Eco-Friendly Travel: How to Have a *Slightly* More Sustainable Flight

Eco-Friendly Travel: How to Have a *Slightly* More Sustainable Flight

We all know by now that flying is awful for the environment. It releases much more CO2 than land travel (cars, buses, and trains) into the atmosphere. Traveling by airplane is a heated topic (no pun intended) among environmentalists and activists everywhere. While there are a few airlines who are trying to do better and biofuels are slowly becoming more available, some environmentalists say we should stop flying altogether. Personally, I don’t think that that’s a good option for everyone, and this article will discuss why shortly. Let’s look at how you can enjoy eco-friendly travel with a slightly more sustainable flight when you’re unable to choose land travel.

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Table of Contents

Why I Don’t Think You Should Stop Flying Altogether, But Do Believe in Reducing How Frequently You Fly

airplane wing over snowy city

Accessibility of Flying

Flying used to be much more expensive than it is now. Previously there were many people who couldn’t afford to fly and have only recently been given the opportunity thanks to prices dropping.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of the eco-travelers who have stopped flying are Europeans and live in European countries. To be honest, I think it would be much easier to stop flying if I lived in Europe because there’s such a good train system there. In the Americas and most other parts of the world, there just isn’t a good (if any) train system in place. Plus, buses can often be more expensive than flying.

One of the people who I’ve noticed that has stopped flying is Greta Thunberg. She has quickly become an eco-hero for young people around the world. The fact that she was able to take enough time off school to sail on a boat from Europe to New York so she could attend the Global Climate Strike was insane. Most people don’t have the money or job flexibility to be able to spend 15 days at sea getting to a new place, let alone another 15 days at sea just to get home.

Costs of Flying Versus Costs of Land Travel

Train Travel versus Air Travel
Balazs Busznyak

It’s getting harder and harder to find train tickets and even bus tickets that cost less than flights in some parts of the world. I’ve been kind of spoiled here in Mexico, with being able to find tons of buses to other cities for really low prices. However, in many parts of the world, flying is the cheapest way to travel. This article explains how even in Europe, where there is a good train system in place, often train tickets cost almost twice as much as flights between European destinations.

Living in a Globalized World with Family and Friends In Far Away Countries

We live in a very globalized world. To stop flying completely means people with families or friends overseas would likely never get to see each other. You would need to take much more time off work to drive across many countries if your boss even lets you. Plus you would have to pay much more money to get there. That’s just not doable for many people.

How to Reduce the Number of Flights You Take on a Budget

While I don’t think you should stop flying altogether, I do think it’s a good idea to try and reduce how often you fly. And while I say this, I also need to note that the people who should be reducing their flying habits the most are billionaires who fly on private jets multiple times per year.

Ride Sharing | Cars on a Busy Street
海超 刘

Regardless, here are a few ways that you can reduce the number of flights you take on a budget. These are great options if you’re not traveling somewhere that’s really far away.

  • Use carpooling and ride-sharing apps. Carpooling apps are great because they allow drivers to post a trip they are already taking online so that other people who are going the same way can join. I recently used Bla Bla Car for the first time here in Mexico and loved it! My friend and I wanted to go to another city but didn’t have access to a car. We were able to find Bla Bla Car drivers who were going to that city anyway and could drive us there along with some other passengers. Using Bla Bla Car saved us so much more money than if we were to fly or take a bus. Two other good ride-sharing apps to check out are Pop A Ride and Grab.
  • Use your own car, and get paid for taking other passengers through a ride-share app. You can do this by signing up to offer a ride to people who want to go to the same city as you. If you’re already going somewhere, why not make some extra money to help pay for your gas? You can sign up to offer a ride through Bla Bla Car, Pop A Ride, and Grab.
  • Search for bus and train fares. Bus and train fares are often more expensive than flights, but it’s definitely worth checking to see if you can find a good deal anyway. Two apps that I love using for finding cheap bus fares are Bus Bud and Flix Bus. You can also read this article about how to find the cheapest available train tickets throughout Europe. I don’t live anywhere near a good train system and that article is the best one I’ve found.

Related Article: Responsible Travel Challenge: Booking Eco-Conscious Transportation by Miss Filatelista

How To Have a *Slightly* More Sustainable Flight When You Need to Fly: An Interview with a Flight Attendant

When you do fly there are a few ways that you can make your flight experience a bit more sustainable too. I recently interviewed my friend Marisa who works as a flight attendant to give some tips on this.

Mother and Daughter Flight Attendants | Flight Attendant Interview
Marisa and her mom are both flight attendants for the same company.

What do you know/what can you tell me about carbon offsetting?

