The World’s First Zero-Waste Adventure: Interview with Court Whelan (Natural Habitat)

Natural Habitat is planning the first zero-waste adventure ever organised. It’ll take place in Yellowstone park. As first guest of our new eco-interview-series, we’ve spoken with Court Whelan, director of sustainability and conservation travel initiatives of Natural Habitat, to learn more about this adventure and how zero-waste and travelling can live together.

(Recorded on December 3, 2018)


Photo by Natural Habitat

This interview was so interesting that we couldn’t even consider making it shorter. Have a look at the following index to get an idea of the covered topics… and let’s dive right in!


Where did the idea of your zero-waste adventure originated from?

We like to view ourselves as one of the most sustainable travel companies out there. We are constantly trying to raise the bar on conservation, sustainability and so on. That goes for how things are done on our trips, in our office, for the education we provide to our guests before, during and after our adventures… Therefore, the idea of zero-waste originated from a company culture that is very immersed in conservation and sustainability.

We’re constantly thinking, “How do we make not just our company, but the whole industry better and more sustainable?”. This is why 11 years ago we did an “industry first” by becoming the first carbon-neutral travel company —back in 2007, at a timewhen carbon neutrality wasn’t really talked about and wasn’t very well known.

In this spirit, what we’re trying to do with this trip is make a huge change in the industry, an initiative that’s going to turn heads and get people thinking about something that’s a very big problem today, which is our waste stream and all that’s related to it.

We knew this was going to be a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity.

What does “zero-waste trip” mean?

The fortunate thing is that, since we are the first travel company in the world doing this, we have the ability to define what “zero-waste trip” means. In doing this, we’re holding ourselves to a very high standard: our definition is “diverting 99,9% of all waste from landfill over the course of the trip.”

We know there are going to be little bits here and there that we won’t know what to do with — we can’t get to 100%, since the technology is not really there yet — but our vision is that at the end of this trip, we’ll have one small jar containing all the trash, meaning all the stuff that couldn’t be recycled, composted or Terracycled (more on this right below). And that’s going to be a great visual of what we could do to change things: 14 travelers, 1 national Park, 4 cities, 7 days, 2 expedition leaders = 1 small jar, everything else will have been taken care of.


Background Photo by Natural Habitat

During the course of the trip, we’ll recycle everything we can. Plus, as I mentioned, we’re working with a company called TerraCycle that specializes in recycling things that are currently harder to recycle, like candy bar wrappers, chip wrappers, all plastics that you cannot put into the normal recycling containers, will go into their special Terracycle box.

Composting is also essential: after every meal they have with us, we’re expecting travelers to scrape their trash into a compost bin, or to compost it back into the earth.

A lot of it comes down to refusing stuff. At the end of the day, something has to be made to be recycled; it’s better to not make it in the first place, so refusing things like plastic straws, single-use cups and the like is a big part of it.

That’s where education comes in. We have to learn ourselves, then teach our travelers what and how can be refused, and what are the proper techniques to do that, like refusing it before you get it — if you get a glass with a plastic straw already in it, it doesn’t matter if you use it or not, it’s there and it’s gonna get thrown away if you don’t have it, so we’ll have to be very diligent with not using stuff.

The same goes for food and compost. That’s a bit more delicate in the travel industry: you don’t want to be shortchanging people food, which is their “body fuel” to hike and walk around, but I think people will have to be a little more deliberate about it. If you’re not particularly hungry, why don’t you share a plate between you and your friend?

We will actively be quantifying what we recycle, what we compost, terracycle or upcycle into new materials and what we have to throw away.

I think not using stuff in the first place might be one of the biggest lessons to come out of this trip: learn to do a little bit better without stuff.

In a lot of ways, we are a high-end/luxury travel company, we mostly cater to retirement-near folks who are willing to spend money and expect certain services and things in return: so we’re asking ourselves, how do you work with that sector of the industry and provide people everything they want, but find a way to curtail that back? That will be very interesting to see.


