Does Summer Vacation Have to Mean Trashing the Planet?

Millions of people from all over the world descend on Niagara Falls each year — a projected 20 million in 2008 — to enjoy the magic and power of all that liquid rushing toward the earth, rocks and water below. Families and tour groups gather daily to collectively experience the Maid of the Mist boat ride past the three sets of falls, the Cave of the Winds walk under the falls, the IMAX movie detailing humanity’s patchwork relationship with the falls, and the rough beauty of Niagara Falls State Park. It sounds like a fantastic and memorable adventure, and it is, but seeing the impact of all those people on this small piece of land and water shocked me.

Every person who takes the Maid of the Mist boat ride (they run on both the U.S. and Canadian sides about every half hour from morning until night) is given a blue plastic hooded poncho to wear. 30 minutes of getting blown and drenched, and those bits of plastic are no longer useful. Some take them home as souvenirs, some put them in the recycle bins provided (the plastic is the kind dry cleaning bags are made of), and some throw them away or drop them into the water.

Every person who takes the Cave of the Winds tour is given a yellow plastic poncho (just like the blue ones) and a pair of plastic sandals to wear, as well as a plastic bag to keep their shoes in. On a busy day, this particular tour attracts several thousand people. After an hour of waiting in line and 30 minutes or so getting pummeled by the water hurling itself onto the people below, those plastic items become obsolete. Again, there are places to recycle the ponchos and plastic bags, and a nonprofit organization has a bin to collect the shoes to give to “poor children” in developing countries. But, some people throw the shoes and ponchos and bags away, or take them home as souvenirs (which will eventually find their way into the waste stream). And every Cave of the Winds visitor gets their photo taken, in case they want to buy a memory of their experience. Many people don’t, so those photos also end up in the trash.

And then there are all the trinkets visitors can buy, the food they can eat (that comes with plenty of disposable packaging), and on and on. Multiply this by all the tourist attractions around the world, and humanity’s hunger for beauty, fun, relaxation and adventure is helping cripple the planet and its inhabitants.

There’s only so much a conscientious visitor to such a destination can do. John and I went with his brother and family. The five of us brought our own lunch in reusable containers, so we created little waste there. We recycled all our plastic ponchos and accoutrements from the tours; we walked a lot or took the trolley to minimize fossil fuel use. We avoided the souvenirs. We recycled our leftover ticket coupons.

Even if everyone who visited such destinations made more sustainable choices, the negative impact would still be great. In fact, a recent article from Plenty magazine discussed how eco-travel is helping destroy the places it was meant to help preserve.

So what’s the answer? How do the many billions of us enjoy the wonders of this world without consuming it to death? What are your ideas?

~ Marsha