Serena McIntire
About Author
November 4, 2019

Travel Guide to Sustainable Flying

How bad is flying for the environment? Currently, air travel is responsible for 5% of all global greenhouse emissions, and as travel becomes more affordable, this number is expected to increase to 25% by 2050. One round trip first class flight within the United States can contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than an entire year of driving. In addition to the fuel used to get you from point A to B in air travel, there are other negative impacts on the environment to consider. Continue reading the travel guide to sustainable flying to decrease the carbon footprint of air travel and to improve your travel karma.

Sustainable air travel tip #1: Reusable beverage accessories are your best friend

One of the biggest travel trash categories comes from beverages. Plastic bottles, disposable coffee cups, plastic straws, and the little cups that complimentary drinks are served in on the plane add up to more garbage that you would normally produce in your daily life. Luckily this is also one of the easiest areas for reducing waste. It’s easy to bring a coffee mug, water bottle, and reusable straw on your flight, as long as the bottles are empty when you go through airport security (save the cavity search for someone else, TSA). When the flight attendants come ‘round with the beverage cart, I ask them to fill my water bottle or coffee mug instead of handing me a disposable cup. If you leave your water bottle at home, keep the first cup they give you and ask them to refill it.

Pro tip: If you can’t resist receiving a free soda on the plane, ask the flight attendant to serve your drink in the can it came in instead of in a cup. They always agree when I ask plus I get to enjoy a full-size drink! They often try to hand me a cup with the can, to which I simply say “no thank you."

I am picky when it comes to water bottles because they can be difficult to clean, making each sip taste like a petri dish, so I was excited when I discovered the self-cleaning, water purifying Larq bottle. The bottle cap emits a UV light to cleanse the inside of the bottle and dismembers bacteria and virus DNA on the spot, making water safe and refreshing to drink.

These three products have saved me from using countless disposable containers.

Sustainable air travel tip #2: Bring food from home or on-the-go snacks

The amount of waste produced by airline food is shocking. There’s plastic wrap covering more items wrapped in plastic that cover even more items wrapped in plastic! It’s kinda crazy when you think about how much trash is created from these small (and often unsatisfying) meals. I like to bring my own food on the plane, especially if the airline doesn't have a decent vegan option for the in-flight meal (check out my review of the Hello Moon reusable snack bags). Even when I think about all the waste that comes with airline food, it can hard to resist a free meal, if it’s one of the decent ones. To balance my travel karma, I call the airline ahead of time to request a vegan meal (which is better for the planet than its carnivorous counterparts). I often order just the main dish, skipping the individually-wrapped sides. You can stash camping cutlery in your carry-on (like this bamboo utensil travel set from Amazon) in lieu of the single-use plastic cutlery airlines offer. Many restaurants only offer plastic cutlery, so you can save even more plastic from the landfill by providing your own!

Pro tip: I always run to the grocery store before I travel to pick up food that is easy to eat on-the-go, such as nuts, dried fruit, crackers, and protein bars. These foods are filling, healthy, convenient, and I can eat whenever I want.

No wonder scientists estimate we eat a credit card's worth of plastic every week.

Sustainable air travel tip #3: Bring your own eye mask, blanket, pillow, and ear buds

Airlines try to provide good customer service by providing these items to customers, for low- to no-cost, but the price of these items is paid for by Mother Earth. Eye masks are not reused, and SOMETIMES the airline will bother to wash the pillows and blankets before reusing them on flights (#ew). These items also come in a single-use plastic that could easily end up in the ocean. My inner germaphobe/eco-goddess is not okay with any of this, which is why I bring my own.

Pro tip: Bring clothing that can double as a blanket on the plane. Wearing these clothes will reduce the bulk in your luggage and keep you toasty on warm flights. I am tender temperatured, so I like to wear layers before embarking on an international flight to stay toasty. My long-haul flight uniform is leggings under jeans, a tank top and t-shirt under a sweater, a large scarf that can double as a blanket, and the thickest coat I packed.

The ear buds may be yours to keep, but they are cheaply made and will soon find their way to a landfill. Most planes have audio jacks that are compatible with headphones (sans Bluetooth and USB-C buds), allowing you to use your own. If you have the aforementioned Bluetooth/USB-C headphones, you can download content and listen to it on your phone, tablet, or computer.

Isn't this more glamorous than the mediocre eye mask and blanket that the airlines hand out?

Sustainable air travel tip #4: Purchase carbon credits to neutralize your footprint

Even the most conscious travelers will leave a carbon footprint that needs to be neutralized when they travel. I use this carbon calculator to estimate how much my trip has cost the environment and purchase carbon credits o offset the greenhouse gas emissions from my flight.

A friend of mine decided to take the idea of protecting trees to another level by purchasing 10 acres of forest and protecting it from developers, rather than purchasing carbon credits. He limits his air travel to once per year and the trees in the forest are more than enough to cover his carbon expense. If this is a feasible option for you, go for it!

Do you have any tips for increasing your travel karma when flying? Let me know in the comments!

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Serena McIntire
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