Last Updated on December 15, 2021 by Alina Zárate
It goes without saying that life abroad can be very different from life in the United States from the types of foods that are eaten to the academic structure to the transportation options to the music that is listened to. As study abroad students, you have the unique opportunity to immerse yourselves in different cultures and new ways of living.
If you have studied abroad, then you can probably remember how much your life changed while in a different country and can think of a number of different cultural practices and habits that you observed and picked up during your time abroad. Not only were these practices different from those that you have in the United States but they were likely also much more sustainable. The US has one of the biggest ecological footprints per capita in the world which means that no matter where you studied abroad, your lifestyle there likely had a smaller impact on the environment. Therefore, a great way to help the environment is to bring those sustainable practices and habits back with you to the United States.
Here are some tips for how to continue to be sustainable after your study abroad experience.
Studying abroad forces you to develop new habits in a new environment. For example, while abroad, you likely walked and used public transportation a lot more than you do in the US in large part because you did not have access to a car. If you lived in a small city, you probably found that walking or riding a bike to school, the local grocery store, restaurants, and historic sites was not only easy but likely the most convenient way to get around. If you lived in a larger city, becoming familiar with the bus and metro systems was likely really important in allowing you to get around. In other parts of the world, getting around by car is not convenient, whether it’s because there is a lot of traffic or because the cities were not built to accommodate cars. As a result, walking 7-8 miles a day as well as riding bikes or taking public transit are very common ways to get around a city in addition to being much more sustainable transportation options.
In the US, using public transportation or walking to local stores feels much harder to do and much less convenient. Depending on where you live, you may not have a public transit system that runs regularly or at all. Local stores may also be too far to walk to or on busy streets that are not really designed for pedestrian traffic.
However, despite these challenges, there are ways that we can get around more sustainably. Riding bikes or using electric scooters can be great ways to get around. Also, research your local public transportation system. It likely will not be as convenient as the public transit in your study abroad location but you will likely find that, while it won’t be able to take you everywhere, there are some key spots (shopping malls, grocery stores, theaters, etc.) that can be reached by bus or metro. If public transit is not possible, try carpooling or reducing how much you drive by traveling less frequently to the store every week. Any small changes that you can make to your driving routine can have a significant positive impact on your local community and the environment.
During your study abroad experience, you likely noticed that people in your host country had very different water usage habits. If you lived in a city, then people likely didn’t have large gardens or front yards like many of us do in the US. Additionally, you likely noticed that locals conserved water by taking shorter showers and doing laundry less frequently. Many of these practices can be easily reproduced in the United States. Taking shorter showers and doing laundry less frequently are easy to implement and will significantly reduce your water usage. Additionally, for those of you who have a garden or front yard, try planting native plants that use less water as a way to conserve water.
Electrical systems and electricity usage in the US is very different from the rest of the world. Depending which season you studied abroad, you likely experienced different electricity usage habits in your host country. For example, if you studied abroad during the summer, you likely noticed that few apartments had air conditioning. Therefore, practices such as keeping the blinds closed and the lights low during the hottest parts of the day and opening up windows at night to let cool air in were likely common. If you studied abroad in the winter, then you probably experienced the centralized heating systems that are common in most apartment buildings. In that case, you likely were not able to use the apartment’s heating units until mid-November and would use slippers, blankets, and small space heaters to keep yourself warm. Also, you likely noticed that your host family or roommates would only heat rooms that they were actively using as running the heaters uses a lot of energy and is very expensive. Also, dryers are not as common in other countries and are not used nearly as frequently as in the US. Therefore, you likely noticed that most people hang their laundry outside or in front of a fan to dry them which may take longer but is much more environmentally friendly.
So, how can you bring some of these sustainability practices back with you to the US after study abroad to help reduce your electricity usage? While we may not have centralized heating systems and dryers and air conditioners are much more common, we can definitely adjust our practices to be more environmentally friendly. Rather than heating or cooling your home all the time, try pairing it with other practices that can help you save energy such as keeping blinds drawn when it is hot or letting in cool air in the evenings when it is not as hot. Only use electricity in rooms that you are actively using. Turning off the lights when you leave a room is a great way to save money and reduce your electricity usage. Hang drying your clothes is another great way to save energy as drying machines use a tremendous amount of energy.
Waste Management: Recycling
Waste management and recycling practices vary greatly throughout the world. In some places, there are separate bins for every type of waste whereas, in other areas, all waste is collected and disposed of in one bin. During your study abroad experience, you may have discovered some very elaborate waste management practices whether it was through discovering that there were 5 different bins when trying to dispose of your trash or observing your host family separate out the trash not just into waste and recycling but into categories of glass, plastic, aluminum, paper/cardboard, organic waste, and undifferentiated waste. Reusing things like food, bags, and clothing is very important in other cultures. You likely noticed that people in your study abroad location used reusable shopping bags, ate leftovers, and did not buy new clothing, materials, or appliances very often. All of these differences contribute to forming a more sustainable society.
While we may not have many different trash cans as in other countries, we can take active steps towards reducing our waste in the United States. For starters, it is important to be more conscious of what you are buying and what you are throwing away. Purchasing reusable bags and water bottles is a great way to cut down on plastic waste. You may not have a separate trash can for recycling at your house, but you can likely find a recycling plant near your home where you can drop off plastic and metal waste to be recycled. Other practices that you can bring back from your study abroad experience includes eating leftovers or reusing clothing and other household items as much as possible before replacing them.
Other countries often have starkly different dietary and shopping habits when compared to the United States. While abroad, you were likely confronted with different foods, shops and habits around eating and shopping. Who knew that navigating a grocery store could be so difficult?! It is possible that in your study abroad location, local produce was more widely available or there was a more prominent culture around going to open air markets or purchasing fresh produce that is in season. In the retail sector, community members might have tended to shop more locally rather than relying solely on large chain stores.
Shopping in a foreign country is a very different experience but there are some habits that we can carry over to our shopping in the United States. For example, buying food seasonally is a good way to be more sustainable. Foods that are grown out of season are generally transported long distances, which is not sustainable and emits a lot of greenhouse gases. Buying organic foods over non-organic foods is another way to be environmentally friendly since produce grown organically generally follows more sustainable agricultural practices. Also, try to shop locally. Not only does this support your local community but it also means that you are purchasing locally sourced goods that are not transported as far which is better for the environment.
The world is becoming more and more interconnected. There are so many ways for you to incorporate the sustainability habits and practices that you learned during your study abroad experience into your everyday life. Be creative with how you keep your experiences alive back in the US and realize that every step you take to be more sustainable serves to help your community and the planet as a whole!