Marisa: Truthfully I’m a bit new to the whole carbon offsetting world, but understand it as a way for travelers to donate money to different environmental organizations to counteract the effects air travel has on the environment. We know that traveling by plane is not environmentally friendly at all, and is, in fact, damaging to the environment which is something I struggle with as a Flight Attendant. Personally, in order to offset I do my best to reduce my waste in my day to day life, recycle and reuse as much as I can on flights, and volunteer at different organizations I care about on my days off. 

Psst: You can also calculate your flight’s CO2 emissions and pay to offset your emissions by planting trees with Carbon Fund. You can also learn about and donate to biofuel research here. Alternatively, if you book your hotels through TripZero, they will offset your trip’s entire CO2 footprint for free!

How much of a difference does packing lightly make on the carbon emissions of the plane? Is it better to try and stick to just bringing a carry-on?

Suitcases Versus Carry On Luggage | Eco-Friendly Travel | Suitcases stacked on one another
Nick Fewings

Marisa: When it comes to commercial air travel there are so many puzzle pieces and people behind the scenes that help everything come together. So when it comes to the act of flying the plane and what that entails I tend to let the experts stick to what they do best.

With that being said Air Traffic Control and the pilots are given the correct amount of fuel given the distance of the flight, as well as the intended cargo being shipped underneath the plane. Some international flights become weight restricted meaning fewer people are allowed on the planes, because of all the cargo being sent to other countries. I can’t say I know then that if packing less will lessen the carbon emissions from a flight. However I assume that the lighter a plane is the less fuel it’ll need, but again those decisions are out of my control and I don’t know much about it.

Whenever flights do become weight restricted, however, it only affects checked luggage. Therefore any carry on items will be allowed on board, and we’re able to get more people on board because of that. 

There are a few airlines who have started going plastic-free, however, most airlines still use a lot of plastic for their food. What are some ways that passengers can reduce their plastic consumption? What are the low-waste items you always travel with to avoid creating waste?

Eco-Friendly Travel: Sustainable Flights, Eco-Friendly Flights
Suhyeon Choi

Marisa: I can’t speak for all, but I see in my airline that it is incredibly wasteful and something I struggle with a lot. We are provisioned with recycling bags, but what is able to be recycled and if it’s recycled is contingent on the destination of the flight and the people picking up the recycling.

Lately, recycling has been a hot topic of discussion for many flight attendants I work with, and we are trying our best to figure out what can be recycled so we can help out in any way we can. With my airline, cans are always recycled and the money is donated to an organization that helps fellow flight attendants when they are sick or going through a rough time. Recently we’ve started recycling the plastic cups on flights, water bottles, and juice boxes can be recycled, and we’re phasing out plastic stir sticks to bamboo ones.

However, all of the food, cups, utensils, tea bags, sugar, etc. all come packaged in plastic which really irks me. Since the airline industry as a whole is wasteful I try to do things on my own to reduce my own waste like bringing my own coffee mug everywhere to have it refilled at Starbucks, and bringing my own water bottle to refill at airports with a charcoal filter. I live close to the Package Free store and have purchased a couple of water filters that I use in my water bottle for layovers as well, and feel ok about refilling from the sink.

I’ve recently started using a reusable makeup wipe that I use on layovers so I don’t use as many makeup wipes. I also bring my own shampoo/conditioner bars from Lush or the Package Free store for layovers and tend to take the soaps and mini shampoo bottles at hotels to donate to different non-profits and homeless shelters when I fill up. 

You are a vegetarian flight attendant. Is it difficult being a vegetarian with your job? Can you order vegetarian food on most flights or do you mostly just get food at the airport or bring it from home?

Vegan and Vegetarian Flight Attendants
Vegan enrijoladas from La Pitahaya in Mexico City.

Marisa: My biggest recommendation to anyone with dietary restrictions is to plan ahead, especially if it’s health-related! If you are flying first class or any cabin on an international flight you can pre-order food 24 hours in advance and I would recommend that to anyone with severe dietary restrictions.

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 10 years and have become accustomed to finding food anywhere I go, even in places like South America. So no, it isn’t difficult as we do have vegetarian options on the flights. But as flight attendants we are never catered with food, we can only eat what’s leftover. I tend to pack a lot of non-perishable food items like soup, rice, and beans that I can warm up on our plane ovens or in my Hot Logic on layovers.

As vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more mainstream most airports have more meat-free options available. I have a few favorite restaurants at airports that I’ll go to if I have time and haven’t eaten anything from the plane. It can be hard sometimes with our job since we don’t have much time between flights which is why I always try to pack snacks just in case.

On my days off I tend to try and eat as vegan as possible since I know it’s better for the environment, and my body reacts well to it. I never restrict myself though, and just try and do little things to make a difference and offset the guilt I feel for flying all the time. I’d love to be the type of person that meal preps for my trips, but planning ahead has never been my strong suit. 

