How the Waste Was Won


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Grand Canyon is making huge environmental strides with innovative and effective recycling solutions

Posted by: Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim on November 4, 2017

“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.”

Mules Apples

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

Grand Canyon National Park Lodges provides the premier in-park lodging, managing six distinct historic lodges. From the El Tovar hotel, long considered the crown jewel of national park hotels, to Phantom Ranch, the only lodging on the floor of the canyon, you’ll find accommodations to help you get the most out of your visit to the Grand Canyon. You can also book rafting, railway, and motorcoach tours. For more information and reservations, visit or call 888-297-2757.

Or consider the 10-day “Bryce, Zion & the Grand Canyon” tour from Holiday Vacations, one of America’s most reputable tour companies with more than 44 years of experience. As a nationwide provider of air, rail, motorcoach and cruise guided vacations to more than 65 destinations worldwide, their packages are inclusive of all airfare, fine hotels, meals and must-see attractions. Expert tour directors handle all travel details, assuring you a carefree and memorable vacation. Visit for more information.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit

Written by: Gary McKechnie

The author of the best-selling Great American Motorcycle Tours, Gary McKechnie also wrote National Geographic’s USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks. He lectures on American travel and history aboard the ships of the Cunard, Seabourn, and Silversea lines.

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SR Watchtower with Dead Tree and Canyon
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