How vacation busted my green chops

At the beginning of this month, my family went on vacation. Took off across the country to Virginia to visit some relatives we haven’t seen in several years. Unfortunately, our vacation turned out to be one of the least green things we’ve done in quite some time.

The travel carbon

First and foremost, of course, were the carbon emissions generated by our three airline tickets. From a financial standpoint, we actually consider driving to Virginia — a distance of approximately 1400 miles. According to the calculator at TerraPass, that journey would have produced carbon emissions of approximately 4000 pounds.

In contrast, our round-trip air travel generated carbon emissions of approximately 9000 pounds.

The deciding factor? Driving would have required an additional six days added to our vacation time. Beyond the grueling prospect of listening to Little Cheap complain for 46 hours round-trip, we face the perpetual issue of obtaining enough time off for that kind of travel. Still, all things considered, I believe I would prefer to drive if we had the opportunity to stop and visit family along the way.

Travel food

Another issue in traveling is that it’s hard to locate organic food. Our conventional food consumption goes up from 30 to 40 percent normally to 90 percent of our diet. I don’t see this as an extreme problem — after all, it’s not that big a deal to change our diet for a short period of time — but it’s a little something that makes me cringe.

Simply being at an airport, however, makes it more likely that we’ll consume disposable food. For one thing, when you aren’t allowed to carry your own liquids, it’s far more tempting to purchase a bottle of water. Before our trip I had intended to bring empty bottles that we could fill up at fountains. But when it came down to it, time became crunched and I forgot.

And of course being on vacation, we did a lot of eating out. I can’t vouch for the eco-footprint of our restaurant dining on vacation. We were fortunate at any rate that most of the food we ate was delicious, so I can’t object to that.


The most troubling part of our vacation travel actually occurred while we were staying with our relatives. At this particular household they seem to eat 75% of their meals on disposable plates. When the children are asked to set the table, they automatically grab paper plates and bowls. Of course, the only napkins available were paper napkins. The only cleaning materials available were paper towels. When I tried to do as I do at home and use the same water glass repeatedly, I would soon find it in the sink. When our hosts wanted a drink of water, they reached for a plastic water bottle from Wal-Mart, rather than drinking tap water, which was perfectly all right.

I didn’t want to throw a wrench in the works or criticize them personally, and yet it made me very uncomfortable to create so much garbage while eating in their home. In fact, as several days went by, I felt more upset that their household’s actions are so counterproductive to all the work I’m doing in my own lifestyle.

Interestingly enough, this household has two issues that make disposables particularly tricky:

  • Their budgets are tight, and disposables cost money. In fact, one day I was sent to Wal-Mart to purchase more paper plates for a party and the paper plates, bowls and cups that were ordered cost $9. Yikes.
  • They live in a rural area where they must drive all garbage to a municipal dump. In that situation I would be particularly motivated to reduce my garbage even more.

By the end of our visit, I still hadn’t come up with a solution. Because I prefer to avoid confrontation and I don’t want hurt these people’s feelings, my first impulse (that I acted on on this trip) was to just go with the flow. For any future visits, I wasn’t sure what I should do. Perhaps I should just be very frank about my personal beliefs and insist that we use the plates in the cupboard — an action I could back up with an offer to wash all the dishes myself. Again, my impulse is to anticipate that they would think I was being a martyr or trying to dramatically make a point, rather than simply accepting the offer. And of course, I could go super-dramatic and avoid staying at their home.

What would you do, green readers?

One small way to cut your footprint

I picked this tidbit last week, after our travels were done — you can use your BlackBerry to present a scannable boarding pass for TSA, at least if you’re flying Continental. A great paperless solution — and a good thing to know if you don’t have access to a printer just before your flight.

* edited to fix a typo.


8 thoughts on “How vacation busted my green chops

  1. Leigh says:

    How things work with relatives is one thing. In similar situations (not necessarily green related), I tell them how I feel once and then in a perfect world would try to do it my way using humor an deflection. “Oh, let’s make it a special occasion and use the regular plates. I’ll wash.” In reality, I tend not to be as diplomatic as I’d like.

