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How to Be a More Sustainable Traveler While Flying

Sustainability Airports + Flying
by Tim Wenger May 1, 2018

Travel generally isn’t the greenest of activities, and few aspects of travel leave as large a carbon footprint as flying. A 3,000-mile flight across the United States emits just under one metric ton of carbon emissions per person when flying economy, and The New York Times reported that in the United States, flying accounts for 11 percent of all transportation-related emissions. That’s a huge number given the amount of time the average person spends commuting on the ground versus flying. Shouldn’t we all just fly less? That would certainly help. In many cases, however, flying is all but unavoidable. Here’s how can you be a more sustainable traveler while flying.

1. Bring your own drinks, snacks, and cutlery.

As tasty as those little packets of peanuts are, the empty baggie heads straight to the landfill. This is an easy problem to solve, as passengers can take unopened snacks through security, and can even bring hot items such as breakfast burritos or sandwiches through as long as they’re wrapped in foil. Shorter domestic flights in the US sell pre-packaged meals, but you won’t have to pay the hefty price tag or produce the trash these meals require, as this practice saves you from buying them.

On long hauls, you’re likely going to eat in-flight meals. In a positive sign of changing times, many airlines now provide reusable or recyclable silverware. You can be prepared either way by bringing your own reusable plastic spork, such as this one from Sea To Summit, that will come in handy far beyond the confines of your flight.

Because of health code restrictions, many US airlines won’t fill up your portable coffee mug — they’ll instead inform you that they can fill you a cup which you can then dump it into the mug yourself. This obviously defeats the purpose of having your own mug in the first place, so be prepared and fill up on coffee or other drinks after passing through security and bring them onto the plane.

If you do order a drink on the flight, refuse a plastic straw if offered. You may have heard about the perils of plastic straws in our oceans, and there’s simply no benefit whatsoever to drinking water, soda, coffee, or anything else through a plastic straw. You can be pre-emptive and add this request to your drink order, on planes and otherwise, without sounding too pompous. If you must have a straw, bring your own reusable one.

2. Fly economy class.

The next time you’re stuck in the middle seat at the back of the plane, remember this fancy little factoid: you’re flying much greener than the wasteful hoity toities in business class. This one comes down to basic economics — the more people on a flight, the less the carbon footprint of each passenger. A business class seat takes up significantly more space than an economy seat, more than five times as much in some cases.

3. Take direct flights whenever possible.

Twenty-five percent of a flight’s carbon emissions happen during taxiing, take off, and landing, according to NASA. The fewer flights it takes you to reach your final destination, the better, even if that means suffering through a fifteen-hour plane ride. As a bonus, you’re also saving layover time, which makes your commute faster in addition to being less carbon-intensive.

4. Offset your travel through donations.

The first step is to calculate your carbon emissions for each flight, which can be done using this handy tool. Airlines including Delta, United, British Airways, Jetstar, Emirates, and many others allow flyers to add an optional carbon offset donation during the booking process. Additionally, a number of organizations exist to act as a middleman for those flying airlines that have yet to get the hint. The Nature Conservancy and Atmosfair can help. As a general rule of thumb, plan to donate about $10 for each metric ton, give or take a dollar or two. This money may be used to plant trees, work towards the development of biofuels, or other environmentally-friendly projects loosely connected to offsetting air travel.

5. Rethink how you get to the airport.

Many cities have taken great leaps to build efficient public transit to their airport. In some cases this is a train or subway, others it’s a bus. If you can avoid driving or riding in a private passenger vehicle to your already heavily polluting flight, in addition to offsetting the emissions via a donation, you’re taking drastic steps to reduce the carbon footprint of your travel. When public transit isn’t an option, carpooling is much better than driving solo or being dropped off. Options such as Uber Pool allow you to carpool easily and cheaply.

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