Travel is one of the joys of life. The thrill of going to a new place, meeting new people, having new experiences, cannot be described. India is a great place for a traveller, with a variety of cultures, habitats, climates and unique experiences to choose from, and the increase in disposable incomes means that people in India are travelling like never before. Travel to remote places is also becoming easier every day, with the improvement in roads and infrastructure, not to mention information about transport, accommodation and so on. However, this spike in travel for pleasure also means that tourist spots and attractions are under pressure like never before. How can one be a responsible traveller and still enjoy the experience? As a compulsive traveler, I try to minimize my carbon footprint as much as possible, without having to give up travel altogether. Here is my personal list of good practices:
– Mode of travel: Your footprint starts from your choice of transport. Whenever possible, I take trains/buses and avoid air travel. Train travel is great if you don’t have a time crunch. I find that I have started enjoying solo train journeys, as I get time to read, to think, to write (in fact this piece was written on two long train journeys!). With a group of friends, train journeys become even more fun. If you can’t plan in advance, try Tatkal – tickets often get confirmed even if booked at the last minute. Train travel is much more eco-friendly than taking a flight. Last year I did a ten day long “rail yatra”, covering bangalore-mumbai-delhi-pathankot-haridwar-dehradun-agra-nagpur-bangalore, and the carbon footprint of the entire journey was less than that of a single flight from bangalore to mumbai! Air travel is the worst offender in terms of carbon emissions. You can find a simple carbon footprint calculator here. Sometimes flights are unavoidable. In such cases, opt for direct rather than hopping flights and try and look into public transport options at your destination, to get you to the hotel or into the city. There are excellent airconditioned buses operating from Bangalore airport, Kolkata airport, and also between the railway station and airport at Guwahati.
– Plastic bags: Just like at home, carry a cloth bag with you when you travel and refuse plastic bags for your shopping. I carry my trusty small steps bag everywhere which folds into a small pouch. You’ll be surprised how often you will end up using it, and every time you do, you are saving one more plastic bag from coming into circulation. Another problem is plastic packaging, which is not so easy to solve, as it is ubiquitous. To avoid this, I make it a policy not to buy any snacks that are packaged in fused plastic/metal packaging (which is non-recyclable). This automatically rules out all of Haldiram’s, Lay’s products, and even most biscuits and cookies. I buy copious amounts of fruit instead, the more local the better (on a trip to the easternmost road in India, a group of 4 of us consumed 300 oranges in 3 days, fresh from the orange orchards in the area!). If in the mood to eat junk food, I opt for snacks from a local bakery which are usually packaged in transparent plastic (which is recyclable). This is also a great motivator to dig out local specialties wherever I travel, by asking the locals (try Ellora bakery biscuits in Dehradun, Bhuira jams in Himachal, “petha” in Agra, etc).
– Water: Finding clean water is important for all of us when we travel, and the terror of contracting water-borne diseases makes us buy bottled water wherever we go. However, nowadays, clean drinking water is easier to find than we think, as most restaurants and hotels do have a filter installed. When I travel, I always carry my water bottle and refill it wherever I find filtered water. When traveling by train, I refill my bottle at the platform, as all stations have a supply of drinking water. I also avoid beverages that come in plastic bottles, and ask for glass bottles if consuming aerated drinks. Quite often these are not readily available, and I then opt for tetrapack drinks – Amul buttermilk, badam milk, fruit juices. A side benefit – these are healthier! On a recent trek in the Himalayas, our guide carried a small bottle of chlorine drops, and we simply drank from the high altitude streams after sterilising the water. Discarded plastic bottles are the scourge of many a Himalayan town and hillside, and this one step will ensure you don’t add to this problem.
Recently I bought this bottle with an advanced filter (originally developed for NASA): Oko water bottle. You can put water from any source into it – you can even pee into it!! (I hope it never comes to that though 😛 ) and the filter makes the water drinkable. This was being sold at a Diwali mela, and the person at the stall had a bottle filled with coke, and what came out of the filter was water! And it is easy on the pocket too – a 1-liter bottle costs Rs. 2500 (~ $20 if bought in the US) and lasts for 100 gallons (378 refills). That’s less than the cost of buying bottled water. PS: Found that there are others too: Aquaguard bottle; Lifestraw water purifier
– Garbage disposal: If you are going to a remote area, be aware that most small towns in India simply do not have a mechanism for proper garbage disposal. So even if you responsibly throw trash into a dustbin, it may still end up dumped on a hillside or in the ocean, or burnt indiscrimately releasing toxins into the air. It is depressing to see Himalayan slopes full of plastic trash, and pristine beaches in the Andamans littered with chips packets and plastic bottles washed up from the sea. (Watch this video to see the far-reaching effects of plastic trash on the marine environment). The only way to be sure that your plastic trash doesn’t end up the same way is to carry it back home with you or dispose of it in a big city, where it is much more likely to get recycled. Biodegradable waste can be simply chucked into a bush or on the ground where it isn’t an eyesore. It will decompose in no time (if the cows/goats dont get to it first!). In addition to collecting the plastic trash I generate, I usually carry a ziplock bag with me where I collect my used sanitary pads for disposal back home.
– Tour operator: If you’re going on an organized tour, be careful to choose a responsible company. Ask them questions beforehand about how they dispose of the non-biodegradable garbage generated on the trip, and satisfy yourself that you are comfortable with their practices. This is especially important while trekking in sensitive areas like the Himalayas. The last thing you want to do is leave behind trash and a messy campsite for the next person. Happy eco-friendly travels!