Do you know of a way in which flight passengers and other people can contact airlines to ask them if they plan to use biofuels/use compostable food packaging and start other more earth-friendly initiatives?

Marisa: Unfortunately, no. I’ve worked with several people who have reached out to different flight attendant involvement teams on how we as flight attendants can become more involved as an airline and it’s been a dead-end of sorts. My hope is that the little changes each of us does will help and that eventually airlines and other large corporations will wake up to the bigger picture that these are things that need to be done in order to save our planet. 

One thing that also might help is to write Tweets tagging airlines on Twitter with messages asking about their commitment to the environment.

Do you have any other tips on how to have a more eco-friendly flight?

Marisa: If you have anything that needs to be recycled, I’d recommend recycling it yourself at the airport as opposed to giving it to the flight attendants. Unfortunately, not all of my coworkers recycle, and even those that do it’s hard to guarantee that once we get to our destination the recycling will go where it needs to. Remember to always bring a water bottle and refill it at the airport, and if you do have a drink on the plane just ask for a can and not a cup. Our airline policy states we aren’t allowed to refill cups or passenger’s water bottles, but I feel like that’s a rule I’m ok with breaking. 

Eco-Friendly Travel Wins: Airlines That Are Making Positive Changes

Airplane View from Window | Sustainable Flights

In order to add some positive news to this post, here are some airlines that are making eco-friendly changes:

  • Jet Blue will use biofuels and carbon offsets to become carbon neutral by July 2020.
  • Hi Fly, a Portuguese airline, made history in 2018 by being the first airline to host a single-use plastic-free flight. As of January 1, 2020, all of their flights are now single-use plastic-free.
  • Qantas Airways operate their first zero-waste flight in 2019 and have plans to drastically reduce their reliance on plastic for future flights.
  • Emirates offers vegan meals and they saw a 40% increase in requests for these vegan meals onboard during Veganuary in 2019.
  • Virgin Airlines is continually reducing their CO2 consumption and building planes with twin engines that are 30% more fuel-efficient than regular planes. They also offer organic food in-flight and spend money on alternative and biofuel research.
  • Multiple tech startups are in the process of making airplanes that use electric energy and don’t burn any CO2.

Eco-Friendly Travel Resource: Airport Carbon Accreditation

It’s not just airplanes and flights that leak CO2 into the atmosphere. Airports often have a large carbon footprint as well. The Airport Carbon Accreditation helps airports to minimize and offset their CO2 emissions. There are four levels of Certification with ACA. These are Mapping (Footprint Measurement), Reduction (Carbon management towards a reduced carbon footprint), Optimization (Third Party Engagement in Carbon Footprint Reduction) and Neutrality (Carbon neutrality for direct emissions by offsetting). The screenshots below provide a clear explanation of what each of these entails.

Airport Carbon Accreditation | Airpots Offsetting CO2
Airport Carbon Accreditation | Airpots Offsetting CO2 |Eco-Friendly Travel | Carbon Neutral Airports

Choosing to fly out of an ACA Certified Airport is another way to make an eco-friendly travel choice. There are nearly 300 airports worldwide who have been received various levels of Certifications through ACA. Here are some airports that have been given the highest Certification possible through ACA. These are just a handful of airports that are Certified as being Carbon Neutral:

To see a complete list of Airport Carbon Accreditation Certified Airports, click here.

Eco-Friendly Travel Resource: Carbon Offsetting by Donating to Algae Biofuel Research

Green algae water
Mihály Köles

Offsetting has been mentioned a few times throughout this post already. Just as a refresher, remember that you can calculate the emissions made by your flight and purchase offsets through the Carbon Fund. Also, if you book hotels through Trip Zero, they will offset all your travel for free.

Of course, planting trees and offsetting isn’t going to solve the root of the problem. The big issue is that flying still releases tonnes of CO2. Not enough airlines are using biofuels yet because biofuels are often much more expensive than other fuels. However, an organization called Global Algae Innovations is making strides in researching how to make algae into biofuel.

The thing about algae is that it absorbs carbon out of the air while it is growing. Plus if it can be made into biofuel, it won’t release harmful CO2 or other greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. Global Algae Innovations has already found a way to make biofuel from algae but they need to do more research to find out how they can make it more affordable. If they can find a way to cut their production costs for algae biofuels, then airlines will be more willing to make the switch from carbon to biofuel. You can offset some of your flights by donating to GAI to help them with their algae biofuel research. Be sure to read more about algae biofuels and how to donate to Global Algae Innovations here.

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1 thought on “Eco-Friendly Travel: How to Have a *Slightly* More Sustainable Flight”

  • Tyra Wettach says:

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