Guide to A Sustainable Study Abroad Experience
By Margaret Werner and Rebecca Novick
We’ve all heard the arguments supporting the choice to study abroad: cultural immersion, personal growth, meeting new people, learning a language, travel, becoming more independent, challenging yourself, the list goes on. But what happens when you actually arrive in your host community? What is it like living abroad? How can you do so while simultaneously being conscious of your environmental impact?
Climate change is both a local and a global issue that impacts different countries and regions in unique ways. Studying abroad is the perfect way to gain a greater understanding of sustainability and complex environmental challenges from a global perspective. Whether or not you enroll in a sustainability-specific program, there are plenty of ways to get involved in climate action and environmental learning while studying abroad. In this document, we have collected advice from Amherst students who have studied abroad and gathered the experiences of the Global Sustainability Fellows to create a comprehensive guide about how to study abroad sustainably!
Here are some items you may want to bring with to help practice sustainable habits abroad:
1. Definitely bring a reusable water bottle! While some places you may go don’t have clean tap water, many cities do. Bringing your own water bottle and filling it up from the tap helps reduce plastic waste and also saves money. Many restaurants and cafés abroad will also charge you for water, even if you ask for tap! Global Sustainability Fellow Margaret Werner ‘21 wrote about water waste in her blog:
“Bring your own water bottle everywhere!”
“I brought a set of reusable silverware with me [abroad], which was really nice to have in my backpack at all times. Obviously having a refillable water bottle is huge.”
2. Bring at least one reusable shopping bag. It’s great to have for grocery shopping if you’ll be cooking for yourself, for souvenirs, and to carry with you in case it’s needed. Many cities, especially in Europe, will charge you for plastic or paper bags, so bringing your own saves money and reduces waste.
“Bring cloth bags/totes for grocery trips. Use Tupperware for lunches.”
3. Make sure you bring the proper energy converters with you abroad. This will save energy and also keep your appliances and technology safe from overheating
Societal and cultural expectations regarding sustainability may differ from Amherst. During your program orientation, pay particular attention to what sustainable practices are encouraged or even expected. In many countries, best practices regarding the usage of water, heating, and light may differ from the United States.
One student survey spoke of a culture of public transit and biking. Another student spoke of a culture of unplugging items like lamps and chargers that aren’t being used. Electricity runs even if an item isn’t actively turned on or connected to the power source, and this is a simple way to curb electricity usage. Another student spoke of an outdoor lifestyle being encouraged in Spain. In France, “les gilets jaunes” or yellow vest protestors took to the streets each Saturday to protest government policies. These protests were initially based in environmental politics and represent a younger demographic of the population. Read about the sustainable fashion culture in Paris in Alice Jackson ‘21 put together as a Global Sustainability Fellow.
While studying abroad, students find themselves in many different living accommodations such as homestays, dorms, apartments, homes, and even green living learning communities. In general, it is important to be conscious of energy usage; many countries outside of the US have high energy costs which the host family you live with or even you yourself may be responsible for paying. You may be surprised to find that appliances commonplace in the US such as
dishwashers and clothing dryers are not readily accessible. The climate of the location you are studying may be very different from that of Western Massachusetts and it is important to be mindful when taking extra heating/climate control measures.
If you feel comfortable, speaking with your host family or flatmates about the importance of sustainability can make an impact on household sustainability beyond your personal actions! You may also learn new ways to practice sustainability from your host community to bring back to your living accommodation on campus or at home.
Many students do not enjoy the benefit of an all-you-can-eat, unlimited swipes dining hall like Val when studying abroad. You may be expected to cook for yourself at home, eat a family dinner with a homestay every night, or rely on supermarkets, restaurants, or dining halls if you do not have regular access to a kitchen. Here are a few tips for dining sustainably in each of those instances…
– Do a meatless Monday! Try a new form of protein like tofu or peanut butter. Bonus points if you use a local cookbook to find a recipe.
– When you’re grocery shopping, look for items not wrapped in plastic
– Volunteer at a local CSA for farm-fresh vegetables
– Save leftovers for lunch the next day
– Donate your cookware and other household items at the end of your semester abroad
– Bring a canvas bag instead of using a plastic or paper one (which you need to pay for in many countries so you will save money this way too)
– Opt to buy items in glass containers in order to reuse them (soda, Nutella, etc.)
– Use tupperware to pack lunch and invest in reusable silverware to stow in your backpack
“If you’re in an area with organic Community Supported Agriculture, volunteer! You save money, get fresh veggies, and make long lasting friendships!”