Photo by Natural Habitat


When you are not traveling the world, make sure all your daily actions are also as sustainable as possible.

Fore example: move to an electric lawn mower to cut your grass

Are you also educating your business partners about this? For instance, I read you’re going to self-cater at least for a part of this trip to avoid those kinds of waste.

We are, absolutely. It comes back to our overall ethos as a company. We’ve been doing this for a while; we’ve never actually labeled something as “zero-waste”, but we’ve been working with our partners and getting them to be more sustainably-minded for a very long time now.

We’ve worked to reduce packaging for food, like all the food we fly into our camps in Botswana. And if we do have to use packaging, we use something that can be composted, recycled or reused multiple times. For instance, we will buy a cooler that can last for 15 years instead of constantly using styrofoam. These are things we’ve been doing for a while.

Fortunately, we have a headstart on some of that, we have the dialogue open with our partners —our operators, our hotels, the camps we’re using. We’re just going to be upping it consistently.

This is going to be one of the big benefits of this trip. This time, it’s going to be 14 travelers: that’s just a drop in the bucket, but it’s 4 different hotels. It’s Yellowstone, the United States’ first national park. It’s a camp. It’s a transportation company.


Photo by Natural Habitat

So we have our influence on all of them, and if we can show them how easy it is to do these things, think about how many visitors the Yellowstone National Park receives every year, 5 or 10 million; if there’s something they glean from this initiative, from the talks we’re going to give before, during and after the trip, that makes a really big difference. So I think the relationship with our partners on the field is a huge aspect of what we’re trying to do.

Going one step further, one of my big goals is to create a best practices document out of this trip, so we have a roadmap, complete with tools that we can blast out to the whole industry to show them how we did this, what were the challenges and the things we had to pay particular attention to, and how they can do it too — since we’re the first, but we don’t want to be the only.

Have you already thought of ways you can increase the visibility of what you’re doing during the trip, like talking to people in the park and so on?

We’re actually working on that now. There was a lot of work we had to do to get to this point, to make sure we send people the right information, to also be as zero-waste as possible before the trip, like making sure everything is electronic instead of printed on paper.

Now that we’re about 6 months away, we’re entering Phase 2, going into that kind of details and getting in touch with partners on the ground.

We do have a shortlist of people in mind. There are some non-profits which are not officially part of the national park but have a strong interest in its protection — one that comes to mind is the Yellowstone Forever foundation, I’m sure they’ll want to know about this initiative.


Photo by Yellowstone Forever

The hotels and the restaurants in these national parks are often owned by private concessions, so the government doesn’t actually run and operate them, but we want to reach out to them.

They will learn about it when we go through, we can certainly talk about it when we’re in line to get food, but we want to give them as much heads-up notice as possible, because they might say, “Oh, gosh! We want to jump on this bandwagon.”

I mean, it’s a trendy thing right now, and I want to capitalize on this zero-waste trend. Even if they can’t become zero-waste, they can adopt small practices, so we want to get the word out about that.

We’re actually open to suggestions from anyone about how we can do this better on the ground. They’ll be absolutely welcome.

Apart from your future partners for this trip, how is your relationship with other organizations working on zero-waste and environmental issues?

Being a conservation travel company, we’ve worked constantly since our inception, 30 years ago, to form friendships and business relationships with other organizations: we share best practices, we share ideas, we help each other…

Our strongest conservation and sustainability partner is certainly the World Wildlife Fund. We help each other in so many ways.


Photo by Natural Habitat

One of their big pillars of sustainability is the food cycle, from production to transportation to waste. Since they’re so passionate and knowledgeable about it, they’ll be very involved in this trip at that level.

Apart from this, we’re part of a number of different travel consortiums that focus on adventure travel and sustainability. Multiple times a year, the heads of several departments will meet with others around the country or the world to share policies, efforts, ideas, etc.

We have a long list on our website of smaller groups or organizations we’ve worked with to aid on direct conservation in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Galapagos Islands… We’re all trying to be the most eco-friendly we can possibly be, and learning from each other as well.

