As if a six-week canoe expedition across northern Canada wasn't enough, four friends embraced the added challenge of eliminating plastic packaging from their food packs. Last summer, Beth Jackson, Steve Melamed, Eli Walker and Sage Waring embarked on a 600-mile journey across Quebec's Ungava peninsula. Jackson says single-use plastic—the persistent stuff that breaks down into microscopic particles which have become omnipresent in the world's oceans, killing wildlife, and may even be poisoning the human body—is rampant in the outdoor adventure industry. She sought to eliminate it from the expedition packing list.
"I have worked as a wilderness guide several different organizations," says Jackson. "Participants are always issued single-use plastic pack liners and food is always packed in single-use plastic bags. At the expeditions end, so much plastic waste is thrown away. I just thought, there has to be a better way to do this. A canoe expedition actually seemed easier to me—there are lots of good products and dry bags available and weight is not quite as much as an issue."
We caught up with Jackson to learn more about the experiment.
CanoeKayak.com: Why did you decide to go plastic-free on such a long trip?
Jackson: It seemed easy to do a no single use plastic trip for a weekend. I thought if we did a long trip, in a remote corner of the world, then people might pay attention.
How did you go about planning your trip menu, with the "no plastic" challenge in mind?
That's a good question! We planed our menu with lots of intention. Our food guru, Eli Walker, spent hours creating our meal plan. The menu was planned to reduce the number of food bags we needed. So instead of having 12 different dinners in a section, we had four, and combined food in those bags. So our menu rotated every 10 to 12 days. In the end we packed 45 days of food for 4 people with 200 [reusable] food bags.
Describe a few of your creative solutions. In the end, how much plastic waste did you produce?
After our initial food prep, purchasing and drying perishable goods, we had nine ounces of landfill waste. In this phase we minimized waste by dehydrating all of our own vegetables. We skipped the plastic bag in the produce section and brought reusable bags to the grocery store.
Next, we bulk-ordered some dry goods from a local bulk food supplier. Buying food in large quantities meant less packaging material. We did order some food online, and this is where the larger amount of waste occurred. The amount of plastic packing material that came with our food and gear purchase was hard to avoid. We gave feedback to some of the companies we used, asking that they make a conscience effort to reduce packing waste.
After our final food packing session we added 13.9 ounces of plastic waste (not including shipping material), bringing the total to 22.2 ounces. We had one paper grocery bag full of cardboard, and a handful of one-gallon peanut containers.
For our actual food packing, we made 200 food bags. I'm hoping in the near future to roll out a new product that's FDA approved, waterproof, recyclable, and reusable. Stay tuned for that one.
In terms of gear, we were careful to buy high quality products. We used dry bags from Watershed and SealLine. We lined our packs and food barrels with excellent quality pack liners from Ostrom [Ostrom has since gone out of business, however Piragis Northwoods offers a comparable liner]. We used Loksak bags for books and paperwork, and map cases from NRS and SealLine.
At the expedition's end, we had a small, one-gallon ziplock-sized bag of trash. In addition, we had peanut butter jars to recycle, and we found a place to recycle energy bar wrappers. We had a few pieces of foam from ripped knee pads. We flew home with our trash rather than leaving it in Kangirsuk.
Would you do this again? Would you do anything differently?
Absolutely. Actually, I have tried my best to use zero single-use plastics on all the expeditions I have been on over the past year. I am working on the next step—to influence tripping organizations to commit to a minimal waste approach. I want to continue to work on food bag design and create an end product that will be available commercially.
Plastic aside, what were some highlights of the summer 2018 canoe trip?
We all loved being out for so long and covering so many miles. Because we traveled ocean to ocean, the landscape changed frequently—almost daily. It felt great to venture into the unknown. Outside of the Leaf and Payne River watersheds, we had little knowledge about the route, and that was only from studying maps and Google Earth.
The Tassialouc River was a big highlight. We had no river notes and no knowledge of this place and it turned out to be amazing. Perhaps the most fun whitewater of the trip. Also the fishing! I've never had more casts where I caught fish than casts where I didn't catch fish. Seeing the tail end of the caribou migration was cool as well. Our welcome to Umiujaq and Kangirsuk was great. The Inuit received us with so much kindness. For those looking to travel off the beaten path visit Tursujuq National Park in Umiujaq and fish for arctic char in Kangirsuk.
Did the experience change the way you live at home?
It's the other way around. I think my life at home changed my expedition mentality. I work hard to minimize waste in my own life, and I wanted to carry that idea into my expedition practices.
What words of advice would you impart on readers looking to tackle their plastic production—both at home and on the trail?
A lot of it is about intention and an initial effort to put systems in place. It takes more time and thought and preparation to begin to reduce single-use plastic. It takes investment in high quality gear that will actually last over many expedition days. More thought goes into creating food systems.
Investing in reusable products at home makes a big difference. The little things like using reusable shopping bags and getting mesh bags to take to the vegetable department all make a difference. Sometimes for me, it means passing on products that use a lot of packaging. Things like buying lettuce and carrots in bunches instead of packages.
Most importantly it is about being a conscious consumer. Take a little bit of time to consider how our actions affect the environment. For all of us, especially those who feed our souls though outdoor adventure, it is our responsibility to minimize our impact on the earth in all aspects of our lives.
Check out the Canoe Ungava blog for more tips on going plastic-free.
Catch a presentation from the expedition team at the 2019 Wilderness and Canoe Symposium in Toronto, Ontario, February 22-23
More at CanoeKayak.com
— Learn more about dehydrating your own backcountry meals