone doing their little parts will add up to something larger.
8. Decline housekeeping service
One of the ways you can be sure that your linens don’t get washed too much and your towels don’t get laundered more than you want is to control your housekeeping service. If you put your “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door all day, they will leave it alone. Obviously you’ll have a messier room, and you won’t get things refreshed (like coffee, shampoo, soap, etc.). If you’re trying to reduce waste by reducing the number of disposable toiletries and sundries they provide, this complements that plan. I’m not suggesting that you decline service always. You could, however, decline it once or twice during a week. That will also reduce electricity spent on vacuuming, cleansers used in cleaning, and waste associated with wipes, gloves, or other things that the housekeepers will use cleaning the room.
9. Use digital receipts when possible
As a business traveler, I have to submit receipts for most of my travel expenses. I can’t avoid the paper receipt that I get for hotels, rental cars, restaurants, etc. But, when I turn them in, I can scan them or take a digital photo of them. Some folks will lay receipts on a photocopier to get them all just a few pages and to make them all uniform size (US letter). That wastes a few sheets of paper for negligible benefit. You can avoid this small waste by just scanning or photographing the receipts and emailing them to be reimbursed.
10. Share rental cars
When possible, share rental cars with colleagues. It saves pollutants, gas usage, and money. Real simple. Real obvious.
11. Look at the carbon impact of air travel
It is possible, if you want to, to look at the amount of CO2 your air travel will produce. Sometimes you have equally reasonable options, but one pollutes less. I don’t find this handy myself, but it is out there. If you’re doing something else to offset your carbon usage, this helps you estimate the impact of your air travel.
12. Don’t take unnecessary stuff
Airlines, car rental agencies, taxis, hotels all give you stuff that you don’t need. Refuse it. Just nicely tell them you don’t need it. Some examples:
- Folders for holding your boarding passes. Most airlines will stick your luggage claim tags in these multi-fold holders and stick your boarding passes in them. Just collect the stickers. Leave the folder behind.
- Maps at rental car agencies. If you don’t really need it, don’t accept it. The fewer they give away, the slower they’ll have new copies printed. It slows down the consumption and waste.
- Promotional materials. Hotels, rental car companies, and others will try to give you fliers, coupon books, and other promotional nonsense. Get in the habit of refusing it. You can always get a copy of it later if you change your mind.
- Don’t open or use items sealed in plastic, unless you’re going to use them. It sorta goes without saying, but there are a lot of things on airplanes you can keep intact. For example headsets, blankets, comfort items (like blindfolds and the like), are all sealed. Keep them sealed unless you use them, so they can be offered to other passengers, instead.
13. Stay in extended stay rooms
Many times I find that hotels like StayBridge Suites or Residence Inn by Marriott will be comparable in price to a more traditional hotel (e.g., a Hilton, Hyatt, or Holiday Inn). The difference is that the extended stay hotels come equiped with kitchens, dishes, cooking utensils, etc. To minimize cost, waste, and the impact on my waistline, I stay at these properties and eat in. Eating in my room is much cheaper, pretty convenient, healthier, and less wasteful on the environment. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with going out sometimes, but when I’m traveling I’m eating out nearly every meal.
You can’t save the world alone. My belief, though, is that many of us taking small steps can make a difference. I also believe that if many people began to do this, it would affect how travel businesses provide their services. Perhaps fewer papers would be ordered, fewer disposable items would be produced, and more reusable options would become available. Plus, with all the talk these days about fuel efficiency in cars and other major life changes, let’s not overlook the actions that take no technological revolution to make an impact.