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What I Learned on the World's First Zero-Waste Trip

Jul. 19, 2019

The challenges—and joys—of unlearning our ingrained habits.

“Would you like some green beans?” Like Joey from Friends, I usually don’t share food, even with my closest friends, which is why I was surprised to hear myself asking a table full of complete strangers if they wanted to split my dinner with me. Because unlike Joey, I’ve never been skilled at cleaning my plate, and wasting food wasn’t in line with what these strangers and I were attempting to accomplish on our trip—dubbed the world’s first zero-waste adventure.

Normally, I’m a moderately eco-conscious person: I ditched seafood after learning 46 percent of ocean plastic is fishing nets, I don’t use plastic straws, and as a Californian, I’m practiced at conserving water. But these small steps don’t do much to reduce my personal footprint, and frankly, the planet requires more substantial solutions during this precarious time. I needed to learn how to walk the walk of going green.

That’s why I signed up to be part of Natural Habitat Adventures' ambitious zero-waste safari through Yellowstone National Park. No other tour operator has ever pulled off a truly waste-free trip before, and being the first to accomplish it seemed in line with the adventure travel operator’s commitment to wildlife and the environment, not to mention the fact that they’re the travel partner of World Wildlife Fund. Natural Habitat has run a Hidden Yellowstone Safari tour for years to spot wolves and bison in their home ecosystem—the high-end trip starts at $5,295 for seven days and includes stays at lodges with all meals provided, many of which are at restaurants. But this was the first time they ever attempted to run the trip without generating any waste.

Getting the green light

I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, unsure of what “zero waste” really meant. “At the end of this week, we will have diverted 99 percent of waste that would otherwise end up in landfill,” explained Court Whelan, who has a PhD in ecotourism and was our group expedition leader, as he held up an empty quart-sized mason jar. The goal: whatever waste our group of 12 generated that couldn’t be recycled would not exceed the volume of that jar.

To accomplish this, we were each provided with our own set of bamboo cutlery, including a straw and chopsticks, among other reusable items that would stand in for single-use plastics. All we had to do was wash them between meals. Bags were distributed for collecting trash found along trails and roads so we could literally pick up where others left off. But perhaps the most effective tool was what we were learning, particularly how to be conscious of every decision that could lead to creating trash.

I was overwhelmed by the task at hand. I knew I had to address basically every deeply ingrained habit in order to help this group accomplish its zero-waste goal.

Refusing refuse

Fortunately, Natural Habitat anticipated these fears. That’s why Whelan and his 20-person Green Team spent the past 18 months partnering with World Wildlife Fund. They researched not only how to pull off a zero-waste trip, but also the delicate balance of being green while minimizing stress, given that travelers were on vacation and paying a premium to travel with the company. As a result, the three guides (one of who was a trainee) handled a lot of the minutiae while leading us in how to change our habits for the better.

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