How the Waste Was Won | Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel

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How the Waste Was Won

How the Waste Was Won

“Last year we recycled 1.8 million pounds of mule manure,” David Perkins laughs. “I know that sounds incredible, but it’s true.”

If you looked at the millions of years of Grand Canyon’s existence as a 24-hour clock, the first humans arrived in the area a few seconds before midnight. Split seconds later, the first metal can was tossed on the ground.

With humans came cans, plastic bags, plastic bottles, wrappers, and assorted waste products. Although it took decades for environmental sensibilities to kick in, today the policy to reduce, reuse, and recycle is standard operating procedure and new initiatives are being introduced to preserve the park’s natural beauty. Consider the benefits of a single stream approach to waste management that was implemented in 2016.

“Now all solid waste items we collect inside the park are transferred to a center in Flagstaff where conveyor belts, magnets, and people sort out papers, plastics, and metals for recycling,” explains David Perkins, director of sustainability for Grand Canyon National Park Lodges. “Not only does this give those items a second life, it takes the weight off of landfills.

“In our first full year of data, through recycling, Xanterra [Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the concessionaire that manages Grand Canyon National Park Lodges] diverted 5 percent of our solid waste from landfills,” Perkins notes. “That’s 1.9 million pounds.”

Food for Thought

As one of the most visited national parks on earth, Grand Canyon features a wide assortment of restaurants — enough to satisfy the appetites of six million guests each year. But since not every visitor is a member of the Clean Plate Club, there’s often quite a bit of food left over.

Much of the food waste material — half-eaten fruit, scarcely touched vegetables, coffee grounds, etc. — is collected and taken to a facility where it is naturally composted and then sold to nurseries and farmers for use as a nutrient-rich soil. In its 2016 inaugural year, 75,000 pounds of food waste found its way back to the good earth. But that’s not the end of it. Perkins reveals another recycling initiative unique to Grand Canyon, one that involves the park’s unofficial mascot.

“The nickname is ‘Operation Shrivelly Apples’,” explains Perkins. “Basically it works on the theory that if humans won’t eat it, our mules will.”

To that end, shriveled apples, wilted lettuce, stale celery stalks, and other damaged fruits and vegetables become a delicious part of the Grand Canyon mule team’s daily diet. And, before you know it, the mules are re-depositing that in the corrals.

“We have about 148 mules here, and it takes an operator on a Bobcat front end loader a while to scoop up all of the waste they produce at corrals at the Village and Yaki Point. They take all of that and dump it into 30-yard containers that are picked up several times a month, processed at a facility in Flagstaff, and eventually become fertilizer that’ll go in someone’s garden.

“Last year we recycled 1.8 million pounds of mule manure,” Perkins laughs. “I know that sounds incredible, but it’s true. Those mules are manure machines.”

Mixing Oil and Water

With its location in the high desert, water is a precious resource at Grand Canyon, which makes conservation a natural obligation. In addition to encouraging visitors to participate in the Change the Course (CTC) campaign which, with the simple pledge to observe water conservation practices, vows to commit 1,000 gallons of water to the Colorado River, Perkins is proud of Xanterra’s approach to Grand Canyon lodges old and new.

“We’ll soon be building a new hotel and many of the decisions are reached only after analyzing every piece of equipment for conservation and efficiency,” he says. “In our current lodges, we recently replaced more than 900 2.5 gallons-per-minute showerheads to low-flow 1.5 gallon-per-minute versions. That resulted in tremendous water savings. In just the first five months after the project began, we saved nearly one million gallons of water.”

Another innovative approach to recycling can be seen each day when the Grand Canyon Railway train rolls into the depot. Used vegetable and cooking oil from the park’s multiple kitchens is filtered and used to fire the boilers on the steam train.

Facing the Future

When asked about the future of sustainability, Perkins hints at Xanterra’s aggressive goals.

“There are so many plans that are in various stages of planning and development, and all of that makes this an exciting time to work here,” he says.

“As an environmental professional, from the perspective of a global environmental impact it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which I could do anything more satisfying. Xanterra operates in these beautiful, wonderful places and I get to participate in it — and hopefully make a difference. It’s all about trying to have a softer footprint on these beautiful places where we find ourselves.”

How to Explore

There’s no better way to make a grand trip grander than on the historic train to Grand Canyon. Travel over 120 round-trip miles through beautiful northern Arizona while being entertained by historical cowboy characters and strolling musicians. The Grand Canyon Railway has been departing daily from Williams, Ariz., since 1901. Spend a night in Williams next door to the train depot at the AAA Three Diamond Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Just walking distance from quaint downtown Williams and Route 66, the modern hotel has a grand lobby, indoor pool and hot tub as well as Spenser’s Pub with its handcrafted 19th-century bar. Packages with train travel and overnight stays in Grand Canyon National Park and Williams are available. Visit for more information.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Travel Collection® and its affiliated properties, visit