Back in June, Natural Habitat Adventures announced a bold and ambitious eco-friendly experiment.
The small group tour company, which has been one of the trailblazers in the ongoing travel industry shift toward more sustainable operations, revealed that it would be hosting a trip that was being dubbed the world’s first “Zero Waste” itinerary.
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The trip would take participants to Yellowstone National Park on a journey designed to be a game-changer for travelers interested in true eco-conscious tourism.
The mission of the experiment, in addition to providing travelers with a memorable Yellowstone experience of course, was to divert 99 percent or more of all on-trip waste produced as a byproduct of Natural Habitat-sponsored operations and activities.
As the website description about the trip boldly promised at the time: “At the end of the trip, the group should be able to fit all waste produced into a single small container.”
The headline-garnering getaway has since been completed (it took place July 6 through July 12) and here’s what the company discovered: food waste may be a bigger problem than most travelers appreciate.
The trip endeavored to fit the waste produced by 12 travelers during four hotel stays, nine restaurant visits and seven days of touring into a single quart-sized Mason jar. To that end, 50.9 pounds of waste was recycled, reused, refused, Terracycled and composted (an impressive feat, as the average American is thought to create 4.4 pounds of trash per day.)
While plastics—namely straws, bottles and bags—were a prime target for diversion during the design of the zero waste getaway, by the trip’s end, recyclables amounted to 20.4 pounds, whereas 27.8 pounds of the diverted waste came from the travelers’ food, according to data just released by Natural Habitat Adventures.
“Food waste is a big issue in travel, more so than I ever realized,” said Court Whelan, director of sustainability and conservation travel for Nat Hab, who was also an expedition leader on the unique trip. “It makes sense, though. At home, you can make your own meals, adjust your portions more easily and save any leftovers. While traveling, this is very difficult to do—folks eat in restaurants for almost every meal, and most restaurants serve large portions.”
According to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 39 million tons of food waste is generated in one year and makes up 22 percent of discarded solid refuse.
In luxury travel, where escapism, overabundance and indulgence are often main selling points, talk of composting and half-portions can kill the carefree mood, said Natural Habitat Adventures.
Prior to the trip’s departure, Nat Hab had its own concerns about how clientele would react to being asked to share food and join the trip’s “clean plate club” to avoid waste, but Whelan found it to have surprisingly unexpected and positive benefits.
“I initially thought that asking guests to consider food waste and split meals would be awkward,” Whelan said. “But something fascinating happened: when our guests offered and split meals with one another, a unique camaraderie ensued. People bonded—it was like an ice-breaker.”
Nat Hab supplied each trip guest with a reusable coffee mug, water bottle, bamboo utensils, a cloth napkin and a tote bag for recyclables. They also brought a bin for biodegradables, which was used to collect leftover food from every meal and was weighed before the contents were composted.
As the trip continued, Whelan also found himself getting creative when reducing surplus food, discontinuing single-serving boxed lunches, which historically went unfinished, in favor of family-style platters that were easier to share and had a more appealing presentation.
Techniques and tactics aside, at the end of the day, Natural Habitat’s Zero Waste team found that when it came to reducing waste, being able to avoid it in the first place was more effective than recycling or composting, and like everything, practice makes better.
“The key is to look at things like waste reduction and sustainability as a language,” says Whelan. “You never learn a whole foreign language all at once – you have to work on it bit by bit, and practice. Eventually, you become fluent.”
The good news is that in the future, Natural Habitat Adventures plans to incorporate the lessons learned from its first zero-waste adventure into more trips.
And eventually, the company also intends to share the trip’s best practices for waste management in the form of a published resource, in hopes of inspiring the rest of the travel industry to become more committed to sustainable tourism.