Toxicity Translations

My not-so-green holiday travel plans
by Abigail McEwen -- December 2nd, 2013

Plane, train, and automobile… I’m doing a lot of moving around this holiday season. Should I feel guilty about the environmental impact?

Last week marked my first time ever flying home for a holiday. Going to a state school for four years afforded me with the luxury of being a (relatively) short bus, train, or shared drive back home. But now that I’ve finally “flown the nest”, I’m starting to rack up those transportation miles.

My Thanksgiving travel total from Durham to Chicago and back: 66 miles driven, 1280 miles flown, and 1 plastic water bottle consumed!

And my holiday travels don’t end there. In a mere two weeks I’ll not only be repeating this trip, but also heading abroad (but more about that later). My flight travel total: 10, 602 miles in four weeks!

Thanksgiving break has given me some time to think about this sudden increase in travel miles. While often a huge hassle, air transit is an amazing modern convenience. When my grandmother left her central Illinois town to move to New York City, she was not afforded the luxury of being able to easily see her family again. Now,  I can travel the hundreds of miles back home in a matter of hours or visit another country in less then a days time! How fantastic is that?

But, as with all inventions of modern convenience, there are some downsides.

The Bad News

I’ve been learning a lot about the negative effects of air pollution this semester in my Air Quality Management class. All fossil fuel burning transit contributes to the release of air pollutants and particulates, including the major greenhouse gases CO2, NOx, and methane. I think that by now, most of us know just how bad this is for both human and environmental health.

But unlike ground transportation,  flying often means traveling longer distances. Which means more air pollution.

While many airlines will insist that flying accounts for only a small fraction of CO2 release, others will argue this is false advertising. Both the New York Times and The Guardian make pretty strong cases for the latter. And from the evidence presented, it seems clear that flying is a big source of carbon emissions, at least on the personal level.

Our flight habits aren’t helping the situation either. Frequent flier miles offer incentive for people to hop onto planes. And often, the cheapest flights available have multiple layovers in inconvenient, out-of-the-way locations, increasing total flight miles and emissions.

So what is a girl to do? Never leave home? Leave home and never look back?

The Good News

Before I go canceling all of my holiday plans, let us consider the good news: airlines are trying to limit their impact!

On my way back from Chicago, I was surprised to see an in flight video showcasing the airline’s environmental efforts. Further research led me to discover that the airline I was flying was named Eco-Aviation “Airline of the Year” Gold Winner by Air Transport World magazine in 2013. This airline is making an effort to modify their fleet, increase fuel efficiency, and explore alternative fuels. And other airlines are following suit.

Now maybe this is all a bit green-washed, but the positive impact is still tangible. And more importantly, consumer demand now has the potential to drive the marketplace towards even greater sustainability. Before you pick the cheapest option presented by your flight search engine, consider whether or not the airline has made a valuable commitment to sustainability. Greenopia provides a scorecard for many of the major airlines.

So… should I feel guilty?

According to the carbon calculator provided by SAS, my holiday flight schedule is going to emit 1.42 tons of carbon. Assuming I am an average American and release 19 tons of carbon a year, this is 7.5% of my total yearly emissions. Yikes!

But what are my alternatives? In America, train travel is both expensive and time consuming (but oh how I would love a high speed train to Chicago!). Driving would only be more efficient in a fully packed eco-friendly vehicle. And I don’t even want to think about alternative options for traveling abroad…

For now at least, it looks like I am stuck with flying.  But that doesn’t mean I am not going to try to limit my impact. Alarmingly, a 2010 study by researchers in the UK found that young, environmentally conscious individuals were the group that was least committed to environmentalism while on holiday! The most committed were  individuals around retirement age (such as my mom, who refuses to drive anywhere if a train is available).  And I can easily see this reflected in my past travel habits. I normally never buy plastic water bottles, but when traveling I don’t think twice, even though airports provide plenty of water fountains.

So when I head home for my next holiday break, I’m going to be more conscience of my environmental footprint. This means choosing the most direct flights whenever possible, commuting or carpooling to the airport, and not splurging on that tempting disposable water bottle.

How does the environment factor into your holiday travel plans?

Below, check out a few photos I’ve taken while traveling on the ground and in the air.


  1. Emma
    Dec 7, 2013

    Great post! I have the same issues traveling to and from home. As far as plastic water bottles go, I hate buying them because A) they’re disposable, and B) THEY ARE SO OVERPRICED. After almost five years of traveling too and from school by air, I’ve arrived at this solution: there are no rules saying you can’t bring an empty water bottle bottle with you, as long as you empty it out before going through security. I bring my water bottle, then fill it at the fountains. You can save money and plastic!

    • Abigail McEwen
      Abigail McEwen
      Dec 9, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Emma!

      Exactly! I bring my reusable bottle to school every day, but for some reason have never bothered to take it to the airport. Maybe it is because flying was so rare for me before. But I won’t be forgetting it next time!

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