Litter on the ground

Travelers can and should take an active role in mitigating waste. | Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

September 28, 2021

When most people think about waste, there’s an immediate “ick” reaction. The idea of waste is often associated with undesirable things: garbage, sewage, rot. It’s ugly, unpleasant, and unsightly, so we avoid it, and we avoid talking about it.

Yet, even as we attempt to turn a blind eye, the problems with waste keep piling up. Consider these facts:

  • One-third of all food produced is wasted, either in the supply chain or thrown away. (WWF)
  • The average U.S. family wastes 180 gallons a week (9,400 gallons annually) from household leaks. This is the equivalent to the amount of water needed to wash more than 300 loads of laundry. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Every year, humans create 2.12 billion tons of waste, 99% of which is stuff bought within the past six months. (The World Counts)
  • The world produced more than 53 million tons of electronic waste in 2019. E-waste is both the fastest growing element in the world’s domestic waste stream, and it is highly toxic. (Deutsche Welle)
  • The amount of water servicing 100 guests in a luxury hotel for just 55 days would support 100 families in low-income countries for three years. (Tourism Concern)
  • In 2018, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the U.S. to low-income economies, many of which don’t have a way to manage their own plastic waste. This doesn’t account for the e-waste, second-hand “donations,” and other garbage shipped as a form of waste colonialism (also known as toxic colonialism) from high-income countries to low-income countries. (The Guardian)

None of these stats is pretty, but what makes them even worse is that we don’t talk about them. And when we push conversations about waste into the deep dark corners, we actually exacerbate the problems that waste of all kinds creates. 

This is especially true in the tourism industry, where waste is a significant invisible burden on the places travelers visit. According to The Travel Foundation’s report Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, both the creation of solid waste and the act of wasting natural resources put a significant strain on local communities. Financial resources are spent on infrastructure and manpower to manage the waste created by travelers. Additionally, limited resources are often prioritized for tourists and diverted away from local people. This is currently an issue in Hawaii.

Travelers don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s time to start making sure they do know about how their choices related to waste impact the destinations where they travel. Accommodation owners, tour operators, destination representatives, and others working in the tourism industry must stop shielding travelers from the negative environmental impacts they have and, instead, share this very real truth with them in a way that is constructive and engaging.

Rethink the word “waste.”

The very word “waste” is problematic in that it already has a negative connotation. People intuitively have a “yuck” reaction to it, which means we have to overcome that barrier before we can even begin to approach waste reduction from a more neutral perspective.

People have been conditioned to believe that what we currently think of as “waste” has no value. That’s why they’re inclined just to throw things like single-use plastic bottles and leftover food away. Reframing “waste” so that people see value and opportunity instead of garbage helps them conceptualize this deeply held belief in a new way. 

For example, leftover table scraps can be a food source for other animals. Clothing scraps can be creatively turned into new pieces of clothing or converted into bedding or cleaning cloths. One of my favorite examples is the work done by Plastic Whale, which flips the negative narrative of single-use plastic bottles and turns them into high-end furniture.

Remember that waste is a noun and a verb.

When we talk about waste, there are actually two things that it can mean. 

“Waste” is a noun — a tangible item that is discarded because it is no longer of use. In the tourism context, this includes things like food waste, material waste like plastic and paper items, and solid human waste. All of these things take energy, money, and infrastructure to manage.

“Waste” is also a verb — the action of using something carelessly, as if that thing has no purpose. Related to tourism’s invisible burdens, travelers waste water, energy, and food without considering the impact that has on the destinations they visit.

When we address waste in tourism, it’s imperative to address both the physical detritus travelers leave behind and the act of carelessly creating and using. Offer guidance so that travelers can act more responsibly while mitigating the impact of their presence.

Help travelers visualize and act on the waste problem.

For many travelers of privilege, particularly those from high-income countries, waste is not an in-your-face issue. They can put their garbage on the curb, and it magically disappears. They can take showers for as long as they want because there’s always more water available.

Travel is the perfect opportunity to introduce people to a wider worldview where waste is a day-to-day, real world challenge. Instead of shielding travelers from the conversation, engage them in it by helping them visualize the overwhelming reality of the waste problem — but don’t stop there. When possible, introduce the challenge and a solution.

