© Marisa Zocco, WWF-US

Natural Habitat Adventures and WWF educate and inspire travelers to adopt lifelong habits to save treasured natural spaces and species.

The light yellow curtain of early morning sunlight poured onto the still-dewy grasses in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. I sipped my morning coffee from my reusable mug and was daydreaming in our Sprinter van when we spotted it—not the wildlife itself, but its indicator species, a steady stream of humans herding well into the grasses to get a closer look.

A presumably lone black wolf—a moving, oblong dot to the naked eye—trotted from the tree line and toward the river bank. There, it stopped among the company of several ravens sprinkling a downed tree, and crouched to gnaw on the rib cage of a pronghorn.

It was the closest wild wolf encounter that anyone in our group of 12 had experienced—including our guides.

We peered through the scope as the wolf heaved its body, back arching and hind legs tensed in its effort to peel the flesh off its decomposing meal. Some day in the near future, other animals would come pick off any edible scraps of nourishment, and all that would remain of the ungulate’s body would be its bones.

Out in these parts—in the true wild—nothing goes to waste.

A day later, while peering at a distant grizzly along the same stretch of road, Erin Simon, World Wildlife Fund’s Director for Sustainability Research & Development, pointed out another carcass that wouldn’t share the same fate.

“Did you see it?” She asked. She was talking about trash.

 A future not so appealing.

We were on the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure with Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab) and WWF, and as moved and captivated by the beauty of Yellowstone and its wildlife as Erin seemed to be (she cried at the sight of a black bear and her two cubs), she was just as captivated by its waste.

I looked around. The space was devoid of the plastic water bottles, paper napkins and the drifting plastic shopping bags I was used to seeing in the big cities in which I was accustomed to living.

No, I said. I saw nothing.

On the gravel just near the edge of the road’s pavement, a portion of a banana peel had decomposed to a blackened, paper-thin rectangle. Its sticker label looked almost good as new.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

“It’s the small stuff that we can’t easily see or collect, that is most often confused for food by animals,” Erin said. “That’s why it’s critical that we stop the larger plastics from being littered in the first place: so they can’t break down into the smaller microplastics that are increasingly becoming a staple of animals’ diets.”

My mind imagined the lone wolf with the prior day’s green plastic toothpick flosser between its teeth. I envisioned grazing bison with rainbow confetti noses dotted in the tiny plastic remnants suddenly too prominent at my feet. I foresaw a raven’s disintegrating body framing a stomach full of the same.

I had been distracted by the search for either beautiful wild things, or the large pieces of trash that were eyesores amidst the gorgeous canvas of the park’s landscape. As conscious as I thought I was as an ambassador for WWF, Erin’s simple sentence blew my mind. I couldn’t unhear it. I couldn’t un-see it.

I couldn’t have anticipated the jarring juxtaposition of the artificial and natural worlds if I tried.

A whole new world’s first.

Embarking on a “world’s first” anything indicates plenty to be learned along the intended journey. There exists a certainty that knowledge will be expanded, mistakes will be made, and areas of improvement will be discovered.

Add the pioneering term to a guided adventure—a physical and mental space in which the aim is already to expand the mind—and its transformative potential multiplies.

Top that “world’s first” phrasing with a seemingly impossible goal of zero waste and the excursion becomes life-changing.

That’s exactly what occurred on Nat Hab’s zero waste adventure—truly a world’s first; the company researched the concept extensively for over 18 months.

Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel, explained that another “industry first”—its operation as a carbon-neutral travel company—informed the brainstorming surrounding the zero waste adventure, and fed its Green Team plenty of inspiration.

“Sustainability is in our DNA,” Court said. “We’re always trying to think about things that will propel our industry and society further when it comes to conservation.”

And so, the goal: Twelve travelers, six days in Yellowstone National Park, countless wildlife sightings, and just one Mason jar’s worth of waste.

© Marisa Zocco

Ground Zero

I laid it all out in front of me in the lawn, and bit my nails dreading what I might be forgetting—what I might place in that jar.

