For at least a decade now, Natural Habitat Adventures has been one of the trailblazers in the travel industry shift toward more green, sustainable operations.
The small group tour company did away with single-use water bottles on its trips 10 years ago, long before it was the trendy thing to do.
It also banned plastic straws on its trips well in advance of the rest of the herd.
Now, Natural Habitat has set its sights on perhaps its most ambitious eco-friendly goal to date. And it may well be the most substantial green travel effort in the entire travel industry.
This July, Natural Habitat and about one dozen travelers will embark on what’s being dubbed the world’s first “Zero Waste” itinerary.
The trip will take participants to Yellowstone National Park from July 6 through July 12 on a journey that aims to be a game changer for travelers interested in true eco-conscious tourism.
The mission of the trip, in addition to providing travelers with a memorable Yellowstone experience, is to divert 99 percent or more of all on-trip waste produced as a byproduct of Natural Habitat-sponsored trip operations and activities.
Or as the website description about the trip boldly promises: “At the end of the trip, the group should be able to fit all waste produced into a single small container.”
In other words, a feat no other tour group itinerary has ever promised.
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“We’re always looking for the next travel industry first, for something that’s going to cause ripple effects throughout the industry and the world,” Court Whelan, Natural Habitat’s director of sustainability and conservation, told TravelPulse during a recent interview.
The trip has been in the works for at least 18 months now with countless staff hours being devoted to pulling off this feat, which will involve eliminating everything from single-use shampoo bottles in the hotel rooms where guests stay to figuring out how to deal with food waste generated during the course of the trip by participants.
Logistically that has meant advance teams removing single-use plastics from hotel rooms that are part of the itinerary and supplying participants with such things as reusable cutlery and washable handkerchiefs for napkins, as well as silicone food bags.
Trip coordinators will also bring along reusable Tupperware to provide all restaurants that will provide boxed lunches, so that the restaurants don’t have to use their own, typically single-use packaging.
“We’re going the extra step and supplying restaurants with these things so that they don’t have to use Styrofoam,” Whelan explained.
Though it’s a significant and time-consuming undertaking, not to mention a logistically challenging effort, the company has extremely noble goals for the outcome of this trip.
“The whole idea is that we don’t want this to be just a one-off thing,” Whelan continued. “We don’t want to do this, succeed and forget about it. Once we learn lessons from this trip about recycling and composting, we want to create best practices documents and ping them out to the rest of the travel industry and world.”
Indeed, that’s perhaps the most exciting part about Natural Habitat’s effort – the impact it could potentially have on the industry as a whole.
The Boulder, Colorado-based company hopes to design a workflow on this upcoming Yellowstone adventure that’s adoptable and that can be replicated to some degree on other Nat Hab trips in the future, as well by other companies.
Whelan views the trip as something of a trial and a learning experiment.
“Even though we’re the first company to do this, we certainly don’t want to be the last,” he continued. “Do we think this can be replicated across 10 countries by next year – probably not. But we’re going to pick practices that we can replicate as a result of this.”
And while he doesn’t expect other companies to adopt all of the best practices identified as part of the Zero Waste Yellowstone itinerary, if even just a few of the measures are widely adopted, the ripple effect on the planet and its environmental health could be huge.
“What if other companies are able to adopt even just four or five of the principles we learn on this trip?” says Whelan with an infectious mixture of enthusiasm and optimism. “Think of the impact that would have.”
Or perhaps more to the point, think for just a moment about the impact of not taking such critical measures as we move forward on this planet.
As Whelan himself points out in no uncertain terms, sustainability and environmental stewardship are no longer optional.
“We don’t have a choice, we have got to do this. We don’t have much time,” he said.