Travelers are quickly realizing the impact their passion has on the planet and doing their best to leave more positive footprints of their favorite destinations. No sustainability journey is linear, though. Sometimes travelers, with their best intentions, get it wrong. This is the story of 5 travelers with funny, and lesson-filled, sustainable travel fails.
Lara Tried Not to Litter
Ever since I was a little girl, I have tried to minimize my impact on the environment. At 12 years I told my meat-loving family I wouldn’t eat meat anymore, and I have stuck to that principle ever since. So when I started traveling around the world, I continued down the eco-friendly road and tried to be a sustainable traveler.
Well, that wasn’t always a great success.
I’ve made many solo travel mistakes (which you can read about here). But one of my biggest sustainable travel failures was four years ago. I was doing an internship in Mozambique at the time, and as in many African countries, littering is quite common in Mozambique. I hated the view of all the rubbish everywhere on the street, so I never littered. One day I took a ferry from Maputo and I noticed how everyone was throwing their rubbish in water even though there was a bin right next to them on the ferry!
I thought I was doing the right thing by throwing my rubbish in the bin and not litter like everyone else was doing. Only to realize that right before we arrived at our destinations, the ferry employers emptied the bins.
Guess where they emptied it?
That’s right. They took the bins and emptied them right in the water! So much for my attempt to be a sustainable traveler. Of course, I understand that in countries such as Mozambique there’s simply no waste management system in place. Nor do they have any money available if they wanted to. But if there’s one thing I have learned from that, is that especially in countries such as Mozambique, simply reducing your waste is the most effective way to be a sustainable traveler!
Dani Attempted Cloth Diapers Abroad
I have been using cloth diapers since the beginning with both of my kids, so it never really occurred to me to do any different when we traveled. In fact, our first trip with cloth diapers – three weeks in Thailand with a 4-month-old – went smooth as can be. I figured traveling with cloth diapers was no big deal!
I learned how wrong I was several months later, on a week in Mexico when my daughter was just over 1 year. I hadn’t accounted for how different cloth diapering is between those two ages. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that the substance that you find in the diaper of a 4-month-old is very different than that of a young toddler. One is water soluble. The toddler’s output? Not so much.
We came prepared to wash the diapers similar to how we had in Thailand, and use that glorious sunshine to dry and sanitize them the old-fashioned way. But when we discovered that our AirBnB was positioned so that the porch didn’t get direct sunlight (but was plenty humid!), we realized we had a problem – no way to dry the diapers.
Of course we did not realize that until they were already…messy. Like, what-is-this-crazy-new-diet messy. Hand washing them was not fun. But then realizing we couldn’t dry them?!
We ended up bringing a grocery bag full of soggy, extremely stinky, week-old cloth diapers home in our luggage. Not exactly the souvenir we had hoped for.
We have since perfected the art of traveling with cloth diapers, and do so on every trip now without any issues. It has a major environmental impact, especially in countries with less-developed waste disposal systems. We learned a lot from our experience in Mexico, but I still cringe when I think about opening that bag!
Simona Carried 5 Liters of Water on a Remote Trek
Over the last few years I’ve been growing into a more responsible and sustainable traveler, thanks also to some lessons I’ve learned traveling, especially concerning the plastic issue.
My resolution to reduce plastic, not only while traveling but also in my everyday life, came during my last trip to Bali a couple of years ago when I met a local activist engaged in fighting single-use plastic on the island.
Since then I’ve always traveled with my water bottle, though when visiting Asian countries finding safe drinkable water is not an easy task.
Working as a group leader, I wanted to inspire the participants of the group I took to Vietnam last December to travel more sustainably.
I asked all of them to bring their water bottle and tried to make them understand how important it is for each of us to make our own part. Despite my efforts, I must admit it turned out to be quite a failure!
First of all, most of the providers we traveled with offered free refrigerated single-use plastic bottles on their tours, so after few days half of my group simply gave up and thought it was much easier to grab the water once on the bus.
And even for those who took this challenge seriously, they had to face the fact that we traveled mainly to remote areas where tap water was not an option and filtered water was not available.
As I didn’t want to give up on setting a sustainable example, I bought a 5 liter-tank each time I got the chance to and carried it around (in addition to my 10kg backpack) to refill the water bottles of all participants.
Maybe I didn’t manage to impress all of them as seeking “safe” water turned out to be quite complicated, but I was happy enough to see some following my example.
In the end, big changes stem from small steps, right?
Linn Forgot Her Reusable Water Bottle At Home
Buying a reusable water bottle is one of the best things I’ve done. I pretty much stopped buying reusable plastic water bottles completely! Almost. The thing is that it doesn’t help much if that fantastic water bottle is sitting on the kitchen bench at home when I’m out!
But sometimes I forget to bring enough or any at all and then I have to buy a plastic bottle. Or just go thirsty like when I hiked El Saltillo hike late last year, I only had one bottle with me. It was so hot and there was no shade on the hike so I had to ration the water along the trail. Luckily, there was some water along the trail so I didn’t have to share with my dog like the day before when I was on my way up to the highest peak in Malaga (Yes, I know! Two days in a row!) I was still stubborn enough not to buy any additional water.
Most recently, I forgot to fill up the water bottle before I headed back home from my last weekend trip. This was the day after the lockdown was announced in Spain! With more than three hours in the car, I obviously got thirsty. So when I stopped to fill petrol in the car, I took the water bottle with me and asked a lady to fill it up for me. She asked me for 1 Euro to fill up my water bottle with bad-tasting tap water. Since the lockdown had already started, I couldn’t enter the petrol station to get water from the bathroom sink. So, I turned around with my empty bottle. Stubborn and thirsty.
I Packed Too Much so that I Could Be Sustainably Prepared For Anything
Now it’s my turn to share a sustainable travel fail. While there are many, I think the most frustrating (and educational) experience was packing to move abroad.
I had no idea of what to expect in terms of sustainability while living in Belarus, but I assumed my access to bulk stores, zero waste products, and composting would be limited. In an effort to be sustainable abroad, I packed every sustainable product I could possibly think of in order to be prepared.
This resulted in a catastrophic overpacking episode. Two large suitcases, one trekking backpack, and one oversized tote bag later, I thought I was ready to take on whatever sustainable challenges laid ahead.
Instead, I forked out over $500 round-trip in baggage fees, added at least 50 unnecessary pounds to the airplanes, and still wasn’t prepared for the sustainability challenges that laid ahead!
Now I realize being sustainable at home and being sustainable on the road are two different challenges. Sustainable things I habitually do at home may not be second-nature abroad. It’s important to maintain the same sustainability mindset while abroad, but also to not be hard on yourself when you inevitably fail at balancing cultural differences and sustainable efforts.
Sustainable travel fails are part of any eco-travelers journey around the world. These fails don’t make your efforts any less valid or you any less of an environmental advocate! We’re all human, so we’re bound to fail sometimes.
I hope you take your sustainable travel fails with stride with a side of lessons for the future.
Comment below your sustainable travel fails! Let’s hear your funniest one!