Going overseas is so exciting, and more so when your journey is for a volunteering experience. But while you’re looking forward to helping people in whatever way you can, you might be feeling a little guilty that your trip could hurt the environment.
Any long journey results in carbon emissions, building work can use a lot of plastic, and just think of all of those bottles of water you’ll drink while you work!
While it might seem a difficult task at first, there’s plenty you can do to proactively protect the planet while you volunteer.
Here are my top tips for being an eco-friendly volunteer.
You’ll most likely have to fly out to your volunteering project, so you might be worried about the carbon emissions of your flight. There are a few different ways you can address this.
A lot of travel companies offer a service where you can pay to offset your carbon footprint at the same time as you buy your ticket. That money goes to climate change projects, but in some cases it’s hard to know how much of your money is going where.
If you want to make up for your flight emissions yourself, you can: plant some trees in your local area, improve your home insulation, do some fundraising for a trusted environmental charity … and many more! What other ways can you think of?
When you’re choosing a volunteering project, ask around and check if they’re carrying it out in a sustainable way that doesn’t have much of an environmental impact. For example, using sun-dried mud bricks to build a school uses natural, local resources that don’t need to be transported, and don’t pollute if you need to get rid of them later.
If there’s wood being used in the project, like in building, find out where it comes from. Is it grown locally? Is it being mass produced by a big company? Not only can you minimise your environmental impact by asking these questions, you can also improve your social impact. You want the project to support local business, not just because it reduces carbon footprint but also because it helps the local economy.
Be thoughtful about what you’re packing to take with you, especially if you’re going to be working with children. Think about whether the items will be used after you’ve left or if they’ll get worn out and thrown away.
You can buy toys from the area you’ll be staying at, which supports local business again, and bringing them from home takes up valuable room in your bag where you could be putting reusable resources.
Instead, consider bringing a whiteboard with pens (plus spares) as a teaching aid, which can be used for a long time. Or think about making some laminated instructions for a game that you can leave for future volunteers to use.
We get it drummed into us in our home countries that buying local is important, it’s good for the economy, good for local farmers, better for the environment …
That doesn’t change when you go abroad.
The temptation is to stick foods you’re familiar with, so you might go to restaurants or supermarkets that have, say, Italian food available. That food, not grown or made in whichever country you’re in, might have had to be flown 5,000 miles to get to you!
It’s much better for the environment, and as we’re told often local farmers, if you brave the traditional markets and buy local. Plus, it’s better for your wallet as the food eaten by locals will be much cheaper than anything imported.
Bags for life
Many volunteers find it useful to take plastic bags with them. Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to be staying in a hotel. So, it’s handy to have something to at least keep your dusty dirty clothes separate from your fresh cleaned ones.
If you decide it’s going to be best for you to bring plastic bags, make sure you bring the strong “bag-for-life” type reusable ones. Not only will they last longer, as the flimsier ones tend to break easily, but you’ll be able to fit more, heavier items in them – like muddy shoes.
When you return to your home country, make sure you’re bringing all of your plastic bags back with you, or find out where you can take them to be properly recycled.
A fairly straightforward tip: take a reusable water bottle. Whether that’s hard plastic or metal like a thermos, you won’t regret taking it. A reusable bottle might not be provided or purchasable where you’re staying and taking one means that you won’t have to keep buying single-use plastic bottles to throw away.
Just don’t forget to make sure it’s empty when you get to the airport or put it in your checked luggage.
Ask before you go
Finally, if you want to do more or go further with making your volunteer abroad trip as environmentally friendly as possible, don’t be afraid to talk to your volunteer sending organisation (or whomever you’re in contact with if you’re going independent).
They should be able to tell you everything you want to know about how sustainable the project is. And they might have great tips or anecdotes from previous volunteers about being environmentally friendly in your particular destination.
This is a guest post written by Katie Blackbourne.
Katie whilst studying for her MA in Broadcast Journalism enjoys writing about volunteering and its benefits for Original Volunteers. She lives in the UK and in her spare time writes fiction, and plays dress-up as an authenticity-obsessed Viking reenactor.