I Tried Going Zero Waste at Disney World and It's Easier Than You Think
Here's how my son and I managed to lessen the amount of waste we produced on our most recent family vacation, plus my biggest zero waste travel tips for other families looking to do the same.
If you're anything like me, you've probably had the environment on your mind lately. For me, first it was the arrival of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to address the UN about climate change (in a zero-waste travel emission-free boat no less!); then my son participating in school strikes led by students for the environment; and finally, the staggering statistic that Americans purchase 50 billion water bottles per year (nearly one plastic bottle per person per minute) that made me say it was time to do more to help the planet.
My family is usually eco-conscious: We shop with eco-friendly bags, recycle glass and paper, reuse containers, and reduce our carbon footprint driving hybrid vehicles and using mass transit. But there was one area I hadn't actually tried to make more sustainable—family vacations.
Honestly, it had always seemed like it might be too much work, and also, I feared it might not be fun. But I decided to lighten the family footprint on our next adventure, which happened to be... Walt Disney World.
What is Zero-Waste Travel?
"Zero waste travel" translates, for the most part, into leaving no trace when you head out into the world by skipping single-use plastics, eschewing disposable items, and being as sustainable as possible while you make your way to, from, and around your destination.
Let me first admit: I got A LOT of side eye from friends when I told them I was trying to go zero-waste at Disney. A lot. But it turns out Mickey and his friends are actually headed towards the same goal, with a target of zero-waste for the entire company, including meeting a 60 percent operational waste diversion by 2020. The company has already eliminated more than 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers annually, and I was able to find a number of resources throughout the parks to help me with my personal zero-waste goals.
So would it be possible to go zero waste at the Happiest Place on Earth? We were about to find out.
Planning Our Zero-Waste Trip
The first thing I did was check with Green Mom Fredrica Syren to create a zero waste travel kit. I packed myself and my son, Aidan, each a cloth napkin, bamboo straw, and portable shopping tote, all of which I slipped into a fabric bag, and also reusable snack containers and refillable water bottles. This would allow us to say no to single-use items on our trip.
Since I live in the northeast and had just a 3-day weekend for our vacation, the only way for us to get to Orlando was to fly. So I consulted with Melissa DaSilva, president of responsible travel company Trafalgar and a mom of two, to see what we could do to make our trip more eco-friendly. She suggested going paperless by using e-docs over printed boarding passes and packing light and carrying on luggage to reduce our carbon footprint. At our destination, she also recommended using group transportation like buses. All of which were easy to implement, so we were off to a great start.
I discovered that there are surprisingly green options for hotel stays at Disney. For this vacation, I stayed at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort, which is a Disney World affiliate property. The Hilton participates in soap recycling, has completely phased out plastic straws, and offers special eco-friendly cups, lids, and utensils. In the room, we also chose to hang towels and not have our sheets changed. (Although I didn't refuse the housekeeping services since a freshly made bed and straightened room equals mom bliss for me.)
Over on Disney property, both the Value and Moderate Resort hotels at Walt Disney World Resort provide wall dispensers for shampoo, conditioner and body wash in bathrooms, thereby reducing the use of approximately 30 tons of plastic bottles! Disney Deluxe Resorts will also begin to implement this next year.
As part of my zero waste efforts, we ate breakfast at the hotel's buffet in the morning where we were able to use real plates, silverware, and mugs and glassware (eating at "table service" restaurants turns out to be an easy, although somewhat more expensive, option for green travel). The waiters filled our water bottles with cold H2O with no hesitation each morning.
Going Zero Waste at Disney Parks
I wanted to balance my eco-consciousness with just having fun on our Disney vacation. That meant still enjoying the treats and magic we associate with a Walt Disney World trip while not creating a waste trail in our wake. Here's how we fared:
With a theme that directly points to conservation, nature, and sustainability it wasn't actually that big a stretch to try a zero-waste approach at our first park stop, Animal Kingdom. We eschewed the maps and entertainment schedules available at the front entrance and instead used the My Disney Experience app, which reduces the need for paper (a great tip from the Disney folks). We picked up a Wilderness Explorers Handbook, a free souvenir created from recycled park maps and followed it to check points that told us about the environment, recycling, and even why bamboo is an ecological alternative to trees and plastic. (Boy were they impressed when we broke out our straws!) By making this our souvenir of the day we didn't collect any plastic tchockes AND I saved money. Double bonus!
Another plus: Our lunch at Satu'li Canteen in the fantastical world of Pandora was "counter service," but delivered in real bowls with actual silverware. We filled our water bottles at the drink stations, and I pulled out our napkins (the only time anyone gave us a second glance) for a completely zero waste lunch!
Snacks were a little harder—Aidan and I both chose a frozen chocolate dipped banana, a family favorite, thinking it was a no-waste snack option, but they were delivered in plastic bags. Fail. But we used our napkins and the wooden sticks were recyclable at least, and we took the bus for a sustainable group transportation option.
Total waste: Two plastic frozen banana bags
Next up, the castles and fairy tale delights of the Magic Kingdom. We used our Disney app again for maps and ride wait times, which was a success. Full disclosure, it was my first time riding the water flume at Splash Mountain—and while I loved the gentle woodlands theming, Aidan and I were both nervous enough about the big splash down to grab the complimentary plastic bags at the front of the line to protect our phones. We did hang on to them for future use though!
We also succumbed to the siren song of the only-in-Disney frozen pineapple Dole Whip. Although we used our bamboo straws, our pineapple floats came in plastic tumblers. On the positive side, we rode public transportation to the park, used our packable bag to purchase a t-shirt, and didn't partake in any other snacks, so that was our only missteps for the entire outing.
Total waste: Two plastic cups and two plastic bags
We fared much sweeter on our Epcot evening. By eating dinner at a table service restaurant in Morocco in the World Showcase, we had a full set of real dishes and napkins, so that was a weight off my shoulders. At Japan, our favorite pavilion, I broke out my packable shopping bag to carry our newest food discovery—seaweed seasoning in a glass jar—and a sponge shaped like a cat, plus some assorted candies. These did have some packaging, but I think that food is a better souvenir than plastic objects, so I'm still considering it a win.
Oh, and we split a piece of banana and chocolate cake at Norway (on a paper plate) and shared a plastic fork—it was delicious!
Total waste: One plastic fork and one paper plate.
Confession: This was our last stop, and I was tired. Which is why I wasn't as focused as I should have been. The positives: We got a reservation at the cool new Oga's Cantina in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge where glowing drinks came in real glassware, so we were good there, and although I forgot to say "no straw"—doh!—the ones that arrived were paper, hurrah!
On the downside, I forgot my shopping bag, and couldn't fit the hat I bought as a present for my brother-in-law in my cross-body purse, so we had to use a plastic Disney bag. However, once I was home, we used it as gift packaging, so not too bad a loss.
Total waste: One plastic shopping bag
Zero-Waste Travel Tips for Families
Although I didn't completely achieve our zero waste goal, overall, it wasn't as hard as I thought it'd be to reduce our travel footprint. In the future, I'd bring several changes of napkins (our single option started to get nasty after a few days), pack bamboo forks to use for snacks, and stash another portable shopping bag. I saved money by using our water bottles instead of constantly purchasing plastic ones, so that was a nice perk.
All in all, I'd say this trip made us more conscious of the resources we use and how to reduce our personal impact on the planet, which was a nice souvenir from the Happiest Place on Earth.