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.
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.