Besides, we actively donate philanthropic funding to various organizations, including the WWF. A smaller group within our organization called Nathab Philanthropy, which I also oversee, is our philanthropic arm outside of the WWF through which we provide small grassroots funding to smaller organizations worldwide, to aid in community welfare or direct conservation of wildlife or natural areas.


Photo by Natural Habitat

The New York Times wrote that “sustainable travel is not just about the environment”. Are you working on other aspects closely related to responsible tourism, like the relationship with animals or with local communities?

As it goes, the definition of ecotourism or conservation travel is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and promotes the welfare of local people.” The latter is a huge thing we focus on.

Our tours are focused on nature and wildlife. We’re going to see whale sharks off the Yucatan peninsula, we’re going to see monarch butterflies, lions and leopards, tigers and bears and all that: but in order to save them, you absolutely have to engage the local community.


Photo by Natural Habitat

What we try, more than anything, is to have an economic impact by leaving as much of our money as possible in the hands of local communities. That’s not donations, necessarily; that’s business.

We want to stay at a smaller family-run safari camp, or a boutique hotel, and we know that that money is going to stay in the community.

That is probably the biggest value of tourism: the economic impact. When you can show people that there are millions of tourism dollars coming into an area and being left there, it makes that area much more valuable alive than dead — much more valuable left pristine than chopped down for timber, or mined, or whatever.

It’s far better to keep that reef immaculate, with excellent snorkeling or diving opportunities, than to overfish it. Short term gain is great, you can cut down forests for wood, you can pollute rivers for mining, but the whole thing is that responsible tourism done right, when you make those local choices, shows locals that there’s a lot of money to be had.

If you don’t protect local people, you’re not engaging the most powerful force in the area. You can put up fences around the national parks and give people fines for entering them, but that’s never going to endear people to what they’re trying to protect.

These are the actual stakeholders we’re trying to make, the people living around national park, because you can only employ so many rangers and have so many national guards — if the local people aren’t on board with keeping the area pristine and protected, it’s never going to work.

Read More: “We can make a positive difference to the culture, wildlife and environments we visit on our travels, flip flops in hand”

And what about animals?

Our partnership with the World Wildlife Fund —which is really close now, we are their travel program and they are our conservation program — started because both organizations, about 15 years ago, were doing overlapping work in a lot of ways.

They had a full travel program with 20-30 people in the office, we had conservation programs and were doing research and work in that area.

So we got together and said, why don’t we partner and both do what we’re best at? We’re really good at travel, we’re decent with research and conservation, while you’re just the opposite, so why don’t we just take over those responsibilities from you and you take over the conservation stuff from us?

They are the boots on the ground, they are the ones who are saving wildlife and lobbying governments, creating policies, protecting national parks, reducing poaching, keeping forests intact and replanting forests… We support them on that mission.

We do a lot of stuff on our own too. When we’re out in the fields, we follow very ethical guidelines. A lot of this just comes naturally, because we hire only the best and most professional expedition leaders, who in many cases are biologists themselves.

So it turns out in the small things, like not getting too close to wildlife and not intruding an area, and of course not taking anything — we’d never remotely think of poaching or hunting ourselves!

We’re entrenched in keeping areas protected by default. We are the people who carry bags with us and pick up other people’s trash off the trail and bring it back – that’s another initiative we have, it’s called The Dirtbag Program: it’s like a river dry bag made of a thick canvas-like material we use to pick up the dirt we find.


Photo by Natural Habitat

And then of course, we’re entrusting the WWF to do so much of the day-to-day policy work, working with local governments and setting up protected areas, trading the rangers… And because we are their travel arm it feels like we’re doing that too, although they have full control over it.

You also offer safaris in places like Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, where literally hundreds of SUVs queue before sunrise to enter the park: by joining a safari in this type of locations, aren’t people actively contributing to the physical and noise damages caused to the park?

