As a traveller, you’ll see many of the wonders that the world has to offer, but you’ll also be exposed, more than ever, to the damage caused by the human race. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article called ‘The Final Straw‘, about how much of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean, and the small steps we can take to help reduce this.
Due to the great response we had towards ‘The Final Straw’, the hostel I work at immediately stopped serving straws with each drink, and the number of straws they use has dropped substantially. However, there are still some people requesting them, and even when questioned, these people don’t seem to understand how their ignorance is ultimately causing devastation to many species of marine life. I often get the response:
“It’s only one straw, it’s hardly going to make a difference?”
Perhaps, in theory, this is true, but when you think of the millions of other people with the same opinion, the change could be extraordinary if you all refused that ‘one straw’.
Following the article, I had a few people ask about other ways backpackers can be more environmentally friendly. We all agreed on one common factor: staying in hostels over hotels is way more eco-friendly, and I’m seeing more and more hostels go out of their way to help the environment. Eco-hostels such as Grampians Eco YHA, do everything they can to reduce their carbon footprint and are a great example of what other hostels can do to save the planet.
Here are our suggestions for 7 ways to be an eco-friendly backpacker:
1. Use Less Paper
We both know all the paper versions of tickets you receive will just end up crumpled at the bottom of your bag. We recommend avoiding paper tickets altogether, and refrain from taking or printing paper maps, brochures and vouchers, as almost everything is available online nowadays.
Most hostels have a bookshelf, and the rule of thumb is usually ‘leave a book, take a book’. This is a much better solution for those who like to hold a paperback novel in their hands, without going out of their way for a new book. Recycling books really do help. If you can’t find something you like on the hostel shelf, perhaps your roommate will lend you their book when they’ve finished reading it.
Alternatively, reading e-books is even better for the environment than book swapping, but it takes around 30 e-books on a Kindle/iPad before it’s better for the climate than purchasing the hard copy versions… Choose wisely!
Lastly, rather than taking a wad of napkins to wipe that noodle juice off your face, just take one! You’ll rarely need more than that anyway. Or instead of using paper towels to dry your hands, let them air-dry.
2. Re-use, Recycle and Upcycle
Re-use: Buy yourself a reusable aluminium water bottle, which will lower your plastic consumption, and avoid buying plastic bottled water, as this is one of the world’s biggest causes of waste. However, if a plastic bottle really is your only option, you can reuse plastic drinks bottles a few times. Due to bacteria build up, you may want to limit it to one week’s use though, and wash thoroughly with soap in between uses.
Furthermore, instead of using plastic, single-use shopping bags, purchase a fabric shopping bag and bring it with you each time you go shopping. Most of them are made of biodegradable materials and will last way longer than the single-use bag (which most of the time has a tear in it before you’ve even left the shop). In Australia, companies like Woolworths and Coles have already initiated the plastic bag ban in select stores.
Recycle: Ask your hostel if they have specific bins for recycling paper, plastic, metal and glass waste. If they don’t, maybe suggest that they provide separate bins. In some states, you can actually get money back for recycling your bottles, so if your hostel doesn’t have a recycling option, maybe collect the bottles and take them down to the nearest bottle station to pay for your next round of beers.
Items such as batteries and other electronics can also be recycled at certain drop off points. Websites such as Recycling Near You tell you what you can recycle, and where you can do it (within Australia). For other countries, just search ‘Recycling Near Me‘ on Google, and you should get similar results.
Upcycle: Just about anything can be upcycled, but we understand backpackers try their best to carry very little. If you get holes in your clothes, patch them up, or if you tear your shirt, turn it into a bandana. If you’re done backpacking, give away/sell your backpack rather than let it collect dust in your closet. There’s almost always another use for an item you damage or have finished using during your travels. Rather than throw it away, get creative.
3. Shop Local
Supermarket chains ship their products from all over the world, resulting in increased carbon emissions and high use of wasted plastics. We recommend checking out local farmers markets instead. These markets will sell fresh, locally sourced fruit and vegetables, from within the community, often at a similar price to a supermarket. One downside to this is that you can only buy whatever produce is currently in-season, but this has never been a major issue for us, as there are always other options. Buying local also helps to protect the business of small farms, and the jobs of the people working there.
In Australia, food products usually tell you what percentage of the ingredients were Australian grown. Buying products that have a higher percentage of local or national ingredients, helps to boost the Australian economy and farming industry. This means the products you’re purchasing have travelled a shorter distance before finding its way into your shopping basket.
4. Limit Your Use Of A/C
Air conditioning usually accounts for over 50% of hostel energy bills, and each degree cooler will increase energy consumption by 5-10%. Ideally, you should use your fan instead of A/C, but in some tropical climates where it gets incredibly humid, A/C can be very tempting. Just make sure the A/C is off when not necessary, and everything else electrical (lights, heating, plug sockets etc) also gets switched off when you leave the room.
5. Walk, Cycle And Take Public Transport
If you’re slightly out of town and considering ordering a taxi/uber back to the hostel, scrap that idea and walk instead. It’s going to help you save money in the long run, while also providing you with some exercise, and not polluting the atmosphere.
Even better than walking, you could rent or buy a bicycle to get to your destination faster and burn more calories in the process. In London, UK, you can rent Boris Bikes (now Santander Cycles), for as little as £2. And in Montréal, Canada, they have a similar system called BIXI, using your OPUS or credit card to rent a bike. On Sundays, they are free to use for journeys up to 30 minutes, which is a great way to see the city for free. Although 30 minutes isn’t too long, you can just ‘hop’ from station to station, swapping bikes every 30 minutes. Look into a bicycle hire in your town/city, or consider buying one if you’ll be staying long-term in one place.
Check out what public transport is available, before hiring a car. In Australia, purchasing travel cards like Opal (NSW) and Myki (VIC), are a great way to stay green and save money, if you’re planning on using public transport frequently. Most big cities we’ve travelled to, offer some form of discount or card for cheaper public transport. Studies show that in Australia the average car produces 250gCO2/km per person, whereas a public bus uses 12-22gCO2/km per person. Electric cars would solve this issue as they only produce 6gCO2/km per person, but in 2015 a minuscule 0.08% of cars purchased in Australia were electric.
6. Conserve water
A few easy ways to save water are to not leave the tap running while you brush your teeth, and taking shorter showers. Make sure to let reception know when you see a leak or faulty tap if you can’t fix the problem yourself.
When you wash your clothes it’s also worth waiting until you have enough to fill the machine, rather than doing multiple smaller loads which wastes a lot of water and energy. If you have something that you want washing urgently, ask a friend or fellow backpacker if you can throw it in their wash. When washing your clothes, opt for a shorter, cold wash, and air dry afterwards, rather than machine drying.
7. Avoid Flying, Wherever Possible
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an eco-friendly flight. It’s not just the amount of fuel per passenger, it’s the fact that you can go further and faster than any other form of transport, meaning a huge amount of fuel is used to transport you and your luggage to your destination.
Stopover flights tend to be worse for the environment than direct flights, as the take-off and landing use more fuel than cruising, and there is typically more empty seats on shorter flights. Obviously, there are some countries like Australia, where the only feasible form of transportation is to fly, as it’s an island thousands of miles from the next nearest continent. Within Europe, for example, there are other transport options like the Interrail train system, which connects you to 40,000 destinations within 30 out of the 50 countries in Europe, which is much more eco-friendly.
Whether you are currently backpacking or reading this article from home, what do you do to help protect and conserve the environment? Ally and I are doing as much as we currently can, and will continue looking into a better overall recycling system for our hostel. This article goes to show that even a backpacker can make a difference!