Is Vanlife Sustainable? It Might Not be as Eco-Friendly as You Thought

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I grew up in a family that strove to be environmentally conscious. We recycled. We composted. We shut off our lights and turned down the heat. When I mobilized and moved into a vehicle, I thought I was doing something good for my life and also for the environment. But every time I get behind the wheel and start the engine, I wonder if I’m really making a sustainable choice.

For over a year, my home has been a trusty and charismatic 1993 Dodge Colt. With two front doors and one sliding side, it looks like the runt offspring of a Ford Aerostar and a 1980s-era VW Rabbit. With 19 square feet of living space, it is just under a hundredth of the size of the average American household. So if my home is the tiniest of tiny houses, my carbon footprint should be a fraction of the standard, right?

I sat down one day to crunch some hard numbers and it turns out this reasoning doesn’t add up. As a solo traveler, I knew driving an average of 12,500 miles a year would be my worse offense to the environment, but also needed to consider my cooking fuel, laundry and electronics charging.

From the start, I create 10,000 pounds of carbon every year from my vehicle’s emissions. In comparison, the Sprinter, the luxury liner of vans, would create 40 percent more carbon traveling the same mileage. Twelve-thousand sounds like a lot of miles, but turns out to be fairly average for vanlifers. A recent survey on vanlife done by the Dirty Darlings blog found over half the respondents clock 1,000 to 2,500 miles per month, a similar number cited by my own friends on the road.

My cooking fuel and laundry contribute another 69 pounds per year, and a rough estimate of the annual cost of charging my computer and electronics brings in another 73. If I include my vegetarian diet, my total carbon footprint reaches a hefty 6 metric tons. While much lower than the average American footprint of 16.2 tons per year, I still contribute more than the global per person average of just under 5 tons. If everyone on the planet lived exactly like me, Americans included, we’d still need 1.5 Earths to sustain ourselves.

The numbers speak for themselves, but aren’t hopeless. Vanlife can still be more sustainable than houselife, and there are methods to make it even less impactful. First, if you’re looking to join the movement, choose a used vehicle. Some studies find that as much as 28 percent of the carbon emissions produced over a car’s lifespan stem from its manufacture. Second, bringing a buddy into your vanlife home is a quick way to split your individual expected gas emissions in half—and stay warm in the winter.

My carbon footprint, I should note, isn’t fully inclusive. Much more carbon dioxide is spent creating the products I consume and the things I throw away. On the road, it’s a lot harder to compost and sometimes it’s difficult just to find a recycling bin! As it turns out, my previous lifestyle as a bike commuter in a shared house had exactly the same carbon footprint as my vanlife tally. But as we become conscious of the impact of our lifestyles, our choices either in our cars or in our homes can make a difference.

Images by Mara Johnson-Groh.

xx Mara Johnson-Groh

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Nine.