How to: Study Abroad in Environmentally Sustainable Ways

Athena Study Abroad is a founding member in the Global Learning Collective, the “We Care Commitment” of which includes “Sustainable Education Travel.” All Collective partners have implemented various environmentally sustainable practices.

One of them, EDU Africa, focuses on the worldwide problem of plastic, and on its website, asks that travelers make the “plastic pledge”—that is, using as little as plastic as possible when they travel. Did you know that more than a quarter of all countries that have enforced plastic bag-oriented legislation are in Africa, and in fact Kigali, Rwanda, has become one of the world’s cleanest cities?

EDU Africa suggests “10 Eco-friendly alternatives [to plastics] to pack for your next trip,” which Athena has modified a bit for U.S. students:

  1. Reusable water bottle. Refuse those single-use plastic bottles that fill up our ocean and rather invest in a reusable or filtered water bottle that you can refill at a recommended water source.


  2. Travel cup. More and more takeaway coffee shops are encouraging customers to bring along their own coffee mug. Not only does this save the environment from the single-use takeaway cup, but you might even get a discount on your coffee!
  3. Reusable straw. Just refuse the plastic straw. Can’t go without a straw? There are many reusable options available these days including bamboo, metal and silicone straws.
  4. Shopping bag. With plastic bags being banned or taxed in many countries, make sure you bring along a lightweight tote bag or use your backpack for a greener shopping experience.
  5. Bamboo cutlery. You can start using these on the plane already and will have no need to reach for a piece of plastic when eating something on the go. 
  6. Bamboo toothbrush. Yay to starting every day with a clear conscience, knowing your toothbrush won’t still exist for hundreds of years. 
  7. Solid toiletries. Yes, there is such a thing. Swop your shower gel & shampoo for a solid biodegradable soap or shampoo bar and leave no trace behind.
  8. Travel size containers. Instead of buying travel size products, rather invest in metal or silicone containers that you can decant your preferred products into. 

    Use reusable bags!

  9. Reusable waterproof bags. Even though airports might still let you through, or even require that you use, something like a plastic Ziploc bag, investing in reusable waterproof bags is still the better option and much more versatile.
  10. Solar power bank. Disconnecting from technology and enjoying your journey should be your first priority, but for when you need to recharge, try a solar power bank. It’s not plastic-free, but definitely better for the environment.  

Even more information is available about traveling while using as little plastic as possible can be found here.

But limiting use of plastic is just one part of environmentally sustainable study abroad. At Athena Study Abroad, we also like “40 Green Travel Tips (The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel),” written by Bret Love, co-owner of the Green Global Travel website. We’ve selected here Love’s tips that are most relevant to study abroad students (so, for example, we’ve omitted, among other topics, his tips for staying in hotels), and that are not among the anti-plastic tips above.

  1. Try to book non-stop flights whenever you can: It’s the takeoffs and landings that create most of an airplane’s carbon emissions.
  2. If you do fly, consider doing so with one of the 30+ IATA (International Air Transport Association) member airlines who offer carbon offset programs to neutralize the aircraft’s carbon emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects.
  3. If you have the time, traveling via bus, train, or ship generally has less negative environmental impact than traveling by plane.
  4. When traveling overseas, look for [travel, tour, and other companies] with seals of approval from other certification programs, such as EarthCheck (Australia), Green Globe, Rainforest Alliance (Latin America, Caribbean), and Green Tourism Business Scheme (UK). Some countries, including Costa Rica, have their own certification programs to rate sustainability initiatives.
  5. Take showers, not baths. Showers use just 10-25 gallons of water, while baths use up to 70 gallons. 
  6. Try to take shorter showers, turning the water off while you lather up, shampoo, shave, and/or brush your teeth.
  7. When you leave your room, always turn off all lights, heat/AC, and television. Closing the curtains and blinds can help keep out the heat of the sun in summer.
  8. Walk, bike, or use public transportation to get around whenever possible, which cuts down on gas usage and saves you money.
  9. Return maps, brochures, and other [travel] info once you’re finished with them so that they may be reused by future travelers.
  10. Marked hiking trails are there for a reason. Stick to the path to avoid harming native flora and avoid any creepy-crawlies that may be lurking in the underbrush.
  11. Bring along a small bag and pick up any trash you spot along your hike. Have a friendly competition to see who can clean up the most unsightly waste!
  12. Never feed or touch wildlife, for any reason. Feeding animals makes them habituated to and reliant on humans, and often leads to attacks. If you get bit, the animal will most likely be killed.
  13. Research weather conditions and terrain before you go hiking. You don’t want to be that guy (or girl) who got lost and required a ranger rescue, which drains public resources.
  14. Keep a respectful distance from wildlife. Yes, we understand that you want to Instagram your encounter with a grizzly bear. But if you’re close enough to attract an animal’s attention, you’re too close!
  15. Buy locally made (preferably handmade) products, rather than those that have been imported. Items that are flown or shipped in have a much larger carbon footprint, and who wants a cheap, cookie-cutter souvenir made on an Asian assembly line?
  16. Don’t buy anything made from endangered plants/animals, unsustainable hardwoods, or ancient artifacts. Not only is it wrong, but you probably won’t be able to get them back through customs.
  17. Seek out indigenous artisans when you can. When you buy directly from an artist, you’re not only helping them feed their family, but in many cases you’re helping to preserve their culture. We’ve also heard some pretty amazing stories by chatting these artisans up.
  18. Do not buy souvenir photos from anyone exploiting wildlife, such as the famous performing elephants of Thailand.
  19. Travel with small group tour operators, which tend to have less of an environmental impact. Membership in an organization like The International Ecotourism Society is a good sign that the tour operator tries to conduct itself in a responsible, sustainable manner.
  20. When snorkeling or Scuba diving, don’t touch/step on the coral or stir up sediment, as it can damage the reef’s fragile ecosystem.
  21. Ask your snorkel or scuba diving tour operators if they chum the water to attract marine life. Doing so can change the behavior of marine species, or possibly make them sick.
  22. Find out how the tour operator gives back to the local community. Do they lease the land from locals? Do they hire local guides? Do they take a leading role in preserving the area’s natural resources? Community-based tourism is the most sustainable.
  23. Don’t take any tour that promises hands-on encounters with wild animals, such as riding elephants or walking with lions. If you do, you’re supporting an industry that illegally captures, transports, and abuses millions of animals each year.

(Find the complete list here.)



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