How to Aim for Zero Waste, from AMC Huts to Your Home

May 29, 2018
zero waste
Julianna BrazillTake inspiration for your home from AMC’s huts, where energy efficiency and smart decisions approach zero waste.

The rustic simplicity of AMC’s White Mountain huts belies the decades of construction and technology upgrades that have gone into making these full-service lodgings—eight total, spaced along the Appalachian Trail—the low-impact backpacker havens they are today.

The low-use, low-waste structures tread lightly on their fragile mountain environments: An AMC hut, which may house dozens of guests on a given night, operates on only 3 to 5 kWh per day (1 kilowatt hour equals 1,000 watts consumed per hour). Compare that to an average U.S. household, which uses about 30 kWh daily. Lakes of the Clouds—AMC’s largest hut, with a capacity of 90 guests, plus croo—used about 223 gallons of water per day in 2016, while an average American uses 80 to 100 gallons daily.

Sure, hut-level efficiency isn’t realistic in a house equipped with showers, clothes dryers, computers, and TVs—but that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow strategies for your own home. Here’s how to aim for the mountaintops and save a little money at the same time.

Huts: The single biggest factor in a building’s energy waste is its “envelope,” or the physical barriers between indoors and out. AMC huts don’t have heating or cooling systems, nor are they insulated, so they rely heavily on tight envelopes. Each hut has a vapor barrier (material inside the walls that prevents moisture from entering), and AMC frequently replaces exterior shingles to keep the elements out.

Home: A new home can be designed with a weathertight envelope to minimize heating and cooling needs, but there are plenty of ways to improve an existing home: by adding insulation, by replacing old windows, and by installing weather stripping around doors. Air leakage can account for 25 to 40 percent of the energy used to heat and cool a home; a strong envelope could lower that to 10 percent. A home energy audit can help you identify the areas most in need of upgrades.

Huts: Huts draw on a variety of renewable sources—all eight huts have solar panels, six have small wind turbines, and Zealand Falls also has a hydropower system—with propane supplementing where needed.

Home: Solar power is the most common source of residential renewable energy. Rooftop cells can meet or even exceed the power demands of many homes, meaning that, over its lifetime, a solar system might make financial sense, in addition to reducing your carbon emissions. Factors that impact cost and effectiveness include subsidies and tax credits (there’s a 30-percent federal tax credit available through 2019), whether you can sell excess power back to the grid, and the size and orientation of your home.

Huts: For more than 30 years, AMC has run a hiker shuttle in the White Mountains. These buses stop in towns and at popular trailheads and visitor centers around the White Mountain National Forest, helping minimize automobile emissions. In 2017 alone, the shuttles provided rides for more than 7,700 hikers.

Home: Each gallon of gas you burn releases about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Eliminating even a few driven miles here and there, by taking public transit or riding a bicycle, can have a substantial impact on your emissions.

Huts: With only periodic access to laundry facilities, hut croos make do with cold water, a clothesline, and fresh air.

Home: Washing one laundry load per week with cold water instead of hot would save you 65 kWh per year. Even better, air-drying your clothes when possible helps keep a lid on one of the most energy-intensive household appliances: Dryers account for 6 percent of U.S. residential electricity consumption.

Huts: The food that hut croos pack in twice a week—on their backs, over rugged mountain trails—has to feed dozens of hungry hikers for days, so there are practical, as well as environmental, reasons to be efficient. With guest counts and dietary needs in hand, croos plan meals several days in advance and are masters of finding multiple uses for each ingredient.

Home: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency, we waste 200 to 250 pounds of food per person annually in North America. As hut croos fondly say, “Take all the food you want, but eat all you take.” You can apply the same rule at the grocery store: Buy exactly what you need; plan meals with overlapping fresh ingredients; avoid buying anything perishable in bulk; and find creative ways to use your leftovers before they go bad. And if there’s still waste, compost what you can.

Huts: Everyone in the backcountry has an incentive to minimize waste: Less trash means a lighter load going down the mountain. Hut dining room tables famously lack paper napkins; guests are jokingly encouraged to use a neighbor’s sleeve instead. Hikers are accustomed to refilling reusable water bottles from the tap, and there isn’t a public trash can to be found.

Home: Carrying some of those habits back home means less plastic finds its way into our food chain, less trash reaches landfills, and fewer disposable items get manufactured. The average American generates 4.4 pounds of waste each day (and recycles about one-third of that). Take note of when and where you use disposable items and then pare down. You can avoid bottled water, decline plastic straws, and find alternatives to paper plates and napkins, for starters.

Huts: AMC huts and campsites rely on waterless, composting toilet and privy systems, eliminating one major use of water while, over time, creating rich soil. That means running water is limited to washing (hands, dishes) and drinking.

Home: Good news! There are lots of opportunities to conserve water at home, and you don’t have to give up indoor plumbing. Upgrading to a WaterSense-labeled toilet (an EPA standard) could save the average American family 13,000 gallons of water each year. Installing faucet aerators, which mix air into running water, can reduce usage by 30 percent or more.

Huts: All AMC backcountry destinations—huts, campsites, shelters—are designed to concentrate visitor impact into the smallest feasible area. Stacked bunk beds allow huts to host dozens of guests within a relatively small footprint, while tent platforms and campsites located on hard-packed dirt draw campers away from more delicate areas. Carry-in, carry-out policies minimize the waste left behind.

Home: Multifamily buildings and tiny houses mimic some of those backcountry benefits. Whatever the size of your home, there’s plenty you can do to minimize your impact. If you have a yard, consider planting only native species, collecting rainwater to irrigate plants, and installing a compost bin.

Bonus: Making any of these planet-friendly decisions also makes you a good neighbor. 


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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour, a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors, contributes to the trail-running blog Running Wild.

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