Tour Companies Tackle Excess Waste by Eliminating Plastics, Donating Leftover Food

20 November 2019

In July 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab) ran a zero-waste trip through Yellowstone National Park. The travelers on the week-long tour diverted 23 kilograms (50.9 pounds) of waste — 99% of all waste created on the trip — through reuse, recycling, TerraCycling, and composting. This comes to 1.9 kilograms (4.2 pounds) of waste per person over the course of the week. This is in comparison to the commonly quoted 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of waste created by the average American every day.

Waste generation is particularly tricky in the travel and tourism industry. The ability to travel is a luxury, and people often enjoy the opportunity to excess. Though an increasing number of travelers are aware of their environmental footprint, they don’t necessarily want to be told not to create waste or curb their consumption habits. Addressing this from the industry side, tour operators are taking action to create awareness among travelers and reduce their own waste. Nat Hab is the first tour company to specifically launch a zero-waste trip, but it’s certainly not the first to tackle the waste problem in its operations and tour offerings.

When traveling with Hidden Iceland, guests are encouraged to drink clean, natural spring water instead of using single-use plastic bottles. © Rachel Keenan / Hidden Iceland

The Plastic Problem

Historically, travel companies bought into the convenience and peace of mind offered by water available in single-use plastic bottles, especially in places where water quality was suspect. Yet, the problem with this solution has become alarmingly clear: Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic make their way into the ocean every single year. Many companies are now committed to reducing single-use plastic water bottles and items in their operations and on their tours, and they’re encouraging travelers to be part of the solution. “Guests are advised to carry bottles or hydration packs on their travels and refill them as they move from camp to camp,” said Vaibhav Kala of Aquaterra Adventures.

Companies have adopted many practices to cut or eliminate plastic, including:

  • Using large, reusable bottles to refill travelers’ bottles.
  • Using gunny or biodegradable garbage bags instead of plastic garbage bags.
  • Eliminating single-use toiletries and offering bar soap or liquid soap and shampoo in dispensers.
  • Identifying local water sources where guests can safely refill their bottles.
  • Replacing plastic luggage tags with tags made of recycled material.
  • Encouraging partnering hotels and restaurants to offer filtered water in glass bottles.
  • Offering reusable cloth bags to travelers for shopping.
It’s worth noting some companies give clients reusable bottles to use during trips, but several other companies have realized this results in an excess of reusable plastic bottles, which creates its own waste problem. “We are working on researching the best way to reduce waste by recycling Trek Travel-branded water bottles when guests do not bring these home with them,” said Brie Willey, guide manager for the company. The trend is turning away from this practice, and more companies are asking travelers to supply their own reusable bottles.

Of course, using those refillable water bottles is the next step. “A challenge in reducing our plastic use is making sure our clients have clean, safe water,” said Sarah Alexander of Elevate Destinations. “This isn’t currently possible in each of the destinations we visit, but we’ve been entering into conversations with our suppliers during the trip-planning process as well as having conversations with clients themselves.”

Other companies facing a similar problem have partnered with water filtration companies so guests can safely drink water from questionable sources instead of relying on single-use plastic bottles of water. “Avoiding the use of plastics everywhere is important, especially so in countries like Nepal, and it’s taken sustained effort to go plastic-free,” said Caroline Mongrain, World Expeditions’ North American marketing manager. “While water on the treks has been boiled and provided for many years, World Expeditions has now installed filtered water dispensers for clients in pre- and post-trek hotel accommodation, so clients can avoid the use of disposable and single-use plastic during their entire time in Nepal.”

Getting Rid of Garbage

“Operating in remote areas generally devoid of consumerism, Tribal Adventures starts from a minimalist base when it comes to rubbish,” said Greg Hutchinson, founder of the company. “We’ve never used styrofoam, plastic wrapping, or aluminum foil because it was not available at the outset. Instead, we’ve always tapped banana leaves. These were available and free or inexpensive as packaging and preparation material.”

Despite these efforts, many companies find that waste sneaks into travel operations in lots of tricky ways. From product packaging to unnecessary brochures, many businesses end up with far more waste than anticipated. In far-flung destinations without adequate disposal options, this can be especially problematic.

Tour operators have adopted many strategies to streamline garbage creation. These include:

  • Using powdered energy drinks that can be made in reusable bottles.
  • Buying items in bulk instead of buying items per trip.
  • Using reusable silverware, plates, napkins, and food storage containers.
  • Reducing paper brochures and printed material.
  • Reducing packaging waste in client gift packs.
  • Sorting waste for recycling and composting in the head office.
  • Using rags instead of paper towels to clean bikes.
  • Providing reusable lunch boxes to guests.
Food packaging remains a key problem in the industry, and many companies struggle to find solutions. “We initially provided picnics for our private tours which included some plastic packaging but realized the value added doing this didn’t outweigh the amount of plastic needed,” said Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland.