When travelers are introduced to solutions — and, better yet, engaged with them — you seed the capacity for them to take meaningful action both while traveling and once they’ve returned home. A great example is Oyster Worldwide, which helps travelers in Lisbon, Portugal, volunteer to collect unwanted food from restaurants, bars, and cafes throughout the city and redistribute it to those people who need it most. 

Work with partners using food-forward solutions — and tell travelers why.

When food is seasonally sourced and grown locally, it has a significantly smaller carbon footprint. In addition, when food doesn’t have to travel as far, it’s much less likely to go bad or be damaged en route from farm to table. That creates far less food waste.

As a travel service provider, make it a point to partner with suppliers committed to minimizing food waste, and then share this commitment with your travelers. This has another advantage too: Knowing where food comes from and who grows it is a far more interesting story — making it a great conversation starter about environmental issues in general. Doing this also adds value to the experience, and where there is value, there is less likely to be waste.

A great example of this takes place on Nikoi Island in Indonesia, where the garden and farm use permaculture principles. These natural systems allow the staff at Nikoi to grow much of its own food following organic and free-range principles. The property also uses a fixed menu that focuses on seasonality to reduce food waste.

Similarly, staff at Chumbe Island Coral Park collects and composts uncooked fruit and vegetable waste, which is then used for the composting toilets on the island.

Share the life cycle of waste.

What happens to something when it’s thrown away? Most people have no idea. Finding ways to share the life cycle of waste through the travel experience is a great learning experience.

For example, in addition to growing its own organic vegetable garden, guests at Lapa Rios in Costa Rica can take the Twigs, Pigs, and Garbage Tour, where they learn about the life cycle of food waste. The waste is fed to pigs which create methane that is then used to fuel the kitchen stove. A similar process is used at Jicaro Island Lodge in Nicaragua.

Additionally, learning about the life cycle of waste is a chance for travelers to support local economies that repurpose used items. Again, this reflects the importance of reframing waste by considering the value that something still has.

Talk about the impact of waste in pre-trip materials and on destination websites.

Engage travelers early in the buyer’s journey so they can take an active role in waste reduction. Specifically note any items travelers should pack (like a reusable water bottle) and any they should avoid bringing (like excess plastic packaging) because there isn’t capacity to mitigate waste creation.

Beyond noting what travelers should pack and do in order to minimize waste, also explain why. Provide context for the destination where they’ll be traveling, and explain the invisible burden travelers have on the destination when waste goes unchecked. When travelers aren’t advised on the actions they can and should take, they won’t take action at all.

Re-emphasize waste reduction throughout a travel experience.

Keep this pre-trip communication going throughout the travel experience by continuing the conversation about waste. Re-emphasize waste reduction with verbal cues, such as reminding travelers to keep their showers short to avoid water waste. Also, don’t underestimate the value of visual cues by ensuring on-the-ground partners model good behavior and offer waste-reduction solutions in easy ways, such as by serving water in pitchers versus plastic water bottles at a meal.

This is also a great opportunity to work with partners to mitigate waste. After all, as a local business, it is in their best interest to keep waste to a minimum. For example, suggest that single-use toiletries are removed from rooms and straws are not given out freely but that travelers can ask for either of these, if they choose.

Make waste reduction easy.

Even if people say they’re committed to waste reduction, if it’s hard to do, they likely won’t take action. People naturally take the path of least resistance, so make waste reduction as easy as possible for travelers. 

For example, at Mantaray Island Resort, eco-bin stations are located along the beach and guests are encouraged to pick up any plastic trash they see. Not only does this curb any trash travelers might leave behind, but it also sends a message about the ethos of the property, which creates the conditions for a meaningful word-of-mouth story that travelers will tell other people.

Normalize talking about waste.

It’s time to get over the ick factor of waste in the tourism industry and start talking about this challenge. If it doesn’t, the invisible burdens caused by travelers in this capacity will continue to grow.

If the tourism industry hopes to use travel as a vehicle to support sustainability and community capacity, it must also mitigate its negative impact caused by an overwhelming amount of waste.


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