It’s tricky to write about travel in an environmentally responsible way. Overtourism and emissions from air travel are hurting the planet. As travel writers, we want to combat that, encourage others to do the same, and live big lives, exploring the great wide world. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
John DiScala, who runs the popular travel website Johnny Jet, wrestles with this same problem. It’s been his business to encourage people to buy flights. But he doesn’t believe that your environmental impact is a straight numbers game. Making the earth a better place has a lot of moving parts.
“As corny as it sounds,” he says, “I truly believe the more people that travel, especially internationally, the less prejudice there will be in the world.”
Those egalitarian ambitions demand the tradeoff of people getting on planes. Meaning that your expanded horizons are, in the end, bad for the earth. This becomes complicated in a hurry — creating a “do I stay or do I go?” moral quandary.
The dilemma about whether or not to travel (and how often) is eased by airlines working to be better. In February, Qantas announced a huge initiative to cut their waste-to-landfills by 75 percent before the end of 2021. They aren’t the only major carrier pledging to do better. Here are some of our favorite recent ecoloy-minded airline initiatives, with advice for how you can get involved or take the message to heart.
Airlines are phasing out boarding passes.
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While most airlines give an option of pulling up your boarding pass on your phone, the next step is to not print them at all. Along with their waste initiatives, Qantas is also phasing out boarding passes and paper instruction manuals — instead opting for digital. Digital boarding is not only more environmentally friendly, but it also speeds up the process. German airline Lufthansa recently tested out biometric boarding at LAX, using facial recognition. The airline reported boarding 350 passengers in under 20 minutes.
What you can do: Get your boarding pass on your phone rather than printing it out at home or the airport. It’s easier (and better for the environment).
Recycling old uniforms
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Last year, Delta changed over 64 thousand employee uniforms — which otherwise would have just been thrown out. Instead, they partnered with a company in Portland called Looptworks to repurpose the uniforms into other products, like backpacks.
What you can do: Shop at thrift stores for your travel wardrobe to cut down on the impact of clothing manufacturing.
Reducing single-use plastics
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said airlines had 5.2 million tons of waste in 2016, predicting that number would rise to 10 million by 2030. With the race on to keep that number from continuing to climb, airlines are working to cut down or eliminate single-use plastics and wasteful packaging. Alaska Airlines has cut out plastic straws entirely in its planes and lounges. American Airlines also started a plan to replace all of its plastic staws and drink picks in 2018, saying the plan will cut down on 71 thousand pounds of waste a year. Qantas has plans to replace 45 million plastic cups, 30 million cutlery sets, and four million headrest covers with sustainable alternatives over the next year. And today, for Earth Day, Etihad Airways is flying a flight entirely without any single-use plastics. Everything from their amenity kits to the blankets (made of recycled plastic bottles) will be sustainable on the flights without any plastic wrapping.
What you can do: Bring your own snacks from home (you’ll save money!), an empty reusable water bottle to fill up at the airport, your own headphones, and warm clothing or a lightweight blanket so you won’t need to use one on the flight,
Lowering weight in the cabin
From an airline that’s considering weighing customers (discreetly!) so they don’t need to bring on extra fuel to no longer selling duty-free items on planes, airlines are working to cut weight down which reduces the amount of fuel that’s burned.
“They’ve been taking out magazines and creating new seats that are less heavy,” DiScala says. “It saves fuel costs, and it helps the planet while they’re doing it.”
Recently, United replaced their beverage carts — going from a whopping 50 pounds to only 27 pounds. Their cargo containers are 80 pounds lighter as well. Southwest has also introduced lightweight seats that take up less space.
What you can do: Avoid short-haul flights and video conference in when you can. The key to flying ethically is to only fly when you really need or want to.
Investing in biofuels and alternative energy sources
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Following what cars have been doing for years, we’re starting to see experimentation in electric aircrafts. Eviation — a battery-based startup with the potential to change the game — says their electric plane will be making commuter flights by 2021. At the same time, biofuels are growing rapidly in popularity.
“A lot of airlines are starting to use biofuels,” DiScala says. “The problem is that they currently cost more than gasoline — but I think in the future, those prices will drop. KLM is the leader in that. They’ve really have taken a big stance.”
Along with Dutch airline KLM, JetBlue is working to acquire planes that can be flown using renewable fuel sources and United has made a significant commitment to using biofuel in its crafts. Scandinavian airline SAS, announced they plan to fly all their planes fossil free by 2045. In Australia, Qantas is working in partnership with a Canadian-based agri-tech company, Agrisoma, to grow the first aviation biofuel seed crop in Australia by 2020.
What you can do: Travel more slowly and purposely. Rather than two overseas flights in one year, take your two weeks (or more!) of travel time at once. Rather than double your environmental impact by traveling more frequently, combine trips.
Donating unused amenities and foods
Cheap amenity kits with small lotions are often wasteful, as many customers don’t even use many of the items. One way airlines are recycling these kits is by repurposing them for disaster relief. United has partnered with Good360 — an organization that uses the kits to make new ones for people in places affected by hurricanes, flooding, and more and holds events that make thousands of kits using recycled amenities from their planes. Over at Qantas, they donate non-perishable food items from flights to school breakfast programs, roughly 35 tons a year.
What you can do: Decline amenity kits on board unless you’re going to use that eye mask forever (do you really need it?). Or DiScala says, “Take them with you and donate them in bulk to a homeless or domestic abuse center where they could use the toiletries.”
Encouraging passengers to offset their footprints
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Qantas has offset over 3 million tons of carbon emissions since 2007 (through organizations that help wildlife native to Australia and protect natural lands), and recently upped their incentive for passengers to donate to offset their carbon footprints. They now provide 10 travel points for every dollar donated, the highest standard earn rate of any Frequent Flyer initiative. Other airlines also offer large donation-based carbon offsetting programs. Delta was the first US carrier to launch such a program in 2007 and you can now donate to the Nature Conservancy through their website.
What you can do: Money to offset impact helps, but it’s also about shifting why and when we choose to travel.
“There’s going have to be a mind shift,” DiScala says. “I know a guy who flies from New York to Sydney, just for one business meeting frequently. That’s just crazy. I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t you do a video conference?’ And he says, ‘You know what, because our competitor would show up and shake their hand and do a face to face meeting and get the million dollar business.'”
“In the future,” he continues, “we need to collectively value things differently. Maybe in the future, the company would be like, ‘You know what, I prefer the person who’s gonna save the planet and I’m gonna go with them, instead of the one who’s gonna fly all the way around the world, just for a meeting.'”