12 helpful tips to become a more environmentally friendly traveler

My family and I try to do our part for the environment. We drive a hybrid car (we couldn’t go full electric due to logistic reasons) but try to take the bus or walk when we can (which we could do more of, to be honest). We recycle at home and try to limit our waste although we don’t always succeed like the flood of paper and plastic that left our house during our renovations bore witness to. It did all end up in various recycling centers though. When we have a choice, we try to buy environmentally labeled and ethical products and we’ve introduced concepts like meatless Mondays to our family life which has reduced our meat consumption considerably. We’re currently trying to make a habit of making a menu for the week to reduce food waste and to ensure we don’t fall back on fast food as much because it’s unhealthy, expensive and it leaves behind a mountain of trash. We try to buy local when we can and I’ve stopped drinking most soda (I only drink sparkling water on special occasions) not only because it’s bad for you but because the number of plastic bottles that accumulated in our home every month made me sick to my stomach. We’re far from perfect but we try and I think that’s important.

I’m very aware that we’re in a privileged position because of the simple fact that we’re able to make these choices but I am also of the opinion that because of our privilege we should be doing more. Much more.

Which is why I sat the husband down after reading about the new IPCC report and told him that I want us to do a serious audit on our life and our business to see where we can do better. I don’t expect us to totally disrupt our life and become hermits that live solely off the land but I hope we’ll come up with small actionable steps that over time have a noticeable impact.

We as travelers and citizens of the world have to open our eyes to the fact that a lot of what we love, including traveling, is terrible for the environment. All these flights, cruises ships and what have you are causing havoc on our planet. This is a fact.

I’m not sure we want to live in a world where we can’t travel, although that may become our reality in the not so distant future, but the very least we should be conscious of our environmental impact and try to control the damage where we can.

I know it’s easy to say “but this change is so small that it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things” but if everyone changes their habits for the better it will eventually become a big change. Every positive change you make, no matter how many positive changes you don’t make, matters.

Like some wise individual probably said sometime and thousands of self-help books have repeated later in some form or another: Let it begin with me.

12 easy tips to become a more environmentally friendly traveler

Consider using a reusable bottle instead of buying bottled water

I often get asked about things that tourists do that rub me the wrong way as a local and because I’m quite diplomatic (when I want to be, at least) I always give vague answers about how there are always two sides to every story. However, if I’m completely honest and today is a tell-it-like-it-is day, it bothers me immensely to see travelers stock up on bottled water in the supermarkets. It bothers me so much that I make a habit of approaching them to tell them that this is completely unnecessary because the water from the tap is perfectly good and safe in the hope they will change their mind. The response I usually get is some sort of excuse why they absolutely need to buy this water and then I see them walk into the sunset with their hands full of unnecessary plastic bottles.

Everywhere you go in Iceland, you have unlimited access to clean fresh water that doesn’t cost you a penny. If you just bring a reusable bottle from home, you can take advantage of this water and feel better about not contributing to the growing problem of plastic in our environment. If the environmental reasoning is not enough to convince you, think about all the money you save because water in a bottle is something specifically made for tourists and is priced accordingly.

Consider leaving the disposable hand warmers at home (or just skip buying them altogether) and invest in good mittens

I have to admit that I didn’t even know that hand warmers existed until recently when I started seeing used ones lying around, both here in the city and at popular tourist attractions. Although I’m sure most people who use them throw them in the trash once they don’t need them anymore, there seem to be quite a few that just throw them away where they stand.

Either way and anyway you look at it, disposable hand warmers are never going to be good for the environment because of the simple fact that they are disposable. We need less trash, not more of it.

If you invest in good mittens, you shouldn’t need hand warmers. There’s a reason why I say mittens and not gloves but mittens tend to be warmer than gloves for the simple reason that the fingers keep each other warm like you would hug someone for warmth if you if ever got lost in the wilderness. I have a pair of knitted wool mittens that are fleece lined that I wear all winter long and I never get cold. You can buy a similar pair in any tourist shop or even many gas stations or bookstores in Iceland. If I would get cold, I have another thinner pair that I can wear underneath and then I’m basically ready for the North Pole.

If you take a brochure to explore what’s on offer during your time in Iceland, considering returning it when you’ve finished using it

The number of brochures and leaflets related to tourism printed in Iceland is staggering and they need to be reprinted every year because things usually change between seasons. I used to work for a company that printed quite a few brochures every year and sometimes we would throw away boxes that had never even been opened when the new issues would come in from the printers.

I have a feeling that most of these brochures end up in the trash, often even unread. I see them blowing in the wind all over town and if I see trash on the ground walking downtown I would say at least 50% of the time it’s a brochure or a tourist map.