That’s the big question, and it’s a sensitive one. Travel is a carbon creator. The fact that we fly around the world is creating carbon emissions. By injecting ourselves into these ecosystems, we are becoming a presence for wildlife, whether the sound is impeding them or the trails that are being built affect them.

I come from an academic background of managing and understanding the impacts of ecotourism, and I can tell you there are a lot of studies out there that do measure things like sound and physical presence and trail erosion or creation.

Fortunately, those impacts are pretty minimal. Submarine testing, for instance, has a much bigger impact: the sounds that are created underwater and have been shown to affect whales aren’t coming from tourism, that’s a really small slice of the pie.

When you’re in these big national parks and there are so many vehicles, it’s obviously annoying — we get annoyed ourselves by them, shouldn’t animals be annoyed?


Photo by Natural Habitat

You know, they might be annoyed, but in terms of the metrics that biologists look at — things like, are they reproducing at normal rates? Are they feeding at normal rates? Are predator and prey densities in the same balance that we’ve been observing in the last 50-100 years? What is their reaction to sound, or to having a trail go across? — we find the impact is actually pretty minimal.

That being said, I realize we are a presence in these areas and in these ecosystems, but this goes back to what is probably one of the most initial debates on how to deal with protected areas.

One side says we need to protect 10% of the world, or 5%, or 1% as natural areas, like national parks: we need to set them aside, they need to live on their own and flourish and do their own things without humans getting involved. We don’t want any vehicles in there emitting smog and exhaust… Nothing.

The other side says, that’s great, we want to do that, but how do we build advocacy? How do we create animal and wildlife lovers, if we don’t get people in these areas to fall in love with wildlife?

Besides, one of the biggest issues we have today is the so-called “tragedy of the commons”. It’s climate change. It doesn’t matter if you have a large national park blocked off in northern Siberia that people can’t go into — it’s still susceptible to climate change.

This is a big part of the mission of the WWF. If you get people out into these natural areas, seeing a leopard or a tiger for the first time, swimming with whale sharks but doing so responsibly — of course, not impeding migration patterns or anything like that — you’re creating advocates, and these people are going to go on to help save these creatures.


Photo by Natural Habitat

They can do so in a variety of ways, whether it’s through direct fundraising or advocacy. Maybe they’re going to write their lawmaker and ask them to please pay attention to a new environmental bill. Maybe it’s the fact that these people are actually leaving money in this areas to promote conservation.

Going back to Yala National Park as an example: I’ve been there, I know the issue exactly. You have 10, 15, sometimes 30 vehicles around a single wildlife spotting and you wonder, is that how it’s meant to be in the world?

But you may also ask, what if we didn’t have that? How likely would it be for some foreign interest to look at that land and say, gosh, there’s a lot of oil under the surface, a lot of minerals, precious metals, there’s diamonds or rubies in a cave or underground — I’m going to pay 10 trillion dollars to buy up that land and turn it into a parking lot.

If someone wants to convert the value that is coming into Yala National Park, a value you can actually calculate, into something different than a natural area, all of a sudden the government can say: right now, it’s bringing in 50 million dollars a year in tourism, and that’s a value.

So the biggest thing tourism can do is create value for natural areas, and compare that value with other, deleterious processes like extractive processes, fishing, mining or whatever.

The perfect thing is for there to be a thousand humans on Earth and all the natural areas to be protected, and for wildlife to flourish. But the truth is that’s not how it is. The population is growing, people are needing places to live, they are needing food…


We have to fight tooth and nail to protect these areas. But if they don’t have any value, if there’s just a big government saying “Don’t go in there”, they’re not going to stay protected.

So even though that leopard is probably a bit annoyed by all the vehicles and all that, fortunately (a) it doesn’t go much more beyond annoyance, a lot of people are doing a lot of studies to make sure that its reproduction, its health and survivability are still intact, but (b) I’m afraid that leopard wouldn’t have a forest to live in anymore if it weren’t for all that.

What about the use of flights for your trips? I’ve read you rely on carbon offsetting to reduce your carbon footprint, compensating for the pollution caused by planes. Couldn’t internal flights at least be replaced with something else?