I was zero-waste curious prior to this trip—a beginner. I’d started dabbling in reducing my waste in minimal ways like purchasing stainless steel and glass straws, a safety razor to replace my plastic disposables, and a refillable deodorant.

Oppositely, I considered myself a seasoned domestic traveler. I’d driven through and explored 49 of the 50 states and had seen much of the country’s beauty. I knew how to prepare for several days in the wild.

Still, change brewed in every step of my preparations.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I continually found myself comparing my brain to a computer. While packing for a trip like this was not particularly difficult, it required a certain level of mindfulness that I found to surpass my typical presence and critical thinking. My operating system slowed down.

Before, my habits were to look for items of convenience. Each step up to this trip, I pushed myself instead to think of how I could contribute as little as possible to our Mason jar, which meant the inconvenience and discomfort of trying or buying something new and zero waste.

I asked myself two questions to try to predict where I might be most likely to add to our jar: Where in my daily life do I find myself most often approaching a waste bin? What is in my hands when I do?

The answers: Restaurants (to-go items such as napkins, bottles and cans), and my bathroom (toiletry and cosmetic packaging, or cotton rounds).

As I considered alternatives to reduce my waste as much as possible, I unknowingly reprogrammed myself not just for this trip or future travels, but for a new lifestyle.

I had fully anticipated the thrill of learning, but did not account for the energy it would take to un-learn certain patterns of behavior.

Wasted Space

Check in, check bag, check off the first waste items produced.

I hadn’t accounted for luggage tags. As the tape printed, I felt my cheeks rouge in my own secret embarrassment. It kept coming. Feet long. Next, the receipt for my checked bag. Then, the printed boarding pass.

We’d been asked by Nat Hab to use our phones as our boarding passes, and I’d already failed. Had I forced myself into a carry-on only, I could have avoided the tape. At least I had my canteen for fluids and my to-go container full of snacks in an airport terminal where most things come not on a plate, but in plastic packaging.

Here, I connected with Erin, who had experienced similar challenges.

We lamented together. We boarded our flight. We sat next to each other and were both denied when we asked if our canteens could be filled with water. When offered a plastic cup, we explained we were on a zero-waste trip and instead ordered a can of seltzer water. Recyclable. Success.

Or was it?

Worth the weight.

As the can made its inevitable small explosion upon its opening, so did my mind as we embarked on the first of our conversations about waste.

Erin’s job at WWF as its director for sustainability research & development is to evaluate a corporation’s practices, and break down where the organization might become more sustainable. One airline, she told me, aimed to rid itself of its plastic cups and containers, and to use paper instead.

The aviation industry, however, requires an intensive focus on the weight of an aircraft. The heavier the vessel, the more fuel required, and the greater the carbon emissions. In fact, aircraft emissions account for over 2 percent of global emissions.

Paper cups, it turns out, are heavier than the aviation industry’s polystyrene cups by just enough to increase a plane’s carbon emissions. The minor increase literally outweighed the financial and ecological benefit of switching to paper.

The story was just an introduction to the mind-blowing complexity of sustainable practices.

Throughout the safari, I and others came to learn why stickers such as our airline tags aren’t recyclable, and how—for the same reasons—plastic-lined take-out boxes (materials called composites) are also destined for the landfill.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

We also learned that just like in the airline industry, what’s better to consume in our daily lives depends largely on the situation. My sparkly, new stainless steel food container, for example, might be more harmful to the environment than the reused recycled plastic lunch meat containers in my uncle’s cupboards.

“Whether plastic or aluminum, all virgin materials have an impact, because creating new material means taking resources from the planet at an environmental cost,” Erin said. “While virgin aluminum has higher costs to biodiversity, water and energy, it’s also heavier material than plastic.”

That means that it’s almost guaranteed a longer lifespan.

“Ideally, our reusable containers would all be sourced from recycled aluminum, recycled plastic or sustainably sourced bio-based plastic. But, at the end of the day, the key to the reusable container is durability. No matter what materials it’s made from, it will be more resource-intensive than a single-use item.” Erin explained. The key is reuse.