We’ve all been guilty of filling up the trash bin in our hotel rooms with brochures and leaflets before check out that we had good intentions to read but just never got around to. There’s nothing wrong with taking the brochures if they help you decide on what to do (although you can usually find exactly the same and often more information online) but all I’m suggesting is that when you’re done with them that you return them instead of throwing them in the trash.

If everyone did this, over time the companies that make the brochures wouldn’t have to fill the stands as often which eventually would result in fewer brochures and less waste.

Bring your take away coffee cup with you from home so you can forgo the paper cups when you get your morning fix

This is something I’m going to take to heart because too often I go to a cafe and get my drink in a paper cup even though I have a few take-away cups at home. If you get a light cup, maybe something that is foldable or that you can take apart, it shouldn’t take up too much space in your backpack.

Again, we want to reduce the trash we leave behind and if you get a coffee in disposable cup 1-2 times a day during your trip that’s a lot of unnecessary trash.

What I’ve learned about being more environmentally friendly is that it also often saves you money. The two big coffee chains in Iceland for example, Kaffitár and Te&Kaffi, both give you a 40 ISK discount of any takeaway drink if you bring your own travel mug. Many of the smaller places also do this like Reykjavík Roasters that offer a 30 ISK discount. So it’s win-win.

Consider renting a bike or do walking tours instead of doing bus sightseeing tours or driving in rental cars around the city

One of the best things about Reykjavík, or at least the area that should be most interesting to our visitors, is how small and compact it is which makes it a perfect city for walking and biking.

During the summer, you will find city bike stands in 8 different locations around the downtown area. They are relatively cheap to use (for Icelandic standards at least) and there always seem to be enough bikes to go around.

Although the bikes are great to get from A to B, I personally think the city is best explored by foot which is why I started offering my walking tours way back when. Nowadays, we only offer private walking tours which is basically like walking around the city with a friend you never knew you had.

Other options would be this food walk, which combines basic information about the city with some delicious traditional treats, or one of the many “free” walking tours (which are actually not free, you’re meant to tip your guide). You can of course also walk around on your own which often leads to unexpected discoveries.

I know tour buses are technically like public transportation but there are too many cars in downtown Reykjavík and the traffic is probably one of the biggest contributors to the city’s pollution.

Use Google Maps (or something similar) instead of the free tourist paper maps

I understand being old school and enjoying having a piece of paper in your hand (I prefer books over Kindle and e-books for example but maybe it’s just because I’ve never used a Kindle) but when the electronic version of something is way better than its paper counterpart, giving up the paper to reduce waste should be a no-brainer.

There are many reasons why I prefer using Google Maps over a paper map but the main reason is the directions feature which is super helpful when you arrive at a new place. Not only will it tell you how to get somewhere, but it will also tell you how long it will take and in many cities, it will even tell you how to get there using public transport (the public transport feature does sadly not work in Reykjavík though). It also helps me to be able to zoom out and in to get a better feel for the place I’m at in relations to everything around it.

Like with so many things on this list, skipping the paper map is about reducing the waste we leave behind by replacing disposable things with something more lasting. In this case, most of us have all that we need in our pockets already.

Consider joining a tour instead of renting a car if you are traveling solo

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this because it’s kind of obvious but one vehicle with 70 people will always have less impact on the environment than a single person in a rental car. That’s why public transportation always comes up when people discuss ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

The problem here in Iceland is a bit more complex though due to the number of tour buses, some of which are half empty, but that’s a whole different discussion. Maybe they wouldn’t be half empty if more people did tours instead of traveling around alone in their rental cars though.

It should also be better for the areas that people visit them in groups with guides because it’s the job of the guide to inform their guests about how to treat the land with respect and keep them in check if they don’t obey the rules whereas those traveling on their own might not be as aware but I’m not sure that’s how things actually work. But strictly looking at the vehicle, which we know are major contributors to greenhouse emissions, more people on one big vehicle is better

Consider offsetting the carbon for your travels

I have to admit that I don’t know enough about carbon offsetting to tell you more than at least look into it. For more information, you can read these two articles for example:

A complete guide to carbon offsetting

Should you buy carbon offsets?

I think the reason I don’t know much about this is that it has always felt a bit complicated to me. There are also those who question whether this really matters or whether people use carbon offsetting to free themselves from making any meaningful changes to their lifestyle to reduce their emission but I think if you add this into a mix of other actions you take for the environment it’s always going to help. To me, the little I’ve read about it, it seems like choosing the right carbon offsetting program is the most important thing and this requires some further study.

I’ve put it on my todo list to read and learn more about this and I hope you do too if you’re not already a carbon offset veteran.