Flights do emit a fair amount of carbon; we’re doing the best we can to reduce that carbon footprint, and we’re also offsetting, so in theory we balance that.

Again, just like what we said about recycling and composting, it would be better if flights didn’t happen at all.

Some people love animals and wildlife, but they don’t travel because they don’t want to be a part of the problem of emitting carbon in the atmosphere, and I get that.

However, I do think it is absolutely worth the environmental cost to get people who have never gotten that spark ignited, that passion for wildlife, to get to these areas and see the wildlife and see what beauty there is in the world.


Photo by Natural Habitat

Some people are just tried-and-true nature lovers since birth, and they’ve already been converted: the big thing we’re trying to do is convert the vast majority of the world into having an appreciation for nature, the outdoors, pristine environments and so on.

You can’t really do that without flying. Boats are not a solution. Cars can be — the Yellowstone trip, for instance, will be entirely vehicle-based, in a very fuel-efficient vehicle.

So we’re doing everything we can on that front. Of course we’d love to see the day when we can have electric vehicles, not just for our trips but for all safaris. Unfortunately the technology is not quite there yet, but we’re pretty close. I honestly think that within the next decade, we’re going to start seeing electric safari trucks.

One of the big issues with being so far in the wilderness with electric vehicles is the maintenance required; if they break down and you’re in the middle of the Okavango Delta, you will not have the parts to fix a solar array of batteries and the like.


Photo by Wynand Uys on Unsplash

It’s rather prohibitive in terms of costs and materials, but I’ve been part of a think-tank recently on how we’re going to reshape this. Rest assured that when that technology becomes available and feasible, that will be our next “industry first”.

We’ve certainly experimented with things like vegetable-oil vehicles, we’ve had a couple in our fleet over the years, but again, it’s almost a safety concern when we’re so far and remote, since we intentionally get ourselves very far out there.

So right now we’re still using fuel vehicles, as most of the world is, but I’m watching Tesla and some other electric car companies very closely, and when there’s a company that is willing and able to take a bit of a hit on its bottom line to do the right thing, we’re the ones to do that.


How much interest have you witnessed from your customers for this kind of sustainable tourism? Have you found you need to educate travellers about this, or are they already one step ahead, stimulating you to tweak more and more aspects of your trips in order to make them more eco-friendly?

First, in every single evaluation that we ask our travellers to fill out after the trip, one item is “How can we make this more environmental-responsible?” — not because we’re not doing that enough, just because if we can ask that to 7,000 people a year, we’re going to get some really good ideas we never thought of before.

We’ve actively implemented a lot of those ideas coming from our customers, so they always have an ability to tell us what they see from their perspective, and that has helped greatly.

And regarding our clients in general, I would say they are often one step ahead. They tend to be the more eco-conscious people.

However, at the same time they’re often coming from worlds that are not science-based or conservation-based, they just have a strong interest in that world, so they see that we do have a firm commitment to sustainability and conservation by looking at our materials and our website.

We’ve done some studies, and that is actually one of the biggest things going for us, it’s because of that ethic that people really like what do.

But we also have the ability to teach them on so many levels beyond where they’re at, because they’re coming in with open eyes, with an interest and some knowledge, and it’s up to us to flush out that entire spectrum of knowledge, and that happens before, during and after every expedition.

Most of it is done by the expedition leader during the trip itself. We talk about very serious environmental issues, whether it’s palm oil when we go to Borneo or overfishing in Alaska, in Pacific areas… Any sort of environmental issue that’s there is front and center and we’re talking about it because we want people to know.


Photo by Natural Habitat

And it’s a two-way conversation. It’s not just us preaching to the people, it’s usually them asking more and more. And since as I said before we hire the best expedition leaders in the business, we’re able to share the current knowledge with them and tell them what they can do to help.

By the way, we get a lot of that information from the World Wildlife Fund, so you see how it’s all woven out.


Are there any other initiatives by your Team you’d like to tell us about?