Fixing Food Waste

One of Nat Hab’s main findings on its zero-waste trip was that food waste made up over half of the trip’s waste. Though Nat Hab composted food waste, the finding indicates a specific issue within the travel industry: Because people eat out while on vacation, they often end up with larger-than-expected portion sizes and no way to save leftovers.

Companies are increasingly selective about food offered on trips, choosing items that are locally sourced, seasonal, better for compost, and biodegradable. “This past season we produced 3.9 (metric) tons of vegetables and fruits in (our organic garden),” said Pablo Araya, sales manager for Cerro Paine Reserve. This minimizes both carbon emissions and excess waste. “We avoid the use of plastic containers, cans, or plastic bags. Our goal is to produce more than five (metric) tons (of food) in the next season.” The 26 farm-to-table varieties of produce are used to feed both guests and staff.

Some tour companies are actively reusing food from picnics or meals for new meals or snacks later in a trip. A few work with local communities to ensure leftovers go to good use, sometimes through partnerships with local food banks or land owners. “We relentlessly pursue the best solutions to the issue of waste. Usually this is done by tapping local knowledge and practice, and improving upon such where possible,” Hutchinson said, whose company diverts compostable material to locals to feed their pigs.

Water-Savvy Solutions

Though water waste often isn’t addressed, it is also a problem. In destinations suffering from water shortages, in particular, mindful water usage is important. But even beyond those fragile destinations, mitigating water waste is important. Companies operating accommodations specifically indicate a need to be savvy about water usage. For example, Aquaterra Adventures has a recycling and cleaning plant that harvests water for horticulture at its lodge. Tribal Adventures’ two retreats use filtered spring water.

Hidden Iceland is building a new facility where it can wash its own vehicles, which will reduce water and chemical usage, and allow the company to manage its own recycling efforts. “With our new facilities, we will reduce our impact considerably and have full control over our waste for the first time,” Connolly said. “It has been an expensive process creating this new fit-for-purpose facility but ultimately the right choice.”

Addressing the Industry’s Problem

One way to think about waste in the travel industry is to rethink the way it is discussed, a strategy adopted by RAW Travel. “We don’t talk about waste, but rather resources and resource recovery,” said Birte Moliere, the company’s sustainability lead. The company advocates for the establishment of a circular economy, in which products are not simply discarded at the end of their linear life cycle. “We view waste as resources that provide an opportunity to create something else,” Moliere said. “In a perfect circular economy, waste does not exist. The creation of a circular economy is not another word for recycling. It's about economically viable solutions that offer real value.”

Regardless of how tour companies choose to address the issue, getting to the heart of the travel industry’s waste problem is an exercise across all parts of the supply chain. Involving in-house staff and guides, and teaching them how to talk about waste and sustainability can create ripple effects once travelers return home.

From travelers to field staff, tour operators constantly provide direction and create awareness so people understand the need to reduce waste. They say working with third-party vendors like local restaurants, lodging, and suppliers can be particularly difficult, especially in developing destinations where infrastructure might not be in place to facilitate waste reduction. “The first challenge we encountered was with the local infrastructure in Indonesia, which is not always ideal, especially in terms of sorting waste,” said Micheline Widler of Shanti Travel. “We work with organizations who provide services to collect sorted waste, and when this is not possible, we still do it in our offices to encourage an understanding of the importance of sorting in the recycling process.”

Local communities are an important voice in this conversation. Because waste is left where trips take place, local people have a vested interest in how it is addressed. “We choose suppliers that also have an environmental mission, and whenever possible, are locally owned,” said Sabrina Poulin of Active Adventures, “and we have contacted any suppliers without an environmental mission to encourage them to follow environmental practices.” For some companies, this is a non-negotiable conversation. “We continue to educate — and on occasion — advise would-be clients we perceive won’t adjust to the brave new world of simple, local solutions to limit waste that a Tribal Adventures adventure may not be for them,” Hutchinson said.

From customer service representatives and tour guides to hotel staff and travelers themselves, great strides have been made in waste reduction. There’s certainly still work to be done, but the enthusiasm for decreasing waste in the travel and tourism industry is promising. “We measure our progress and our team is becoming more and more invested in our approach,” Widler said. “Sustainability takes time in its implementation but peoples’ mentalities are evolving and improvements are felt daily.”