See the World and Save the Planet
Some true believers recycle even into their suitcases
By Diane Daniel, Globe Correspondent | April 16, 2006
Reprinted with permission of the author.
One of the first things Michele Davis does when she travels to a new city is look for a place to put her recyclables. She even has a photo collection of recycling bins from across Europe.
"They look kind of space age," she said. "Once, when I couldn't find any, I took home five empty bottles on the plane. My husband was horrified."
Davis, 44, of Newton, is known among friends and neighbors as the "recycling queen." She heads the local recycling committee and recently became the town's representative to the Green Decade Coalition Kyoto Project, helping residents identify what to do in their homes and lives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and be more climate friendly.
You could also call her a composting devotee, in that she oversees three bins, one of them indoors. Composting on the road, she notes, is a little trickier.
"I've buried compost at places we've rented," she said.
Despite her passion and practices, Davis, like most other travelers, admits she never has scouted out environmentally friendly hotels and services when planning a vacation, or afterward given hotel management any feedback..
Bob Henault, 46, of Mansfield, and Betty Gilson, 77, of Bridgewater, share Davis's experience. Both their families are concerned with recycling, composting, and energy use -- at home. But when they're on the road, they become what could be called passive environmentalists.
"We'll do it if it's an option," Henault said. "Like if there's cards in the room with an option of not having the towels washed." But he does not refuse daily maid and linen service.
Gilson, who drives a Prius, sometimes travels with her husband on group tours. She has never asked a tour operator about their environmental practices, although she's always happy to see them offered. "I haven't really thought about it," said Gilson.
Davis, Henault, and Gilson are all model "good citizens," one of eight traveler categories identified in a study comparing Americans' travel practices with their feelings about environmental quality.
The Geotourism Study, commissioned in 2002 by National Geographic Traveler magazine and conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America, defines the "good citizen" category as including well-educated, civic-minded people who "recycle, vote, serve on committees, but aren't notably activist about travel, perhaps because they haven't really thought about it."
They're also the ones who are perhaps the most open to change and most likely to speak up -- once they do think about it, said Jonathan Tourtellot, director of sustainable tourism at the National Geographic Society.
Still, that call for environmental action, even as the world prepares to mark the 26th annual Earth Day on Saturday, has yet to sound in significant numbers, according to Martha Honey, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Ecotourism Society.
"The good news is there is definitely a broad consumer demand to want to travel responsibly, but the other side is that it's a latent demand," Honey said. She cited a study showing that a majority of Americans believe hotels should be environmentally responsible, but that only a small percentage of travelers actually question hotels on their practices.
"I think one of the challenges for those of us in socially responsible tourism is how do we build an activist community?" Honey said. "Part of that is giving people choices."
Attendees at the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be given such a choice this summer. Following its first-ever "green" convention in 2005, the Boston-based association is offering each participant at its June gathering in St. Louis the option of paying a $6 fee to help offset the carbon dioxide they will create while meeting as a group.
Called a "carbon offset," the fee is designed to help compensate for the effects of carbon dioxide created in the course of daily living by reducing carbon dioxide emissions in another location. Groups that calculate and manage income from carbon offsets typically fund forestation, alternative energy sources, and other environmental projects.
The UUA contracted with Carbonfund, a nonprofit group started by Cohasset native Eric Carlson and based in Silver Spring, Md. The $6 fee is based on the carbon "footprint" that will be generated by the expected 4,000 to 5,000 people in attendance, including their transportation.
"We support tree plantings, wind energy, and energy efficiency," said Carlson, 36, who started offering the offsets through his nonprofit business last year.
Kevin Carson, 41, of Cranston, R.I., was happy to be among the 25 percent of registrants who so far have accepted the option.
"I had heard of it before, but I didn't know much about it," said Carson. "I was pleasantly surprised to see it was so easy. And it did prompt me to look at the website. It doesn't require a big sacrifice, and it gives you an awareness."
That awareness is a big part of the quotient, said Carlson.
"My motto is: 'Reduce what you can, offset what you can't.' I don't want to suggest that offsets let people off the hook," he added. As for Carson, like the typical "good citizen" of the geotourism survey, he recycles, composts, and uses energy-saving appliances and lighting fixtures, but he has never sought out environmentally friendly vacation lodging.
"I haven't checked out my hotels in the past, but I've started to be more aware" of their practices, he said.
At Don Shula's Hotel and Golf Club in Miami Lakes, Fla., where Carson stayed recently for a conference, there was no option for skipping daily laundry service for towels and linens.
"I was sharing the room with another guy and we both told the front desk to not change the beds," he said. "Three times in the course of six days they did anyway."
He knows that probably will not happen in St. Louis because of the UUA's green convention standards, which were written into its contract with America's Center, where the gathering will be held, and six nearby hotels.
"There's a tremendous amount of power in convention business to get these things going," said Carson, noting that when last year's convention site in Fort Worth didn't offer recycling, a local man stepped forward to set it up.
"Now he's got a new business, and the convention center has recycling," Carson said.
A similar situation occurred at the Hyatt Regency Boston in 2003 when Ceres, a Boston-based coalition of investors and environmental groups that work to improve companies' environmental practices, approached the hotel about holding its 2005 national conference there.
"They wanted to know what type of e-friendly practices we had in place," said Patrick Sorge, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "It was already a focus for our hotel."
What the Hyatt didn't do at the time was compost its organic food residuals.
Ceres "asked if we would be willing to look into it. We said yes, and through their guidance and recommendations, we were able to set composting up in our hotel," Sorge said. "Sometimes it's not a lack of willingness, it's a lack of knowledge."
Now the Hyatt, with 500 rooms and 24,000 square feet of meeting space, is among a small number of hotels in the Boston area that composts on a large scale.
The Hyatt, a member of the Green Hotel Association, has taken several other steps to help the environment, including recycling and energy conservation.
The convention business is putting pressure on hotels, but individual travelers can and should do the same, said Mitch Rofsky, president of the Better World Club, the environmentally conscious alternative to the American Automobile Association. Rofsky started Better World in 2002 and has seen a 25 percent annual growth in membership, which now totals about 25,000.
"I certainly want people to be more demanding consumers," Rofsky said. "But also, if business doesn't inform the consumers of the possibilities, then consumers don't know what to ask for."
For his part, Kelly Rossiter, 34, of Lyndonville, Vt., can cite a range of practices he carries over from home to the road. These include renting economy cars, like his own Honda Civic; dining at local restaurants instead of chains; and carrying Tupperware to hold takeout food and leftovers.
"I think once you get in these habits it's not so difficult to transfer them into the travel world," he said.
Unlike most travelers, Rossiter frets about the environmental impact of his air travel.
"I do think about it," he said. "But do I do anything about it? That's an area where I'd have to be harder on myself and more honest. I think over the long haul it's probably curbed some of my travel."
But Rossiter also believes small things matter.
Sometimes, for instance, he will cancel airplane meals because the packaging is so wasteful, while at the same time noting that "it is a molehill compared to the mountain of jet fuel."
"So, yeah, if looked at from a purely pragmatic angle, it could be absurd," Rossiter said. "But when you consider environmentalism from a spiritual angle, you have rituals and small acts to pay respect to some larger thing."