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I grip the rail, jostle in my seat, and squint my eyes as the air whips my hair around. The ocean’s teal-toned abyss in front of our saltwater flat boat is eerily vacant—at least, above the water. We are west of Great Abaco, one of 700 islands in The Bahamas, in the saltwater flats. The region is speckled with narrow, leveled-out islands and attracts swarms of international anglers for the bonefish: one of the most elusive, skittish catches in the world.
On Great Abaco, anglers spend close to 49 percent more than general visitors per night—including expenditures on accommodations, meals, activities, and incidental purchases—reports the International Game Fish Association. Overall, the sport supports the local economy and, due to catch-and-release, the activity is sustainable, too.
Although, there’s one major issue with a vital resource: potable water. The saltwater flats expose anglers to the elements—sunlight, wind, solar reflection, and rain—for an entire 9-hour fishing day. A dozen anglers that I saw during my trip guzzled water from single-use bottles: none of them carried a reusable bottle.
But now, Oliver White, a world-renowned fishing guide and humanitarian, is changing that.
The conundrum of plastic waste
A decade ago, White opened Abaco Lodge—where I stayed during my fly-fishing trip—and became co-owner of Bair’s Lodge, on South Andros island, due south of Great Abaco. White immediately introduced a reusable water bottle program for his visitors who stay overnight at the all-inclusive lodge—meals and boats are included—and go saltwater fly fishing with the lodge guides. Occasionally, fly fish instructors host classes on site, too.
“What we use [on Abaco and South Andros] ends up in the landfill,” said White. Around the globe, shorelines are covered with broken chips of manufactured goods, which White has witnessed on countless fishing trips to remote locations, like St. Brandon’s Atoll in the Indian Ocean and Sudan.
At this rate, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish (by weight) by 2050, reports the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.
Unfortunately, White’s guests weren’t satisfied with the aesthetics and poor durability of the plastic vessels. The program failed. At the time, recycling wasn’t possible on the Bahamas islands. The country’s first-ever recycling plant premiered in 2016—but it’s located in Nassau, on New Providence island: 100 miles south of Great Abaco, across the ocean, and not accessible to White.
A solution to end single-use plastic
Finally, in 2018, White found a partner to help introduce a sustainable business solution.
Enter: the Kick Plastic initiative of sunglasses company Costa del Mar. The brand’s Kick Plastic campaign started in 2014, followed by the Kick Plastic Guide & Outfitter Program in 2016. Partners of the Kick Plastic Guide & Outfitter Program, like Klean Kanteen and YETI, offer discounted or donated products, such as reusable water bottles and jugs, for guides and their guests.
Other collaborators, such as the Coastal Conservation Association, support the movement via marketing and education. To date, the Kick Plastic program has helped to eliminate close to one million plastic water bottles from guide boats across the country.
“We’ve worked with dozens of lodges across the country and hundreds of individual fishing guides to get them off of plastic water bottles,” said Peter Vandergrift, Costa Fly Community Leader.
Now, at Abaco Lodge, 48 stainless steel YETI Rambler bottles stand on the top shelf in the corner office, plus another 48 bottles at Bair’s. In a single year, Abaco and Bair’s can eliminate 120,000 plastic bottles from the landfill through the program.
The transition is easy for guides, too.
Each morning, the Bahamian guides fill two 18-ounce bottles for their fishers and one refillable, one-gallon stainless steel jug. That evening, the bottles are dishwasher cleaned and reused. In the future, visitors might have the option to purchase or keep the bottle, depending on YETI’s available inventory and the overall cost of shipping.
Progress needs community momentum
One crucial piece to White’s successful transition is the industry-wide support.
“Costa has pushed the Kick Plastic movement. Now, there’s good public sentiment behind ending single-use plastic. That supportive narrative makes it easier [for guides] to educate consumers on why we made the change,” said White.
To point, World Cast Angling, in Victor, Idaho—the largest fly fishing outfitter in the U.S.—also phased out single-use plastic. “The outfitter has 43 staff guides, overnight operations, and thousands of annual trips,” explained Vandergrift.
The end of single-use plastic bottles dovetails with the outdoor industry’s effort to improve sustainability standards via manufacturing, material sourcing, energy consumption, and the lifecycle of products. Some outdoor brands are innovating sustainable packaging solutions, while other companies recycle plastics to make fabrics, and others address the microplastic waste that’s created from synthetic textiles.
The adventure travel industry also helps to catalyze the global shift away from plastic. In a single year, an accumulation of 6.8 million single-use plastic bottles (which costs $7.9 million) are used by 351 operators in the adventure tourism industry, according to the 2018 Adventure Travel Trade Assocation (ATTA) Plastic Quick Poll.
To help provide solutions, the ATTA launched a 2018 initiative to eliminate plastics, which includes educational materials and financial research for business owners, while the Travel Without Plastic published a guide to assist hotel accommodations in a plastic phase-out, too.
Refillable bottles: Clean drinking water
Travelers with reusable water bottles can’t use them unless they have access to clean water.
“We don’t have fresh water here in the Bahamas—no city water, and no well,” said White.
Potable water at both of White’s lodges is possible through a reverse osmosis system, which costs about $25,000, and is capable of cleaning 1,500 gallons of water per day.
The system occupies a small shed: A high-pressure pump pushes saltwater through membranes that collect salt and debris, followed by filtration. Then, the water moves through 4-foot long metal tube, where it’s exposed to ultraviolet light that sterilizes the water.
Post installation, the system’s maintenance is not very costly or time-intensive, said White. He replaces the filters and the UV light once a year, and the membranes last for six to eight years.
Comparatively, a bottle of water costs $0.34 in the Bahamas, said White. Meaning, his lodges annually accrued $40,800 in costs for those 120,000 plastic bottles.
“Financial savings were not the driving factor of my decision to be more sustainable, as much as just doing the right thing,” said White, who also recently hired Rick Crawford, president of Emerger Strategies, to analyze how the lodges can improve their environmental impact.
“Our part is to minimize our own consumption of plastic and also use our power to influence and educate, so that anglers take this information home: That’s a much bigger win,” said White.
With the sun low on the horizon, we pulled our boat up to the dock of Abaco Lodge. I thanked my fly fishing guide, Abaconian Paul Pinder, who has guided for 30 years and helped me snag my first-ever Bonefish. I walked into the lodge, filled my 24-ounce Hydro Flask from the tall water jug, and joined the rest of the anglers on the cabana to hash out our days. “That’s a nice water bottle—what is it?” asked one of the anglers.
That’s how the ripple effect starts.