For many study abroad students, commuting to classes is relatively easy and close enough that walking is a viable option! Many cities, especially in Europe, are compact and navigable, making biking another great option, too. Both are great ways to explore the new place you are living, provide a convenient way to get around, and of course produce no carbon emissions. Walking and biking are also great replacements for gym memberships and working out while studying abroad. For other students, public transportation, including metros, buses, and trains, is a more realistic way to commute, especially as some homestay sites aren’t located in the city center or near classes. Taking public transportation is another way to help minimize carbon footprint while studying abroad. Of these three options, subways/metros are the most emissions-friendly, followed by trains, and then buses. Check out the guide to sustainable commuting that Global Sustainability Fellow Rebecca Novick ‘21 put together.
“It’s easy to get around many cities on a bike. I recommend getting a bike from a website like wallapop early on and then just selling it at the end. It also gives you a good way to exercise and explore the city on the weekends!”
One of the major appeals of studying abroad is the freedom to travel to other nearby countries and cities during breaks and on the weekends, and to learn about new cultures. It can be difficult to reconcile a desire to see the world with the extremely high carbon footprint of flying. However, there are ways to explore while still being conscious of your environmental impact. High speed trains connect many major cities and often cost similar prices (or are even cheaper)
than planes. While the train ride itself may be longer than flying, don’t forget to account for reduced travel time to and from airports (which tend to be outside the city center) and the time saved from lack of security and early arrival.
Other options exist such as buses, which are often significantly cheaper than trains or planes, but do take much longer. Ferries are great options for port cities, and overnight train/bus rides are good for long trips and help save money on lodging. This is not to say never fly while abroad. Depending on where you are, it might be practically impossible to get anywhere else without taking a plane. However, it is worth considering other methods of transportation when planning
your trips. Trains, ferries, and buses can add to the whole travel experience! Check out the guide Global Sustainability Fellow Margot ‘21 made about sustainable tourism in Ecuador.
“High speed trains and rail passes seem like one of the best ways to dramatically change the sustainability of studying abroad.”
Many students go abroad intending to continue their major studies, while others go abroad wanting to explore new academic disciplines. Even if you are not an environmental studies major or have never taken a sustainability course, studying abroad is the perfect time to explore environmental issues from an academic and international perspective. It is definitely worthwhile to see what sustainability or climate-focused courses are offered through your abroad program or university, and see if any interest you!
There are also non-academic opportunities to get involved in environmental initiatives in your area, both in the community and on campus or with your program. Do a little research to find out what environmental issues your host country and smaller abroad community are passionate about. It’s also a possibility that there will be some sustainability-related events going on while you are abroad, at your host institution or elsewhere. Getting involved in sustainability is also a great way to meet people!
“We had a climate strike week and lecturers of mine held environmental discussion during class time.”
It is very likely the waste system in your host country will be different than it is at home and at Amherst. Some countries are champions of composting, others have ten bins to separate out different types of recycling, while some send everything to landfills. It’s important to become familiar with your area’s specific methods of handling waste so you can appropriately dispose of food scraps, packaging, and empty cans. Learning about other countries’ waste systems is also really interesting, and can give you a new perspective on the American system.
When living abroad, it is often the case you will be more independent and make more of your own purchasing choices than when living at Amherst. Use this opportunity to be more conscious of what you buy, keeping in mind packaging and choosing only what you actually need. Be critical of what you buy, too, especially since you will only be living there for a few months. It is definitely easy to get carried away with collecting souvenirs, clothes, and items you can’t find at
home, but try to be more selective with your choices, recognizing that your purchases have greater environmental impacts. Check out Global Sustainability Blogger Bixie’s blog on sustainable waste.
“The trash collection [here] is done in a single stream and then people separate it for recycling. This means that the stuff set aside for recycling is actually able to be recycled. It is unsustainable since it relies on poor people doing this difficult and dangerous job for very little pay, though.”
“The French do not waste as much food as the US which is good. They only buy what they need and fresh products go bad quickly because of fewer preservatives so they really make it work (rather than throwing stuff out and having really bad food waste problems like in the US).”
The carbon footprint calculator is an eye-opening activity to examine which areas of your life are the greatest contributors to climate change. Some examples of categories are food and drink, mobile phone usage, hotels, and even educational costs.
During a semester abroad, you may find flights and transportation to be a much higher value that you would experience at Amherst. Pay particular attention to the relative impact of a long-distance train versus a bus versus a flight when planning your traveling.