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Food is biggest stumbling block on zero-waste nature tour

  • A week-long zero-waste trip led by Natural Habitat Adventures through Yellowstone National Park diverted 50.9 pounds of waste — 99% of all the on-trip waste.
  • More than 100 million pounds of garbage is generated in the U.S. national parks every year; in 2018, Yellowstone sent 48% of its waste to a landfill.
  • Food waste accounted for more than half of the trip’s collected waste, a particular problem in the travel industry.
  • The tour company is now creating a best practices document to share with other tour operators so they can cut unnecessary waste from their operations as well.

While guests on a recent tour through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA ate dinner in the lodge, an unexpected guest joined the group: a five-gallon green compost bucket where the travelers put food scraps at the end of the meal. It may not be the most appealing addition to the bustling dining atmosphere filled with people, but on this July 2019 journey, every ounce mattered.

Ecotourism produces millions of pounds of waste each year, and specifically in natural places. With an aim to reduce food waste on its trips, the tour company Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab), ran the world’s first zero-waste adventure, a week-long trip with 12 travelers in Yellowstone this past July, with the goal of diverting all waste from the moment of booking through the airport transfer on the final day.

Scraping leftover meal scraps into the green compost bucket. Copyright: Corbin Hawkins / Natural Habitat Adventures.

The company has already achieved carbon neutrality in 2007 and eliminated all plastic bottles from its worldwide operations in 2011.

Like its other environmental initiatives, the company’s goal was not to develop a zero-waste trip blueprint for similar trips, but to demonstrate what was possible in order to encourage other travel companies to take action. “We know that, in order to push the envelope, we’ve got to come up with big ideas no one else is doing to start conversations,” said Court Whelan, director of sustainability and conservation travel for Nat Hab.

According to an April 2019 article published in Applied Environmental Education & Communication, the National Park Service is overwhelmed by more than 100 million pounds of garbage generated by more than 270 million visitors annually. In 2015, the NPS partnered with Subaru to begin the Zero Landfill Initiative to recycle, reuse, or compost garbage instead of burying it. In partnership with the National Parks Conservation Association, Subaru launched test waste-reduction and zero-landfill practices in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Denali National Parks.

Though Yellowstone is not one of the test grounds for this initiative, Nat Hab’s decision to run this experimental trip in that park was a strategic one. Yellowstone National Park and its concession partners are striving to divert 75% of the solid waste produced in the park from landfills. The park has a recycling program that accepts glass, plastic, paper, aluminum, steel, cardboard, electronic items, batteries, and other automotive and commercial items, which helped the tour achieve its zero-waste goal.

“Going into the trip, one of the things we expected to be a major pain point was composting leftover food after meals. It’s awkward, it can be smelly if it’s been sitting in a bucket in a van for a couple days, but Yellowstone National Park has an extraordinary recycling and composting facility in West Yellowstone,” Whelan said. This facility, which opened in July 2003 was diverting up to 60% of waste generated when it ran at full capacity (the wet mill at the facility is currently broken). In 2017, it increased its compost generation, and the compostable collection season was extended for hotels, restaurants, and general stores. In 2018, 34% of the park’s waste was recycled, 18% was composted, and 48% went to the landfill.

The tour was able to make use of the Park’s extensive composting receptacles. “I was really inspired to see pretty much every picnic stop and a lot of the viewpoints have composting and recycling,” Whelan said. “I would say, progressively, it’s equal to, if not more so, than any other natural area or national park that I’ve seen. They certainly have room for growth, but at the same time, they really are doing a lot of stuff right.”

Bison roam Yellowstone’s grasslands year-round. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

Despite Yellowstone’s commitment and facilities to minimize waste in the park, Nat Hab was mindful not to rely on outside forces too much; a closed recycling facility or U.S. government shutdown could easily derail the trip’s mission. “In the travel industry, you have a lot of partners, a lot of other operators that help at certain points, but we knew our best chance of doing this was having basically 100% control every step of the way,” Whelan said.

To do this, the Boulder, Colorado-based company opted for a fully managed overland trip using two vans, two expedition leaders, and a destination close to its home base — essentially building in a safety net and a high chance of success to learn from for future endeavors. “Worst case scenario, if we couldn’t find places to recycle plastic no. 6 yogurt containers or whatever, we knew, at the end of the season, we could bring that back with our vans and still fulfill the mission,” he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that.”