Most items need to be reused between 50 and 100 times to make up for the extra resources used to make more durable materials and break even with the lesser footprint of creating single-use plastics that easily break down into harmful microplastics. If we can stretch the lifespan of our reusable items beyond that threshold, we’ve done our planet—and ourselves—a favor.

But when it comes to the end of a product’s life, the downstream materials recycling process is just as nuanced as its production.

Only 9 percent of the world’s 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic is recycled, with about 79 percent of it becoming either landfill waste, or environmental litter. On top of that, about 80 percent of all American waste is recyclable, but we recycle at a rate of only 28 percent.

One problem is the confusing lack of standardized processes within our nation and others; another is a lack of knowledge of what materials go where—proper filing, if you will.

One city in one state might recycle only crushed cans, for example, whereas the next materials recycling facility (MRF) may recycle only uncrushed; food waste in a recycling container contaminates recycling and may render it not recoverable; bagged recycling materials may be sent straight to the landfill. But it depends on the facility.

It’s a bit of a monster.

Food for thought.

Almost as soon as we arrived, it was there. We were being stalked.

Each day as the 12 of us sat down to eat, something came to lurk at our table. The round, hungry thing demanded our scraps. It was getting dangerous.

Just about midway through our trip, we’d all had enough. We’d have nothing to feed it, if we had nothing left on our plates.

The beast’s name was Kermit, and it was our compost bin.

While we didn’t count our food as waste to put in our jar since it would be commercially composted and repurposed for good use, as the trip progressed, we became increasingly aware of how much was left on our plates at the end of a meal.

I’d thought about the waste items associated with my food—paper napkins, to-go containers, disposable silverware. I’d somehow overlooked my uneaten food as being waste.

Around one-third of all the food produced in the world—about 1.3 billion tons—becomes food waste. Wasted with it is all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. And if that food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

So much so that about 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stopped wasting food.

And so, a group of 12 strangers became family. If our Montana-sized portions of pasta could not be halved or quartered in the kitchen, we asked around our group to see if someone wanted to share. Sometimes even half proved too much.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

“Does anybody want my green beans?” Or steak, or local trout, or mashed potatoes. The phrase became a standard mealtime question. As we passed our plates, we passed on food waste.

We came into the trip from all walks of life: Wealthy, corporate retirees to financially struggling travel journalists; avid world explorers to folks like myself who’ve experienced mainly domestic marvels.

It didn’t matter whether we were well-versed at walking the talk of a minimal-waste lifestyle, or taking an official first peek into it on this trip. We were bonded in an appreciation for the planet, the conservation of its wildlife and wild, open spaces, and at minimum, a curiosity of how we could do better to reduce our impact on them.

Thermal cesspools.

After being told that the small things were what would more likely affect wildlife, my eyes were attracted to it like a magnet. The closer we got to trash bins, the more waste there seemed to be on the ground. It was everywhere—as if a geyser had exploded like a party popper, leaving tiny bits and pieces of trash scattered about the grounds near Old Faithful.

The fantasy of sorts is not far from the truth.

In 2018 the park’s Ear Spring geyser erupted and spat out items including a cinder brick, beer cans, and a pacifier from the 1930s. It might sound odd, but waste-producing explosions within the park are not entirely uncommon.

In the 1950s, Yellowstone’s Morning Glory pool was induced to erupt, and when it did, produced 76 handkerchiefs, about $90 in coins, waste such as bottles and cans, and even a pair of underwear.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

So much trash has been deposited into Morning Glory that it has discolored the thermophilic, or heat-loving bacteria. The pool was originally covered in bold, blue bacterial matting that thrived in its extremely hot water.

Waste continually deposited into the pool by onlookers has blocked Morning Glory’s vent, causing the water in the pool to cool. As its water temperature shifts, so does the coloring of its bacterial mats. Today, only a small portion of the now rainbow-colored pool remains blue.

