THE BALANCING ACT: HOW TO MAKE A SUSTAINABLE PACKING LIST

The photo was taken with solar powered camera. Photo: Tiina Junno.

Whether you travel in your home country or abroad, sustainable travelling is the way to go. For me it also includes sustainable packing, environmentally sustainable to be exact. The market is filled with eco-labeled products to make your travelling easier and to help you consume more consciously. But what if you question consumerism, even if it’s conscious and eco-friendly? I thought about this and decided to explore packing from a point of view of a person who tries to minimise all consuming. What if instead of buying new eco-friendly products, you tried be an otherwise environmentally conscious traveller?

Environmentally conscious travellers are usually also conscious consumers. Conscious consumerism means that you make ethical and sustainable purchasing decisions. These may include buying eco-friendly, fair trade or locally produced products.

I used to be satisfied seeing myself as a conscious consumer until I read Maria Csutora’s research paper The ecological footprint of green and brown consumers. Introducing the behaviour-impact-gap (BIG) problem. Csutora suggests that there is actually no real difference between the carbon footprints of a conscious consumer and an ordinary consumer. She points out that the environmentally aware – conscious – consumers often have the funds to invest in eco-friendly lifestyles but while they make some green choices, e.g. recycle, the expectations placed on their socio-economic status influence their consuming habits. Thus, they consume more, which in turn offsets the impact of their environmental efforts. This made me rethink my idea of myself as a conscious consumer. I recycle and make green choices in my life, but is buying heaps of eco-friendly goods an actual green choice?

Suzanne Jacobs’ article Consumerism plays a huge role in climate change refers to a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology that suggests that consumerism is responsible for up to 60 % of greenhouse gas emissions and 50 to 80 % of water, land, and material use globally. There is no mention of conscious consumerism but let’s face it: the Earth cannot be completely unaffected by our choices, no matter how conscious or green they are. Of course it is recommendable to buy ethical, environmentally-friendly items if you need to buy something but if you want to minimise your consuming altogether, what do you pack in your bags as an environmentally conscious traveller. I will take a look at my packing habits and share some of my sustainable packing tips.

REUSABLE PACKING MATERIALS

How to minimise consuming and your carbon footprint? A step in this direction is using reusable packing materials. A good way to be a sustainable traveller is to borrow your travel bag from a friend or find used bags from fleamarkets. In the past, I have done both. If you cannot find a suitable bag and you travel frequently, you might want to invest in a good-quality carry-on bag or suitcase made of sustainable material. A quality bag can be a one time purchase that you will use for the rest of your life.

When I pack my belongings I try to minimise packing materials. Plastic packing materials are something I have had hard time dealing with. I would like to avoid plastic but sometimes it is difficult. For example, when travelling by plane with only a hand luggage, you have to pack your liquids into a reclosable plastic bag. It’s a good thing there are small plastic bags such as Minigrips that are reclosable and reusable. These little bags are something that I already have at home for freezing berries and such. No need to buy new ones. You can wash them and reuse them, and make them last close to forever.

When I travel by train, packing food is easiest in stainless steel, glass or plastic containers since they keep the spillage inside and can be used again. I have seen many reusable and environmentally-friendly steel and glass containers online. But if you already have the equivalent at home, why buy new ones. I think you should use everything you have at home before jumping into the eco-consumer bandwagon.

In my opinion, the easiest glass containers are mason jars which are good for carrying nuts, seeds and other snacks of your choice. If you worry about the jars getting broken, pack your snacks in reclosable and reusable Minigrip bags. They are also easier to fit into your travel bag. And you can fill them again and again.

My tip for drinks is to use a refillable water bottle to avoid accumulating disposable plastic bottles in the oceans or landfills. A good bottle has probably been the only thing I really wanted to invest in, so I bought a refillable BPA-free (BPA=Bisphenol-A, a chemical used in making plastic) bottle a few years ago and never looked back. I never need to buy water bottles or worry about harmful chemicals when drinking from my own bottle. In Finland, you can drink tap water so filling your bottle is easy everywhere. When travelling in countries without drinkable tap water, you might want to consider investing in a filtering water bottle. Yes, you will have to be a consumer there, but it is better than buying bottled water many times a day.

REUSABLE ITEMS

My aim is to reduce waste and minimise my consuming so I will not pack items that can be used only once. It is also easier to carry reusable everyday items with you than try to find a place to buy new ones. Besides, do I want to leave trash to a place I am visiting? No, I don’t.

If I want to take a book with me, I take it from my own shelf. You can choose e-books too. It is argued that paper books and e-books are both as bad since making paper destroys forests, and electronic devices you use for reading e-books have materials that cause environmental problems. But reading is good for you so try to choose what is best for you and for the environment.

When packing your toiletries, be a minimalist. It’s good to have a travel sized shampoo bottles at hand. You can refill them, and they require only a little bit of space. An even better choice could be an organic shampoo bar packed in a recyclable cardboard packaging that you can carry with you and recycle the package when back at home.

Bring your own cutlery. Even on shorter trips, say a day’s sitting on a train, a spoon and a fork might be good to have on you. Disposable cutlery is a big no-no for me, and biodegradable forks and knives seem pointless when I have stainless steel cutlery at home.

Be fashionably functional. To avoid buying new bags or using plastic bags, you can pack extra tote bags or light canvas bags. They can also be of use when you need to carry dirty laundry. Also, take reusable cloth napkins with you. They last long and are easy to wash. And there will be no trash and no need to buy new napkins.

Having reusable items means you have to carry all of them with you but I think it’s a small price to pay and worth it if it benefits the environment.

PACK ONLY WHAT YOU NEED

Before packing, I usually think hard what I am going to need on my trip. I prefer to pack light and also leave a little bit room for something that I might bring back with me. If I go visit relatives, there might be a need to have space for berry jams and other homemade goodies. And there is always the chance that you cannot avoid buying something from your destination. If you want to buy items, be a conscious consumer and buy sustainable.

When it comes to clothes, I pack just the clothes I need. In the past, I have packed heaps of clothes just in case. But as I’ve travelled, I have realised that I always use the clothes I’m most comfortable with. If I go to areas where the weather differs greatly from that of my home country, I do research beforehand and pack things that I might need.

READY TO GO

I believe your packing list can be environmentally sustainable without a complete eco-label makeover. I admit that I have been happy to call myself a conscious consumer in the past. But as was pointed out earlier, consumerism adds to the burden of the planet, and I do not want to take part in that. I am a consumer in a higher income country. In general, we buy more and thus, we pollute more. Since being a conscious consumer does not necessarily make a difference, you might as well think long and hard about your consumerism and how it affects the planet. Why buy more if it only adds to the heavy load the environment already carries? Perhaps the only way to make a difference for the better is to stop unnecessary consuming altogether. That’s something to think about.

 

Text by Tiina Junno

Sources: The European Round Table on Sustainable Consumption and Production (ERSCP) 2012, Grist