In the 18 months leading up to the trip, Nat Hab needed to both plan the trip and market and sell it to the right travelers. On the planning side, specifically, the company took a number of scouting trips, created mock itineraries that included logistical stopping points for offloading recycling and composting, involved experts from external organizations like World Wildlife Fund to advise on waste management issues, and contacted all purveyors and service providers the tour encountered along the way. Any touchpoint that involved an outside third party, such as restaurants and hotels, required special attention.

Snack time with reusable containers and dishes. The company used disposal facilities in the park but also strictly controlled the movement of food on its zero-waste tour. Copyright: Court Whelan / Natural Habitat Adventures

At accommodations, Nat Hab asked staff to remove all single-use toiletries, coffee service stations, and even trash bins from the rooms to discourage waste creation, something Whelan said, in hindsight, probably wasn’t necessary. Though the company worked with the idea of “out of sight, out of mind,” the travelers were committed to the mission and the extra time and effort wasn’t necessary. He said the time would have been better spent on education, reminding guests not to use toiletries or unnecessary single-use items.

In restaurants, expedition leaders encouraged travelers to share meals or ask for smaller portion sizes, even if it felt a bit uncomfortable, and wait staff and chefs were happy to help. “At the end of the day, one of the brightest takeaways was that, frankly, we didn’t expect there to be big open arms for doing all of this stuff, but the welcome reception was amazing,” Whelan said. Dining staff were eager to meet the zero-waste travelers, shared their own environmental ambitions with the group, and welcomed Nat Hab’s compost bucket, where the travelers cleaned their plates after eating so the food waste could be weighed and disposed of properly.

Weighing food waste in the compost bucket. Copyright: Corbin Hawkins / Natural Habitat Adventures

Of all the waste generated on the trip, meal times proved to be among the most complicated and problematic, in part because travel forces people to eat in restaurants for nearly every meal where large portion sizes are served. Conversely, at home, people can make their own meals, adjust their portion sizes, and save leftovers.

Nat Hab used what it calls a sustainability facilitator on its trip to serve as an extra set of hands to run recyclables, prep on-site staff for the tour group, and manage the compost bucket. Though this staff member helped the zero-waste trip run smoothly, successfully, and sustainably, Whelan noted that adding another more staff could be a limiting factor for other companies and tour styles.

By the trip’s conclusion, the group had recycled, reused, refused, Terracycled, and composted 50.9 pounds of waste — 99% of all waste produced on the trip. Of this, recyclables made up 20.4 pounds and food waste accounted for 27.8 pounds. The group was able to fit all remaining waste into a single small container. This didn’t include personal hygiene items or waste that posed safety risks, was legally required to be sent to a landfill, or resulted from guest actions outside of Nat Hab’s control, such as items of a personal nature. In comparison, the average American is thought to create 4.4 pounds of trash per day.

In launching its zero-waste trip, Nat Hab attempted to achieve the practically impossible, yet Whelan emphasized the purpose of the trip was not for other companies — or even Nat Hab — to replicate its efforts specifically. “We’re doing this to set an example, to set a bar, to shout from the mountaintops. We’re not doing it to save 200 pounds of garbage on one trip once in the history of life on earth. We’re doing it because we want to instigate others. We want to influence others to think and do differently,” he said.

After a week of refusing, reusing, recycling, and composting, the tour presents its remaining waste in a single small container. Copyright: Court Whelan / Natural Habitat Adventures.

The company is currently developing a best practices document based on this experience to distribute throughout the travel and tourism industry that companies can use in their own tour operations.

“We set ourselves to a very high standard because it had to be perfection,” Whelan said, “but I think the future of all this is not to get to perfection but rather get to that 50%, get to that 70% across many, many, many, many departures. It’s that last little 5% of perfection that takes 95% of the work.”

In fact, instead of planning another zero-waste trip specifically, Nat Hab is now considering the impact of implementing many of these best practices across most of its tour offerings, in essence compounding the positive environmental impact across hundreds of tours and thousands of travelers versus striving for perfection on just a couple trips with only a few dozen travelers.

Whelan acknowledged that Nat Hab has more staff and financial resources than a lot of other companies in the travel and tourism industry, but taking advantage of those resources allows the company to serve as a model. “We used this one trip as an experiment, as a teaching tool for ourselves just as much as others,” Whelan said. “This one trip is a symbol that we executed flawlessly, but the big thing is to spread that influence.”


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