 There are a lot of things going on across the board. The Green Team does things in-office and out-of-office; we’re tackling sustainable food now, it’s a big initiative that has come up since we launched the world’s first zero-waste adventure, and all 23 of us look around the table and realize this is going to be much more work than that trip. But that’s the kind of people we are, we shoot for the moon — we’re already very sustainable on the sustainable food front, but we’re taking a much more policy-based approach to it.


Photo by Natural Habitat

In-office, we’re looking at how we send materials out in terms of sustainable packaging. Those 7,000 travellers a year need to get information about their trips, and we do so in a very environmentally-responsible way.

We certainly encourage electronic documents and forms wherever and whenever possible. But when we do ship things to people, we use either compostable or recycled or upcycled boxes.

We have this cute little program called “The Ugly Box Program”: when we get a box, say, of backpacks or parkas, we’ll reuse that box, slap a big “recycled ugly box” sticker on it for our guests and say, “Hey, this box looks a little tattered, it’s a little bit damaged, it’s been around the world a couple of times, but we’re reusing it instead of just trashing it.

We’re also looking at eliminating plastic straws from all of our trips across the board. It’s an initiative we started a little over a year ago: I believe we’re now 80% compliant, and we’re aiming at being 100% compliant in the first quarter of 2019.

Besides, we’ve just launched the monarch butterfly scholarship grant. One of the trips we do is take people down to central Mexico where the large monarch butterlies migration takes place.

About 500 million butterflies from all over East and North America migrate down to Mexico over winter, they kind of hibernate in these groves of fur trees.


Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

And we’ve given away two trips to teachers in elementary or middle-schools in the US this year: they join us free of charge, we take care of their air fare and the trip itself and make it an educational experience for them.

I’ve studied monarch butterflies quite a bit in my career, and I’ve found these butterflies are often used as a teaching tool in elementary schools to teach all about science — biology, metamorphosis, ecosystems, conservation, the climate, geology and all that.

So I had this idea, since one of the most amazing facets of monarch butterflies is this migration, but most teachers will never have a way to go down there and see it — it’s just too expensive, or they can’t take the time off, they don’t know how to do it…

So we’re offering it for the very first time in 2019, on January 6: two teachers will join us, and hopefully they’ll spread the scientific knowledge they’ll gain from the trip from our scholarship grant.


One last question. Most of our users are ordinary people looking for products that help them live a more eco-friendly life. As someone who lives and breathes this kind of topics every day, what advice would you give to people who want to move towards a zero-waste lifestyle?

The first step is the easiest and the hardest at the same time, but I believe it’s the most impactful: it’s learning what you don’t need, and taking a very deliberate approach to refusing things, like plastic bags or excessive packaging.

That’s the first step, but at the same time you should be doing a lot of research with yourself: what companies are producing things that just have too much plastic, too much paper, too much whatever? Where do you see excess in life? And write to those companies. Tell people about them.

If you have that thought and you keep it to yourself, you’ll be just one person. But if you tell your friends, put it on social media and start telling these companies: “Listen, I want to buy your laundry detergent, but your packaging is too much, I want to buy it in bulk or in a different packaging”, all of a sudden it’s not just one person, it’s two people, it’s all of their friends. It’s 10, 20, 100 people reading and listening to what you produce. It creates what we call a “market trend”.

So if these companies hears from dozens and dozens of people that they don’t like that they’re serving their coffee in styrofoam cups, they’re going to do something about it. They don’t want to lose the business!

They might have to pay a little more money for compostable cups, or offer reusable cups if you sit in and have your coffee or tea in-store, but the more people are vocal about it, the more we’re going to change things.


Background Photo by Natural Habitat

So my advice is: do some research on your own and figure out what you can and cannot do without. And then, also identify how you can be more vocal and be a force for change by taking a bit of time out of your day to voice your opinion, because that’s how we’re all going to change.

Read More“Zero Waste is a journey, not a destination”

(Interview conducted by Matteo Vegetti)

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