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Carbon-Neutral Costa Rica: How I Lost 5,400 lbs While Packing for the Trip of a Lifetime

In search of a guilt-free adventure in the tropics, Jason Daley discovers the line between saving the world–and seeing it.
Backpacker_Magazine_How_I_Lost_5400_lbs_illoIllustration by Marcos Chin

A flight from Truax Field in Madison, Wisconsin, to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Atlanta is 4,674 miles roundtrip, dumping about 5,400 pounds of carbon per passenger into the troposphere. It would take only seven hours sitting on my butt reading Sky Mall to produce 2.5 tons of carbon, so I figured it couldn’t be much of a stretch to get rid of the same tonnage over three long months. I ran the numbers on several different websites, including the EPA’s carbon counter, figuring out that my household–which includes me, my wife, Crystal, a cat, and a wiener dog named Oscar–produces about 45,000 pounds of CO2 per year, 10,000 pounds fewer than the national average, but still seven tropical treks higher than the global per capita average of 8,000 pounds per household. Not a bad start, I thought. As long as I wasn’t comparing myself to a rural Ethiopian, I was already ahead of the curve.

A little less than two years earlier, Crystal and I had moved from a centrally located split-level in Madison to a small town 18 miles away where we could afford a new green-built home. The tradeoffs seemed worth it. The commute to work was much longer than before and beyond the reach of public transportation, but the upside was a 2,000-square-foot house fully stocked with Energy Star appliances, hyper-efficient insulation, and a bikeable community during the three weeks a year it doesn’t snow. In the first month, our energy bill dipped to one third of what we’d been paying in our leaky urban fixer-upper. If we’d ditched that much carbon just by moving, I thought, imagine how much we could save if we really applied ourselves.

To reach the goal, I hunted down a used copy (not being cheap, being green!) of David Gershon’s Low Carbon Diet: A 30-Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, the same book that The Climate Project distributes at training events for Al Gore’s footsoldiers. It’s a thin, 75-page workbook full of cartoons and a handy chart to track progress–carbon cutting for slackers. The suggested tasks, like turning down the water heater and changing light bulbs, seemed essentially painless. So I picked up a pre-owned trekking guide to Costa Rica as well.

Following Gershon’s advice, I went to the hardware store and armed myself with compact fluorescent bulbs, power strips, and a bright-white new furnace filter. Then I started keeping score. I went into the laundry room and set the washing machine to the cold wash/cold rinse setting. Booyah! Minus 30 pounds. I ran to the basement and dialed the water heater from 130°F to 120°F for a 40-pound reduction over three months. I put eight compact fluorescents in frequently used fixtures and programmed our thermostat to stay a cool 60°F during the day and while we slept, but bump up to 68°F in the morning and evenings. I wrote a big note and put it on the kitchen counter, reminding us not to run the dishwasher until it was completely full, and then only once per week (running a full Energy Star dishwasher, it turns out, is twice as carbon-efficient as washing by hand). We were already dialed in terms of recycling; we had a compost bin to minimize solid waste, and we listed any large, usable items, like old stereo equipment or chairs, on FreeCycle or Craigslist to keep them out of the landfill. I signed us up at, a free service that stops junk mailers from sending catalogs that usually go straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin. I put an old travel alarm clock in the bathroom so we could keep our time under the low-flow shower head below five minutes–a sacrifice worth 150 pounds. It took me $40 and about an hour of small tweaks to drop our emissions by 1,600 pounds over three months. I rewarded myself with a Spanish phrasebook.

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