Consider bringing a reusable bag for your shopping

Iceland is quite a lot behind when it comes to many environmental issues and while some countries are considering or have imposed bans on plastic bags in grocery stores, it’s only recently that it has become common to see people in Iceland bring their reusable bags from home when they do their grocery shopping.

We have a few reusable bags and we try to put them in places where we can easily grab them if we need to go to a store. They’re usually light and easy to fold so they take up less space and if my purse wasn’t so full of stuff all the time (like, do I really need to have a pair of mittens with me always?) I could easily have one with me at all times.

You will also save money by bringing your own bag because Icelandic grocery stores have charged for their bags for many years and now more and more clothing stores are doing the same.

You can of course also use your backpack but that’s what I usually do when I go abroad. When I go to bigger cities, the distances are usually greater and I often need to use public transport and then it’s easier and more convenient to carry things on my back in a good backpack than carrying all those bags around. Whatever works for you.

For some reason, the Bónus reusable bags have become the go-to souvenir for many people who visit Iceland and my husband and I even met someone at a farmer’s market in San Diego who was just strolling around with their Bónus bag. As souvenirs go, it’s pretty cheap or around 200 ISK.

If at all possible, try not printing out your travel documents to save paper

The great thing about travel today is that so many things can be done electronically. In many airports, you don’t even need to get a printed boarding pass anymore, you can just get it in a text message or an e-mail.

In most cases here in Iceland, you will not need to print out your tickets or confirmations. In some cases, like when you do a tour with us you will just need to say your name and we can quickly look you up in our booking system while with others, you might need to have your ticket available on your phone.

If you need to print out a ticket, it will usually say so on the ticket itself.

With all the technology we have today there shouldn’t be a need for anyone to print out anything so if you’re disappointed to get a ticket where it says you need to print it out, let the company know and if enough people complain they may change their policies.

Where possible, recycle

If your hotel, hostel or guesthouses have recycling bins available, take a couple of minutes out of your time and get informed about what goes into each bin. Then it should be a breeze following those instructions for the remainder of your stay.

It can be a little bit more difficult to recycle outside of your accommodation but there is at least one big recycling bin in downtown Reykjavík at Lækjartorg square where you can recycle on the go. If you’re walking around Reykjavík for the day you’ll probably pass this square once or twice. We used to have more recycling bins around the downtown area but people wouldn’t use them properly (despite clear instructions) so in the end, they were taken down.

Almost every neighborhood in Reykjavík will have drop-off centers for recyclables where you can drop off your bottles, paper and plastic and some of them will also accept clothing donations. They’re not manned so make sure you read the instructions so everything goes into the right container.

You can find more information about what you can recycle in Reykjavík and where to dispose of it on this website.

Try to limit your numbers of souvenirs and consider buying local

The biggest problem our planet is facing is excess: we all buy and use too much stuff. Souvenirs are no exception.

I have to admit that I find most typical souvenirs not to my taste and I hardly ever buy them. I like my fridge clutter and magnet free and the same goes for my home. The clutter that is, I know most people don’t have magnets around their house. Therefore, if I do buy something it usually also has some practical use. Like foodstuff that is native to the area or one little cool local design thing. Lately, I often buy a handmade ornament for our Christmas tree if I find one.

I’ve not always been like that. When I was in Southeast Asia many years ago I sent boxes of crap home because I couldn’t fit all the stuff I bought in my backpack. Do you know how often I used most of that stuff? Never.

To reduce the amount of stuff that basically goes straight from our suitcase to goodwill when we get home, try to be more thoughtful about your souvenirs and think before you buy: will I ever use this? If the answer is no, although our economy would be thankful for your contribution, just don’t buy it.

Another thing to consider is to buy local. Many of the things you will find in tourist shops is Reykjavík has been imported from across the world from factories that may not care two hoots about the environment (they may care, I don’t actually know). Buying something that is manufactured in Iceland out of Icelandic materials (like this cute ram made out of birch and left-over wool for example) has a considerably smaller carbon footprint. Another good option would be something hand knitted like a lopapeysa or mittens.

When I travel I almost always go to second-hand stores and markets too and some of my most cherished items in our home have come from such visits. Recycle, reuse, reduce and all that.

Share your tips and tricks to become a more environmentally friendly traveler

Like I mentioned in the beginning, I don’t claim to be an expert on this issue nor am I necessarily a poster child for how to live a carbon neutral lifestyle. I do, however, try to constantly become and do better and that’s something we all can do.

These 12 items are just the first 12 things that popped into my mind when I sat down to write about this. If you do one of these things you’re already making a difference but it would probably be better if you did all 12.

If you have any more easy tips on how we can reduce our environmental impact when we travel, please leave them in the comments below for your fellow travelers. Keep in mind, though, that I moderate these comments so please play nice.

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