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Please Stop Destroying the Places You Visit: 11 Easy Ways to be an Eco-Friendly Traveler

Being an environmentally conscious traveler doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money or make a lot of difficult changes.

Most of us know about leaving no trace when we visit a place, but there are plenty of ways that tourism can have a negative impact on an ecosystem, especially in areas where those ecosystems live in delicate balance. Being a tourist doesn’t mean that you have to leave a harmful imprint, however, and it also doesn’t mean you have to jump through a ton of hoops or buy expensive gadgets to be a conscientious traveler. While most of these suggestions are applicable to our daily lives, these are particularly helpful to make sure you leave the smallest impact whether you’re heading out on a road trip in your hybrid vehicle or adding another stamp to your passport at some exotic locale.

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Slather On Reef Friendly Sunscreen

You’ve probably noticed the uptick in focus on reef-friendly sunscreen as scientists are realizing just how detrimental certain ingredients in traditional sunscreen can be. In fact, Hawaii lawmakers recently passed a bill to ban traditional sunscreens after seeing the impact they’re having on the reefs in the island chain. Keep an eye out for products that are labeled “reef-friendly” or check the ingredients–-you’re trying to avoid oxybenzone (BP-3) and octinoxate in that list. It’s available anywhere that you would buy sunscreen, and many island and coastal resorts have replaced their offerings to only include the reef-friendly versions.

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PHOTO: Bogdan Sonjachnyj / Shuttershock
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Tote Around a Reusable Straw

Reusable straws are everywhere these days as bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and others choose to eliminate them, and cities across the country begin to ban them. If you’ve ever seen that video of a sea turtle having a straw pulled out of his nostril, you’ll understand just how bad they are for the environment. Pack a reusable one in your carry-on to make sure that even if your vacation destination isn’t ahead of the eco-friendly curve, at least you are. Non-plastic straws include paper, metal, and reusable plastic. For people who just can’t get used to not having the traditional plastic straw, there are also plant-based biodegradable straws that are almost identical to the offensive plastic ones. If you’re new to reusable straws, take some time to try different ones out, see what feels best in your mouth and which is easiest for you to carry around.

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Bring Along an Insulated Bag

An insulated tote bag (those freezer bags found hanging at the front of grocery stores) is one of the most versatile, eco-friendly items you can pack. It takes up almost no room or weight in your suitcase on the way there and can be used as an extra carry-on for souvenirs on the way back. While at your destination they can be used for a shopping bag or small cooler. They also make great laundry bags, wet clothes and towels bag while you’re day tripping and wet/dirty/sandy shoe bag for the trip home. A quick clean out with a garden hose upon returning home and the bag is ready to carry all of your frozen goodies during your next shopping trip.

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PHOTO: Trong Nguyen / Shuttershock
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Read an Eco-Friendly Guide Book and Actually Heed its Advice

Quality guidebooks from reputable companies like Fodor’s often contain information about environmentally sensitive areas in the locales that you are visiting. Use this information to ensure that you are respecting the land and the people where you are visiting. These guidebooks will also help point you to places like science and nature centers where you can learn about the environment that you’re visiting. They’ll also share with you important laws about interacting with animals, artifacts, and more—but you already know to keep hands off the wildlife, right?

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PHOTO: Sergey Ryzhov / Shuttershock
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Purchase a Reusable Water Bottle at the Beginning of Your Trip

Sure, you could always bring your favorite reusable canteen on your trip, but embossed water bottles make for great souvenirs for yourself and others. Give it a little soap and water rinse in your hotel or hostel bathroom and it’s ready to keep you hydrated for your whole trip, help you sneak booze into alcohol-free beaches, or feed you a breakfast smoothie through a (reusable) straw. When you get home, you’ll always be reminded of that amazing trip where you made a very light footstep on your destination’s environment.

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Grab a Travel Coffee Cup, While You’re at It

Travel coffee cups also make for great souvenirs for yourself, and if you’re feeling generous, for others. They’re also a great way to make sure that you walk into a local coffee shop to get your daily brew instead of a chain café, which earns you bonus points for shopping locally.

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PHOTO: BENJAMAPHON DUANGPANTA / Shuttershock
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Pack Paper Based or Reusable Cotton Swabs

While the US is starting to pay attention to straws, the UK is already working on banning plastic cotton swabs. The plastic on some cotton swabs can be just as detrimental to oceans and animals as straws. Depending on where you’re traveling, the hotel may offer cotton swabs as part of the takeable toiletries, but there’s no guarantee that they have a paper shaft. It’s easy to bring your own with you just in case. Some of the name brands offer a little refillable travel case just for cotton swabs to keep them tidy and clean in your bag (check the travel toiletries section).

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Avoid Purchasing Banned Items

While most of us know not to purchase things like ivory, bird’s nest soup, or shark fin soup because of the incredibly cruel practices used to acquire the items and ingredients, there are plenty of other animal, plant, and environmental items that you shouldn’t take home with you. Those basic leave-no-trace principals apply here—take only photographs and leave only footsteps. Don’t scoop up shells and sand, don’t take rocks from ancient architectural sites, etc. It’s just not cool.

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PHOTO: Natthapon Ngamnithiporn | Dreamstime.com
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Reuse Your Hotel and Beach Towels

Most hotels encourage guests to reuse their towels and don’t wash sheets every day anymore. While they may be doing it for eco-friendly reasons, it’s also helpful for their bottom line. Regardless, not having to launder all of the towels and sheets daily helps save water and electricity, and it’s really easy to do. All you need to do is hang your towel back on the towel rack to dry. Once you’re done with it, toss it on the floor before the next housekeeping visit. Most hotels will have a table tent or information sheet talking about their green efforts, giving specific instructions. If they don’t, give a call to the front desk to ask for their advice or to indicate that you’d like to reuse towels and sheets and for how long.

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Buy Local

We all know that buying local helps keep small businesses alive and keep tourist dollars in the local economy, but aside from those really positive points, shopping locally makes for a fun experience. Visiting farmers markets, outdoor vendors, and local shopping centers give visitors the chance to actually chat with locals, learn more about exotic local foods, and pick up high-quality and unique hand-made items. If you’re buying a lot of souvenirs at once, you can also try to talk your way into a better deal with a vendor, rather than being stuck with a corporate price tag.

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Walk or Take Public Transportation When Possible

Not taking a taxi or renting a car means helping to reduce air pollution, but it also gives visitors lots of personal benefits. For one, you’ll save money by walking or buying a bus pass, which can then be used for a great local meal. Walking means that you’ll get to see way more sites, shops, and hidden treasures than you ever would from the back of a cab. And of course, walking means that you don’t have to spend time in the hotel gym trying to work off that decadent dessert you indulged in the night before.