By Marisa Zocco, WWF Panda Ambassador

In July of 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) successfully hosted the world’s first zero-waste adventure tour of Yellowstone National Park. Participants ranged from self-proclaimed seasoned veterans of the lesser waste lifestyle to the zero-waste newbie looking to learn.

In this special five-part sustainability series, WWF Panda Ambassador Marisa Zocco, Nat Hab’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel, Court Whelan; WWF Head of Plastic Waste and Business, Erin Simon; and multiple zero-waste adventure tour participants, reflect on how we can continue to reduce our waste even amidst a pandemic. Here in Part 2 they give their first set of tips for making sure COVID-19 doesn’t hold them back in their efforts toward a zero-waste lifestyle.

The Basics

1. Ask questions

When it comes to innovation and the thoroughness of waste reduction, Simon says asking questions is the best place to start.

“If I’m about to buy something, I consciously read the product’s label and ask myself a few questions. How much of recycled content was used for this item? Is it single use?  Is this recyclable—not in general, but specifically in the place that I am?.”

Simon points out that we might have less opportunity for impact when we have fewer options such as when we are ordering groceries online, or eating at a restaurant. But when we can, looking at materials and choosing them based on sustainability is important.

2. Reuse (yes, even during the pandemic)

It might seem scary, Simon said, but there has been a collective alignment in the scientific community that if we properly wash our reusable containers, they’re safe to use in restaurants, cafés and grocery stores.

Greenpeace, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and more than 120 others published a letter earlier this year that reassured the the safety in using personal containers” said Simon, who is leading work in the World Economic Forum to outline new safety guidelines around reuse. A newly published Pew Report, she said, also highlights the importance of reuse when strategizing to reduce the world’s waste problem.

Still, Simon said, it’s important to understand the fear that the public might be experiencing right now, and to acknowledge that it’s okay to choose safety over the environment.

“[Sustainability] is about always leaning in a little to determine how we can still do our part where we can.”

3. Refuse and Replace

If zero-waste adventurer Jane Richmond had a superpower, it might be found in her purchases—or lack thereof.

When asked about the zero-waste steps she’s taken both before and after the trip, she could seemingly list her eco-friendly alternatives for days.

Beeswax wrap is a great reusable alternative to plastic wrap and plastic zip bags.

“I got beeswax wraps so I’m not using as much plastic wrap. I started taking my own take-out boxes to restaurants [pre-COVID]. I started saying, ‘no straw,’ and I’d say no utensils or napkins when ordering take-out,” Richmond said.

She also started bulk buying dry foods and nuts, found alternatives for household items and substances that used plastic bottles, and refused plastic packaging when ordering items from Amazon. She even collected her dental waste—toothbrushes, floss, and the like—for a while and gave it to a nearby neighbor who was dedicated to collecting it in large quantities to make it more easily recyclable. Once the pandemic hit, that stopped, Richmond said. But that didn’t interrupt her continual evaluation of where she could further reduce her plastic waste in a way that worked for her.

Tip: Go through each room or each department of your business, and ask where it is you can replace something that results in waste with something that reduces it.

4. Compost and reduce food waste

It’s critical to recycle and compost—even non-negotiable—Whelan said, if we have zero-waste ambitions.

One of the biggest take-aways from the zero-waste adventure, he said, was “what a lurking giant food waste could be—not because of how bad it is currently, but how, when conscious of the amount we’re generating, we are able to lessen the impact on earth.”

Food waste, Whelan emphasized, accounts for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions when accounting for the cost to ship it and throw it away.

“All it requires is not purchasing food in excess in the first place and being conscientious of where and how you shop.”

That, and composting.

Zero-waste adventurers, John and Renata Harbison have taken to splitting meals when ordering in from restaurants they know serve large portions—a direct result of Nat Hab’s zero-waste adventure.

During the adventure, the couple’s minds were opened to the concept of “bartering leftovers,” as John called it. “I never would have thought of suggesting that if food was left on a plate, anyone at the table was welcome to eat it. It certainly changed our behavior in restaurants.”

A bonus? The camaraderie that comes with food, Renata added, was much more apparent through the zero-waste process.

And while the Harbison’s playfully confessed that they do not bring a composting bucket into restaurants as was the practice during Nat Hab’s zero-waste adventure, they have become more diligent with composting scraps more regularly.

“We used to compost, but we do even more, now. We’ve had a lot of food deliveries during COVID because we’re scared to go to the store,” said Renata. But where the couple might have increased waste in one area, they were sure to balance it out as best they could.

“We started using boxes in our yard. We remove the packaging tape and reuse the cardboard in our compost pile or as barriers under a walkway with chips on top so weeds don’t grow.”

Richmond, too, used to compost in her yard—until some rodents took up residence near the abundant food source and made a home of her nearby Tesla. She now uses a local composting service.

“I keep my food scraps and dump them into a plastic bag I place in the freezer. The night before pickup, I put them in my bucket,” Richmond said. She also invited her children to contribute to the bucket since as an individual she produces so little food waste.

The importance of composting was a memorable and easily implemented take-away also echoed by zero-waste adventurer, Ingrid Ioh.

“Spread the word and tell others to BYOB,” she said. “That’s ‘bring your own bucket’ for all the leftovers to be put in for composting.”

5. Watch your water footprint

When we think about waste, we often think about trash or recycling and forget about the resources it takes to either produce or mitigate it. Water is one of them.

“Substituting plastic and using aluminum for example is not without its own risks. Aluminum has risks associated with strip mining causing huge ecological disruptions from a biodiversity, water, chemical use, and emissions impact perspective,” said Simon.

We can be mindful to use as little water as possible in an effort to make up for even just a portion of the amount used to handle our waste and its production.

Whether taking Navy showers to save tens of gallons of water daily as encouraged by one lodging facility on Nat Hab’s zero-waste adventure, doing laundry less frequently, or washing dishes in an efficient dishwasher versus by hand, there are many ways to slightly shrink our water footprints.

We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another set of tips to reduce your waste during COVID-19 and beyond.