Greenness Fades While You’re On Vacation

By KEVIN PROFT

It’s not easy being green, especially when you’re on vacation. First, there is what you can control, but don’t. Vacation takes you off your daily schedule, which has all of your environmentally friendly habits built in. Forgot to pack your reusable mug? No worries, the continental breakfast at your hotel will supply you with a Styrofoam substitute.

Forgot your reusable water bottle? Not a problem. Street vendors with coolers full of ice will sell you a petroleum-based disposable water bottle for a dollar. Normally walk around town and bike to work? Good thing, because on this trip alone, you’ll drive your car in a giant 963-mile circle, as I recently did on a trip from Providence to Niagara Falls.

Once on the road, you tell yourself, “I’m not going to be stressed about this, after all I’m on vacation and I’m normally really good about being green.”

The problem is, it’s not just you. When you spend the day at Niagara Falls, you spend the day with about 32,000 other tourists. Most of them are probably also being less environmentally friendly than usual on account of being on vacation. That means thousands of Styrofoam cups from many continental breakfasts, thousands of water bottles to keep everyone hydrated, and hundreds of thousands of miles driven or flown for all of those people to come together in the first place.

Worse, when you go home, Niagara Falls doesn’t shut off. The tourists don’t stop visiting. The day before you visited, the day after you visited and every other day that you weren’t at Niagara Falls, 32,000 other people were. About 12 million people visit the falls annually. That’s a lot of Styrofoam cups.

And don’t forget that Niagara Falls is only one tourist destination. A similar scene was taking shape at Disney World while you were at Niagara Falls, and of course Mount Rushmore saw its share of tourists that day. Yosemite and Yellowstone probably had a few visitors that day as well. And all of these tourists, just like yourself, probably relaxed their environmental guard for the day and fell into a few bad habits they normally would have avoided.

Now let’s imagine you are the perfect environmentalist and did a little extra planning before leaving home. You only live 10 miles away from Niagara Falls, which is why you chose it to begin with, so you were able to bike. You had a reusable mug in your bicycle basket and reusable water bottle attached to your bike frame. You packed a lunch to avoid unexpected plastic dishes at a restaurant, and even picked up some litter and placed it in a garbage can during your visit.

Even if you match this description, it’s still hard being green on vacation, because tourism is simply not a green industry.

Consider the Maid of the Mist. This popular tour dates back to 1848 and consists of four large boats that transport tourists from their docking point, past the American falls and into the horseshoe of the powerful Canadian falls, where 2.75 billion gallons of water pour over the 170-foot-high cliffs every hour. The falls are so immense, Maid of the Mist passengers need to shout to be heard over their crash, which sends up a cloud of mist that rises to twice the height of the falls. As the mist rises, it collects into water droplets, and then falls onto either the river or awaiting Maid of the Mist passengers. By the end of the tour passengers look like they’ve taken a shower.

The Maid of the Mist tour is the best way to experience Niagara Falls, and is attractively priced at $15.50; as a result, most everyone climbs onboard.

Now consider what this great experience means for the environment. First, four large boats spend 7 hours daily, from April to October, motoring to and from the falls, guzzling gas in their giant engines. Second, each Maid of the Mists passenger is provided with a blue poncho to keep them dry. These ponchos are basically giant plastic bags with holes for your arms and head. While you could take them home to be reminded of your vacation each time it rains, these ponchos are not a high-quality product and are destined to be thrown out.

While the tour operators could come up with a system that would allow ponchos to be reused immediately, handed over by exiting passengers to those waiting to board the boat, for example, they don’t. Instead, the ponchos have a huge recycling symbol printed on their backs and are supposed to be placed in a line of recycling bins awaiting passengers back on the dock. The bins quickly fill up and get emptied throughout the day. Ponchos that don’t make it into the bin often find their way onto the banks of the river.  Looking down at the whole operation from the viewing point on the cliff above, you see dozens of blue dots, each signifying a poncho caught in the brush. Occasionally, you see them floating down the river toward Lake Ontario.

At another attraction, tourists are invited to trek their way down to the base of the falls by foot. Here, yellow ponchos are provided, along with extra-grip sandals that look like part of Buzz Lightyear’s space suit. While these sandals are fun souvenirs to wear around for the day, it seems doubtful that many find their way into most people’s regular footwear rotation. Instead, they're most likely destination is the trash.

The summer vacationing season is upon us. Don’t spend it worrying about the environment. Enjoy yourself and relax.

That said, do make an effort before you leave to think about how you can reduce your footprint while traveling. Consider what environmentally friendly things you do each day, then ask yourself if you can continue doing those things while traveling. Bring reusable mugs, water bottles, plastic bowls, plates and cutlery, on-the-road PB&Js, and reusable shopping bags.

While you are on your trip, help start a green revolution. If everyone acts like wearing a blue piece of plastic for a 15-minute boat ride and then throwing it away in a recycling bin is normal, then those in charge at Maid of the Mist, and other operations like it, will continue to do business as usual, either because they are oblivious or because they can get away with it. Don’t let them get away with it.

I declined my blue poncho when I boarded the Maid of the Mist. Based on the poncho distributor’s reaction, I don’t think many people do this. At one point I thought he was going to force one over my head. I got wet, but isn’t that kind of the point? I was dry an hour later.

Kevin Proft is the programs manager for ecoRI News.