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How to Have a Sustainable Beach Vacation

by Suzanne Wently

Picture of an eco-dwelling on the beach

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Let’s all go to our happy place! For me, that’s the beach. While I’m not against a nice hike in the mountains, I can’t get enough of lounging in the sand while crashing waves relax me. After growing up in a landlocked state, I spent decades of my life chasing summers and living minutes from the ocean.

To me, the beach has it all. Sunshine is a free source of Vitamin D, which the body requires but is something many of us lack. Breaking waves create negative ions, which we absorb to combat oxidative stress. It’s hard to stare at screens on the beach, and expansive views actually relax our nervous systems. Plus, it’s a blast to ride waves on surfboards, paddleboards, boogie boards, or even with just my body.

It's been a little while since I caught a good wave, opting lately for daily mountain hikes. I’d need to take a beach vacation to get that experience, and the only kind of getaways I like these days are sustainable holidays. I want an eco-friendly experience with a low carbon footprint. I don’t want my mellow to be harshed by the realities of the harm I’m doing to the Earth.

You likely had no idea, but we all just celebrated World Reef Awareness Day in June. It’s not like this was splashed in headlines across the newspapers, but our reefs have been taking a beating lately. Climate change is real, and the ocean’s corals are threatened by the rise in ocean temperature and increased carbon dioxide in the water’s chemistry, according to the EPA. This will eventually lead to coral bleaching, which eventually will kill it all.

Awesome! Let’s all get back to our happy place, OK? Seriously — before it’s too late! When we go on a sustainable holiday to the beach, we remember how beautiful and fragile our environment is. The reason the beach is so wonderful and relaxing is the same reason why we must implement eco-friendly habits back home. It’s worth protecting!

Offset Travel’s Carbon Costs

Of course, the travel time to the beach will vary based on where you live, and the longer you must travel, the greater your carbon footprint. I’m not encouraging you to walk to the beach from Nebraska, but I’m starting here because transportation is a major cause of climate change that we can address. Carbon offsets can assuage some of the guilt that comes from booking that epic plane ticket to Tahiti.

Pick a beach vacation that won’t require you to rent a car, which saves money and fossil fuels. I love renting a bicycle and taking a long beach cruise along the shore of the Outer Banks, North Carolina, or Tybee Island in Georgia. I’ve biked around Ocean Beach, San Diego, and strolled easily around Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

One of my favorite beaches in the world is Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys. You’d need to book a campsite months in advance, but those low-travel beach getaways are worth the planning.

Apply Reef-Safe Sunscreen

We were a little bummed, pun intended, when Sun Bum got sued under truth in advertising laws. Their products allegedly contain the carcinogen benzene, which isn’t something we want in our reef-friendly sunscreen. But I do only use reef-friendly products.

This concern usually flies under the radar for folks who aren’t beachy locals, so get educated before you grab a bottle. Slathering on all those chemicals and then jumping in the water is really toxic for marine life. The oxybenzone and octinoxate in many sun products do a fine job of blocking UV rays from your skin, but those chemicals also block the light that algae on corals eat. When the algae can’t survive, the coral bleaches — and dies. Like, major bummer dude.

Lots of reef-friendly sunscreen is chock-a-block with zinc as the main ingredient, but I personally think the white streaks aren’t a good look. If you don’t want to wear a sun shirt or other protective clothing, try a good, water-resistant rub-on (rather than spray-on) like Badger.

Say “No Straw, Thanks”

Saying “no” to disposable plastics every day is a great way to protect the oceans, as that’s exactly where much of it ends up when you’re finished with that plastic fork or plastic straw. You’ve seen those heartbreaking pictures of sea turtles with a straw up its nose? (Happy place!)

You can make a difference simply by saying no before they deliver your drink. Too many times, I’ve forgotten and watched as they just grab the straw from my drink and throw it in the bin before I can say another word. You must be proactive.

But if your lips are indeed sensitive, you can always bring your reusable straw on your beach vacation or anywhere you go. The same goes for reusable bamboo utensils, a water bottle, and a practical and simple reusable bag. When you’re completely prepared for plastic-free living, you avoid introducing microplastics into the environment. Fish eat that, and inevitably if you eat fish, so will you.

Pick Sustainable Food Options

I’ve been a vegetarian for more than 30 years, so I’ll keep this short. I know plenty of people who equate a beach getaway with eating some super-fresh seafood. If you really want to have an eco-friendly holiday, be smart about the dinners you choose.

Fish that has been caught in massive nets or seafood collected through bottom-trawling is obviously no good if you care at all about the ocean. Choose sustainable seafood, if you are going to eat it. You may need to ask before you order — or do your own seafood research — but you’ll be doing whales, turtles, dolphins, corals, and plenty of other marine life a great service.

Grab Your Trash: Yours and Others’

Nothing burns my biscuit like seeing people who leave behind trash on the beach. It’s totally unnecessary! Follow the “leave no trace” ethos and double-check your space before you leave. Pick up cigarette butts (although more so, I encourage you to quit smoking), too. If you pick up the trash of others, you get extra cool points from me.

I remember once when I stayed on the Gulf Coast beaches of Louisiana, I was aghast by the trash on the beach. Much of it had washed ashore with the currents, but plenty was just left behind mindlessly. I decided to pick up trash for a couple of miles. Toward the end, a guy in a convertible and his date left a big bag of garbage for me to collect and drove off — past the row of dumpsters where I then had to haul their trash. Don’t be that guy.

Water Water Everywhere

Finally, one of the best ways to protect and preserve our oceans is to recognize that the sea is always “downstream.” When you put fertilizer on your lawn, the runoff from the next rainstorm sends pollution, eventually, to the sea. Modern suburban and agricultural development practices make this process go even faster. Your home is less likely to flood, which is great, but it requires you to be much more careful about saving water and reducing runoff.

When you leave the tap running while you brush your teeth, that water will eventually flow — maybe through a wastewater treatment plant, maybe down a massive river, or maybe through a porous underground aquifer — to the ocean. Too much freshwater can in itself be a pollutant for brackish and salty ecosystems, and the balance is fragile. When you conserve water at home every day, you’re investing in your next sustainable beach vacation.



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