    Here’s another question, though. What if one partner wants to be more green and the other doesn’t? Does the green-leaning one just suck it up and do all the tasks related to being green? Is there a compromise here?

  2. krikri says:

    Gee sounds just like my in-laws 4th of July bbq. 16 people, all plastic tossed and replaced with new stuff for each of the 4 courses, paper waste galore, and I swear to god there was at least 5lbs of meat grilled per person. Something like 20 large sausages, 20 hamburgers, 10 steaks, 10 lamb chops, 15 chicken breasts — and this happens 2 or 3 times a year! (rich bastards!)

    I used the plastic, *shudder* but I washed them between courses. I used my handkerchief instead of the paper napkins. I had water from the tap instead of bottled water or soda. As for the meat mountain, I only ate half a hamburger — much to everyone’s dismay. “But you’re so skinny!” Yeah, and I’d like to stay that way by not gorging myself on various animals, thanks. — Is what I wanted to say. Instead I was polite and just said I would rather eat another helping of Grandma’s secret recipe potato salad. That way I played nice and got out of what would surely be another huge environmental argument with them since that always ends with them calling me a treehugger who doesn’t care about family. This is probably what you’re trying to avoid.

    About the dishes, while I said something accusatory: “I actually enjoy cleaning up after myself,” you could easily say that you just really like washing dishes. This is what I said when I was in college to prevent my roommates from trashing piles of paper plates into the bin. It worked a little too well, lol.

    It’s really hard to be around people who either just don’t get it or, worse, just don’t care. Outside of your own home, you have no control over decisions and that gets uncomfortable for me. As you know, it’s hard to go green without changing your lifestyle and mindset. But it has to start somewhere. Personally, I think you could have done these people with strained pocketbooks a huge service by letting them now how much money they’re tossing into the garbage after 1 use. I would have sold the cheapness of going green for every cent it was worth.

  3. erin says:

    Aw man – that is a drag. It would have bothered me, too. I would, as you say, have cringed at every meal. Right now, I am in a hypersensitive phase with plastic. I have been saving all the plastic that comes into my house and I am absolutely stunned at how much there is. So every time I open something with plastic, I cringe.

    I am traveling for work in a few weeks (the first time in a long time). Now I am wondering if I can carbon offset my flight? Did you consider that?

  4. cheaplikeme says:

    @Leigh – I do most of the stuff and grit my teeth when Mr. Cheap forgets, but he agrees with the philosophy and does chip in. In practice, I think the greener person has to do more work unless it’s 100% partnership, and that can get exhausting, but as more time goes by it becomes more of a lifestyle for our whole household.

    @krikri – Yeah, on the 4th of July we had dinner and then pie. I did reuse my plate from the main course, although one person gave me a look and said, “I’m going to be bad and use a new plate – I don’t want pizza on my pie.”

    @erin – Yes, we have done carbon offset! Still not as good as not creating the carbon. 😦 But we have offset through NativeEnergy ( — in fact, we offset our Thanksgiving road trip this way. And when I made reservations earlier this year with Continental Airlines, after I bought the ticket I could click on a link that said “Offset your carbon miles here” and immediately add it.

  5. Anne Davila says:

    You should have said something and maybe heard the reasons. Sorry you were so disturbed by your visit!

  6. cheaplikeme says:

    Yep, one of my personal failings is definitely being unwilling to rock the boat. I’m conscious enough of my weird obsessions without desiring to lecture someone else … like my anxiety about how my neighbor’s daily lawn-watering counteracts our xeriscape (a.k.a. “dead grass waiting to be replanted with plants later”).

  7. Lauren says:

    My strategy has been to invite the relatives over to my house (although, the distance may make a difference in your case).

    I had Thanksgiving at my house, and my mom came armed with a package of paper napkins, which I declined, and showed her my cloth napkins.

    By Christmas, she wanted a set of daily use cloth napkins, since all of hers were “too nice.”

    My turf, my rules.

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