To study abroad is to become a global citizen. As such, it is important to leave your host country with a positive impression of you/your culture/the US by respecting the local culture, history, language, and environment. Making a conscious effort to reduce your environmental footprint while traveling is also part of being a global citizen and learning how to live sustainably in your host country is no different from learning how to adapt to local customs, accents, or dress. It requires a concentrated effort to understand not only local sustainability efforts, but how you can help support them. Below are some areas to strive for.

Be mindful of waste
Pay attention to how waste is handled in your host country. Do locals recycle? What about compost? How does waste management differ from home? Remember that throwing the wrong or dirty materials into a recycling or compost bin can contaminate the whole amount of waste, resulting in it being sent to the landfill instead.

  • Recycle and compost appropriately whenever and wherever possible.
  • Be sure to use the proper receptacles and understand what goes into them.
  • Avoid activities that cause extra waste: buying food and drink in disposable containers, buying souvenirs you won’t keep, etc.

Conserve water and energy
Many countries abroad conserve water and energy a lot more than in the US, either due to the price, the availability, or the public commitment to sustainability. This can mean many things:

  • Taking shorter showers.
  • Hand-washing dishes.
  • Air-drying laundry.
  • Turning off power sockets, lights, and other uses of energy.

Use public transportation
Public transportation (trains, buses, metros) will generally be much more robust than what you are used to, and as a student, your ability to travel in your host country will be determined by its availability. Public transportation, as well as traveling by bike, is not only more sustainable than travel by car or airplane but is an inexpensive way to explore. Depending on the duration of your stay, you might want to get a bike rental pass or a metro pass. Likewise, it may be both easier and more fun to look into traveling by train rather than by plane, which will allow you to limit your carbon emissions while also being able to see much more of your host country and surrounding areas.

Explore sustainable diets
A quintessential element of travel is the food. While studying abroad, look carefully at what the locals eat, and what foods result in the lowest carbon footprint. Vegetables, legumes, and grains are all great choices; eggs, yogurt, fish, and poultry also provide many nutrients while leaving a medium carbon footprint. To have the lowest impact with your food choices, eat pork, cheese, beef, and lamb rarely or not at all. If you are living with a host family, it may not be possible to dictate your diet. Instead, look at what you are eating for lunch or those meals you make or choose yourself.

  • Consider preparing your own meals instead of buying.
  • When you buy take-out, be mindful of whether your food is packaged. Are there non-packaged options from cafés?
  • Is what you are eating local? If not, can it be? This is also a great way of sampling more regional cuisine.
  • No matter what or where you eat, avoid wasting food, which has a huge impact on greenhouse gas! The higher the carbon footprint of a food item, the greater the impact of wasting it.

Shop Locally
It can be a lot easier (depending on the country) to shop locally. Look for signs in stores that identify local products, as well as farmers’ markets (which are often held daily depending on the size of your city).

  • If you are living with a host family, ask them where they buy their food or even go with them to the market.
  • If you are living alone, or with roommates, take careful notes on what you see in stores. Often, as in the US, there will be symbols for local as well as organic, vegan, or vegetarian, but remember that cultures may interpret these differently than the US.

Shop Thriftily
Along your study abroad journey, you may need to purchase certain items to accommodate your needs or interests last minute, or sell items prior to your return. While some websites like craigslist or international, others like will depend on your host country. We recommend asking on-site staff or students about your options, as well as doing the following:      

  • Check out a local thrift shop to find the clothes you need for a specific trip or for everyday wear!
  • Surf the internet to find buy/sell pages to re-sell items or buy a used one that’s fully functional.

Packing is often one of the most difficult aspects of travel, both to and from your host country. While you should ultimately keep in mind the weather, climate, and local dress, here are a few items that should fit:

  • Bring travel containers for toiletries instead of disposable mini versions.
  • Bring your reusable water bottle, coffee mug, and silverware!
  • Pack clothes that can be washed less and/or that air dry quickly.
  • Bring a reusable tote for groceries, laundry, and even extra space for your return to the US.

When purchasing souvenirs or mementos reflect on what items you can and cannot buy abroad, especially when contrasted against the length of your stay. Think critically about the clothes, toiletries, and accessories you will need. It is okay to buy souvenirs, but you should not buy things you will only throw away upon arrival. Think about non-physical souvenirs such as taking photos, making trip-specific playlists, or journaling, blogging, or maintaining a social media account about your experiences.

Get involved
Look for local organizations, clubs, projects, or classes you can take that focus on sustainability. Doing this allows you to directly engage with and impact the community, as well as directly utilize the strategies above. While options may be limited, depending on your program type, the duration of your stay, and the host-country itself, there are always ways to be involved. If you haven’t already, check out options on campus, and think about how they might apply to study abroad.

Ultimately, the most important elements of sustainability abroad are respect and an open mind. You are a guest, and your learning experience is not constrained to the classroom. While the shift might be difficult at first, it is not uncommon for students who have studied abroad to adapt to local sustainable practices.

To learn more about GEO Sustainable, visit the GEO Sustainable Programs and Initiatives website.

I studied abroad at the University of Oregon GEO Center in Siena, Italy. Throughout my time in Italy, sustainability was not emphasized very much. Every time you get a water in Italy, it comes out of another plastic bottle. One thing I made sure of doing was using my own water bottle with our water station in GEO center. While it may have only reduced the amount of water bottles one person used, it was a start. It was this kind of action that I performed, and saw my fellow classmates do that showed me how anyone can start to make a difference, just by reusing a water bottle. While Italy did not do a great job with water bottles and other single use items, the use of dryers was irregular, all grocery stores were filled with local foods, and walking was the most common form of transportation, especially in Siena.

Donovan Jones
Pre-Business in Siena

During my time in Lyon, I was introduced to new habits for sustainable travel. For laundry, I was used to washing loads of all sizes with the convenience of drying them in the dryer back at home. However, most French homes have washers but no dryers because people air-dry their clothes to reduce energy. I thought it was awesome to airdry my clothes and my host mom showed me her favorite linen spray. Even still today, I alternate between using the dryer and airdrying when I have more time.

Mecca Donovan
IE3 Lyon French Immersion