Sustainable travel pioneer embarks on zero-waste adventure

"Our main goal is to change the industry."  -- Court Whelan, Natural Habitat Adventures
"Our main goal is to change the industry." -- Court Whelan, Natural Habitat Adventures

One of the early leaders in the travel industry's move toward reducing its carbon footprint is setting its sights on another ambitious sustainability goal: pulling off what it says will be the world's first zero-waste adventure.

After more than a year of research, scouting trips and in-depth consultation with scientists from its partners at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Boulder, Colo.-based Natural Habitat Adventures announced it will undertake the challenge during one of its luxury safaris through Yellowstone National Park next July.

The goal, said the company's sustainability director, Court Whelan, is to avoid the use of any plastics and to recycle, upcycle or compost virtually every scrap of leftover food and packaging, bringing back no more than a mason jar of waste.

The company then plans to take lessons from the trip and begin applying them to its other excursions around the world.

More importantly, Whelan said, "Our main goal is to change the industry, to get people to think about it."

In 2007, Natural Habitat Adventures claimed to become the world's first carbon-neutral travel company, with a program that adds the cost of offsetting carbon emissions to the price of its trips. The funds go to reforestation and other sustainability programs that the company says have offset more than 34.5 million pounds of CO2 emissions generated on its global nature adventures.

"Our goal is to continually raise the bar on conservation, and our first zero-waste adventure will show that it's possible to reduce our environmental impact while providing an exceptional experience for our guests," said Natural Habitat Adventures founder and president Ben Bressler.

Trip leaders will encourage travelers to refuse potential waste whenever possible, such as declining disposable straws or individually packaged condiments.

Other strategies include providing travelers with a zero-waste toolkit that includes personal reusable items, such as water bottles, mugs, cutlery and tote bags; transporting packed meals in reusable containers; recycling single-use packaging, including hard-to-recycle items, through TerraCycle, a company that specializes in challenging recycling; composting napkins and biodegradable food waste; and buying food in bulk.

In fact, the waste reduction begins even before the trip begins, with travelers receiving only digital versions of all pretrip materials.

"This is a big deal," Whelan said. "We're sure proud of it in the company. We are obviously a very green travel company. We like to think of ourselves as one of the most sustainable companies out there."

Whelan admits that when a colleague first suggested the idea, he didn't think it was doable.

"This is an ambitious one," he said. "Some of the initial questions were obvious ones -- things like, 'What about when you eat at a restaurant and those strawberries were sent in a package from Florida, how are you going to track that? What are you going to do with toilet paper and hygienic waste?'"

The Yellowstone itinerary was one of the easiest to try the idea on, he said, because it's all land-based. That means they can bring along recycling containers for compost and other recyclables. They have also partnered with TerraCycle to handle hard-to-recycle items like mascara and toothpaste tubes.

They do a lot of their own cooking at luxury tented camps along the way, meaning they have greater control over food sources, packaging and leftovers.

But not all the stops have easy options for sustainability, Whelan said. For example, he said that in the town of Cooke City, Mont., one of the park's most beautiful locations, the only hotel is a Super 8, where the free breakfast buffet includes a lot of plastic and Styrofoam. On that leg, he said, the breakfast will be catered by someone whose sustainability practices can be tracked.

Whelan said his hope is that after the trip, guests will begin to incorporate more waste reduction into their daily lives. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day, the company said.

As Natural Habitat incorporates the practices into more of its trips, he said, the hope is that other companies will take note, including partners like Super 8.

The effort was developed with the help of Natural Habitat's partners at the WWF, which has a team of scientists dedicated to researching waste reduction. Whelan said some of those scientists accompanied him and his team on scouting trips to help develop the plan.

Jim Sano, vice president of the WWF's travel and conservation efforts, lauded the effort.

"We encourage the travel industry to follow Nat Hab's lead to mitigate its impact, protect Earth's precious natural resources and educate travelers about how they can do their part," Sano said.


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