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

“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. by ALI WUNDERMAN

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.

Natural Habitat, Yellowstone National Park, Zero Waste

Travelers on a Natural Habitat trip to Yellowstone National Park.

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.

As we wound our way through the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley and the colorful thermal features of Yellowstone over the course of a week, a certain camaraderie formed. We commiserated over the lack of progress in climate change policy, traded tips on living a more eco-friendly life, and bonded over the green compost bucket, named Kermit, which accompanied us into every restaurant. The collaboration was part of the experience, resulting in reduced waste and increased friendship.

It wasn’t sacrificing things like bottled water or candy bars that challenged me the most, but unlearning the myriad ways in which I’m wasteful without even realizing it. Materials scientist Erin Simon, World Wildlife Fund’s Director of Sustainability Research and Development, joined the trip, and was able to answer questions about the production of materials and how they can be repurposed.

Playing with trash

In many ways, this trip served as an experiment: Natural Habitat needed to see if zero-waste travel was doable for their other trips, and WWF wanted to better understand the intersection of tourism and sustainability. All of us were happy to be guinea pigs. “This gives us a chance to take guests who care, try out what zero waste looks like, and feel how hard it is at its most extreme,” says Simon. “Then we can say, here are the five to 10 things that everytraveler can do.”

Yellowstone National Park has sustainability initiatives to address the waste generated by their four to six million annual guests, but imagine if each of those travelers took a few simple steps to ease the burden. “In areas with access to fresh water, there’s no need to use plastic water bottles,” Simon suggests. In fact, almost every single-use product, from shopping bags to silverware, has reusable alternatives. Buying recycled products is also helpful, as this creates a market for recycling.

“The average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash every day,” Whelan said at the beginning of the trip, “so we should create around 316.8 pounds of trash.” I was eager to find out the damage the 12 of us did after seven days of travel. Together we ended up generating 50.9 pounds of compost and recycling, and only mere ounces of waste headed for landfill, essentially removing 265 pounds of trash before it was even created.

Playing my part in hitting those numbers proved challenging in ways I hadn’t expected: embarrassingly, I hadn’t considered the impact of food waste, which comprised the bulk of our total waste. However that did help me learn about ordering half-portions and the joys of composting—but I’m not quite ready to bring a bucket with me everywhere I go. There’s nothing I encountered in Yellowstone that I found I couldn’t do without, a realization I took home with me.

It’s certainly easier to be mindful when you have other people managing the schedule and details of your day, but we proved that it’s possible nonetheless. Even if we can’t all switch to zero waste today, it’s energizing to see the impact of simply taking steps towards that goal. If not for myself, then at least for the wolves.