Because it seems that one person’s treasure is another person’s trash receptacle, at the beginning of the safari, all Nat Hab guests were given a Deuter Dirtbag to collect any waste encountered along the roadsides, attraction boardwalks, or on the trails.

As we picked up trash along the way, we came to have a half-hopeful joke: We could be a sub-zero waste trip.

Sub-zero waste?

Between our compost bin, recycling and TerraCycle box—a box we could toss all of the small things that need to be collected in mass and that otherwise would not usually be considered standardly recyclable—we wondered if we might be able to pick up as much actual waste—items that could neither be composted nor recycled—as we had created.

After all, in addition to the waste we failed to create through recycling, reuse, and refusal during the trip, Nat Hab offset the carbon emissions of each traveler, from hometown liftoff to hometown landing.

The company works with the organization South Pole to oversees the carry-out and maintenance of worldwide projects that neutralize, or offset, the carbon emissions related to travel.

“At the moment we have three projects with that account for our offsets,” Court said. “A wind farm in India, reforestation in Zimbabwe, and providing cookstoves in Rwanda.”

The estimated price per traveler to virtually erase our carbon footprint? Under $50. That’s it.

So, did we meet our zero waste goals?

“If we look at the trip as 12 people for 6 days, that’s 72 people days of travel and activity. The average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash a day, so we should have created something like 316.8 pounds of trash,” Court calculated.

In the end, our collective waste for the entire six-day trip packed into a quart sized Mason jar. We created 27.8 pounds of commercial compost, 20.4 pounds of recycling, and 2.7 pounds of items for TerraCycle. Based on Court’s estimation, that’s 50.9 pounds of waste diverted, or slated for reuse, and 265.9 pounds of trash completely eliminated by reducing and refusing.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

No, 83 percent less waste may not be zero waste. Truth be told, there is no such thing. But it’s worth striving for.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity or complexity of the world’s waste problem, but as Erin explained it, we’re not going to solve it by lack of trying. We’ve got to start somewhere.

“Take a look at the straw movement: While not large in environmental impact, it’s been powerful in engaging people and bringing the issue of plastic pollution to their table,” Erin explained. “While trying to go zero waste may feel big and impossible, there are so many aspects of it that are easy to do.”

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

We can start with a straw. A straw can grow into reusable bottles and mugs, which can be placed in a reusable bag when headed out the door. That awareness can spill over into watching our food waste by clearing our plates.

“After starting,” she said, “you may be inspired to try something a little bit harder next time.”

That’s why Court hopes the company will one day make as many of its adventures as possible minimal waste. By continually raising the bar on conservation through the expansion of zero waste practices across the company’s entire portfolio of trips, Nat Hab hopes to instigate the travel industry—and the world—to pay attention to what is possible and a necessity in our world today.

“The best thing for the future well-being of humans on our planet is to pay attention to these issues while there is still time and make changes. It’s easy to ignore the waste stream in our world for the moment, but we must think progressively into the future and realize that in 20 years—or likely sooner—we simply won’t be able to ignore it,” Court said. “Plastics in our oceans and food, landfills contributing greenhouse emissions, and climate change-induced food shortages across the developing world will have ripple effects that will impact all of our lives.”

A Wild Ride

The value of a trip of this nature can’t be measured by the pounds of waste diverted, the breadth of land covered on safari, or the number of species viewed in their natural habitats. The value of a trip of this nature can only be measured by the weight of the responsibility bestowed upon its travelers in its conclusion.

© Marisa Zocco, WWF

From coming face to face with a wallowing bison, and learning the delicate balance between respecting an animal and safely admiring it in a space like Yellowstone, to dipping our toes into the bewildering complexity that is waste, and uncovering skills to incorporate into an everyday reduced-waste lifestyle, Nat Hab’s World’s First Zero-Waste Adventure packed a transformative punch that would surprise and disorient even the most hearty of world travelers.

The sense of being fortunate to have participated in such an expansive excursion is sure to remain with me—or any traveler, for that matter—for at least as long as plastic takes to biodegrade.

By Marisa Zocco, Panda Ambassador