According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), vehicle traffic accounts for 30% of all energy-related carbon emissions in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the past three years have increased more in the transportation sector than from any other source.
The EPA also points out that today’s new vehicles have better fuel economy than previous models. However, the increased weight and size of many vehicles have a larger overall footprint and are less efficient than they could be.
What do these stats mean for your summer road trip plans? In 2022, 80% of Americans planned a road trip, showing that the trend of car-based vacations will extend beyond the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is it possible to take part in the resurgence of road trips without negatively impacting the environment?
Here are 10 steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint on road trips.
1. Pack Lightly and Efficiently
One of the biggest advantages of car travel is that you are not bound by baggage weight and size limits imposed by airlines. You might be tempted to be less careful when packing, but opting for a minimalist approach can bring two environmentally-friendly advantages.
First, the lighter your car is, the less gas it will need. A 10% reduction in weight can improve fuel economy by up to 8%. If your trunk is weighed down with suitcases, coolers, and other equipment you might not even need, you will burn more gas and produce more carbon emissions.
Also, the more disposable items you bring, the more waste you’ll produce. For instance, you can bring one reusable water container and fill it up on the road instead of bringing a heavier case of individual water bottles, which you’ll have to throw away during the trip.
2. Bring Reusable Containers
Not only can reusable containers reduce the weight you have to carry, but they can also lower the amount of waste you produce. Reusable cups, thermoses, and food containers directly reduce landfill waste and indirectly lower carbon emissions.
According to the Reusable Packaging Association, a reusable container can reduce waste from single-use packaging by up to 86%. These washable cups and boxes can also lower carbon emissions from the manufacturing or recycling of single-use containers.
Reusable containers can include glass jars, plastic boxes like Tupperware, thermoses, fabric tote bags, and glass or aluminum food containers.
3. Recycle and Reuse as Possible
While reusable containers can reduce waste and weight, you can also increase sustainability on your road trip by carefully handling single-use containers and other plastic or paper products.
One strategy is to reuse single-use containers as much as possible before recycling them in the appropriate place. For example, you can refill plastic water or soda bottles and use them several times during your travels. It’s also possible to wash and reuse plastic food containers or repurpose plastic bags to organize or carry items in your car.
Recycling facilitates the reuse of materials limits that would otherwise end up in landfills and reduces contamination of water and soil with non-biodegradable materials. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recycling significantly reduces resource use and pollution. For example, recycling aluminum from cans uses 95% less energy than producing products from raw materials. Meanwhile, recycling paper products can reduce reliance on wood by as much as 80%.
4. Utilize Recyclable Materials
Some materials are easier to recycle than others. The EPA points out that almost all recycling programs in the country accept plastic bottles and caps, but very few accept styrofoam and disposable plastic utensils.
The EPA classifies glass as highly-recyclable. It is an alternative to paper and cardboard for carrying food and beverages. Paper products are recyclable but cannot be processed if they are soaked with oil or contaminated with other food residue.
Alongside glass and plastic, aluminum is another easy-to-recycle material. Both cans and foil can be recycled. However, the EPA says you shouldn't crush cans so that automated sorting machines can detect them.
5. Dispose of Trash Responsibly
If you are traveling in natural areas, such as national or state parks or forest preserves, you can follow the “leave no trace” principles. This philosophy can guide your waste disposal practices so that you do not impact the ecosystems you encounter.
For example, you can think ahead and repackage food or other items to limit waste from packaging or storage. This step is vital if you travel to areas without regular trash collection. You should also bring bags or other receptacles to store and carry trash until you can dispose of it properly.
6. Carefully Plot Out Your Route
You can follow general principles to plan the most fuel-efficient route. For example, vehicles generally get better gas mileage on the highway than in the city even though speeds are higher. The difference is attributed to the idling and constant braking and acceleration of city driving. Most cars average five miles more per gallon on the highway than on city streets.
You can also configure route-planning tools like Google Maps to find the most fuel-efficient routes. These programs can save you between 5% and 15% on fuel.
Finally, you can consider upgrading to a more fuel-efficient engine. This change can be especially beneficial for larger vehicles. For example, Cummins diesel engines can vastly improve fuel efficiency (and increase reliability) for motorhomes and RVs.
7. Utilize Cruise Control
Cruise control can improve fuel efficiency and reduce vehicle emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center suggests that this feature can increase efficiency by maintaining a consistent speed and avoiding rapid acceleration, which burns more fuel.
The DoE goes on to explain that setting your cruise control to match the road’s speed limit can improve fuel economy by 15% to 30%. Cruise control is less useful during stop-and-go city driving, but you can reduce fuel consumption by accelerating and braking gradually when possible and following the posted speed limits.
8. Avoid Idling
Idling hurts fuel economy because your vehicle is burning gas without moving anywhere. This is part of the reason why stop-and-go driving in the city, which involves sitting idle at traffic lights, requires more fuel than highway driving.
According to the Department of Energy, turning off your car and restarting uses less gas than idling for 10 seconds. Some vehicles have a built-in stop-start system that shuts off the engine under certain conditions, such as when the vehicle comes to a complete stop at a traffic light. If your car doesn’t have this feature, turning off the vehicle at stop lights isn’t practical. However, you can still avoid idling when parked.
Also, Consumer Reports claims that warming up your engine so it's fully lubricated during cold weather only takes 20 to 30 seconds.
9. Get Vehicle Upgrades
A vehicle or engine upgrade can improve your fuel economy and the overall carbon output for your trip. Another advantage is that the new powertrain will bring more reliability (if you select the right product).
For example, Cummins diesel engines for SUVs can drastically improve fuel efficiency. The DoE estimates diesel engines allow vehicles to go 20% to 35% further per gallon than gas engines. You can research diesel engines to find out if your vehicle is a candidate for this upgrade.
Diesel engines are ideal for road trips for several reasons. First, they are generally more durable and reliable. This quality comes from the expectation of heavy use and the fact that they operate at lower RPMs, limiting engine wear.
If you take an off-road trip, diesel engines can bring you benefits that their gas counterparts do not. For example, diesel eclipses gas in terms of performance and eco-friendliness in off-road conditions. The engines are not only more efficient, but they also emit less carbon, reducing the impact on the natural environments you pass on your travels. They also produce more torque, which helps retain power in steep, slippery, and unstable terrain.
10. Offset Your Trip
You can also offset the carbon produced on your trip by supporting sustainability projects, such as clean energy programs or reforestation projects. Your support helps capture carbon or keeps it from being produced. You can calculate the carbon footprint for your trip and purchase offsets equal to that amount.
With proper planning and the right equipment, you can easily plan a sustainable road trip without sacrificing enjoyment.