How these residents created an eco-friendly destination

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. − There’s a lot to love about Breckenridge. The mountain town is often considered one of the best ski resorts in the US and welcomes up to 1 million visitors a year.

Though “Breck,” as the locals call it, is charming and walkable – an uncommon feature for many mountain towns – the real focal point is, of course, the mountain itself: five peaks and the highest chairlift in North America, which reaches nearly 13,000 feet. Locals like to say the entire town is ski in, ski out.

Breckenridge may also be one of the most sustainable tourist destinations in the country, thanks to its dedicated community – as other ski resorts are grappling with climate change which threatens their very existence.

Residents have a habit of coming up with new, creative initiatives to push stewardship education, such as Precious Plastics, which gives unrecyclable plastic a second life, and even created an art piece out of recycled materials named Isak Heartstone. There is also the Treehugger Challenge, which encourages kids to Leave No Trace.

“The families who live here and who visit all want future generations to have the same opportunities to connect with nature and that means inviting and educating everyone to enjoy with intention,” Tessa Breder, director of community affairs for Breckenridge, told USA TODAY.

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Breck stands out from other ski resorts due to its walkable and charming town.

Breck stands out from other ski resorts due to its walkable and charming town.

Isak Heartstone is a sculpture made from recycled materials.

Isak Heartstone is a sculpture made from recycled materials.

Breckenridge, population 5,000, has been working on how to sustain itself as a destination for the past decade. But during COVID-19, residents really felt the pressure. Outdoor winter sports boomed during the pandemic, but the town’s staffing shortages hampered capacity for restaurants, parking, traffic and housing.

Most visitors are on board with a leave-no-trace-behind mentality. About three-quarters of global travelers said they want to travel more sustainably in the next year and want to choose destinations and accommodations that reflect that.

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How sustainable is Breckenridge?

Breck has been called “the poster child for destination management” by other mountain towns.

In 2017, the town pledged to go zero-waste by 2030, a larger commitment to sustainability made by the resort’s parent company, Vail Resorts. As of this past April, the town reported it was ahead of schedule, thanks to strategies like:

  • Snack wrappers are upcycled into picnic tables.

  • Staff will sort people’s trash from the on-mountain dining options into composting and recycling.

  • Plastic bottles and bags were banned in the town.

  • Even paper bags have to be made from 100% recycled material.

  • The town offers a free bus service to cut down on traffic.

Even the summertime in Breck is a popular time for visitors who want to explore its nature.

Even the summertime in Breck is a popular time for visitors who want to explore its nature.

In 2021, Breckenridge will become the second town in the world to become a certified Mountain IDEAL sustainable destination. The certification launched in 2017 after the Walking Mountains Science Center decided there wasn’t a certification that encapsulated the issues of a ski town, like snow-making processes or heated streets, according to Melissa Kirr, Walking Mountain Science Center’s senior programs director of sustainability . (Vail is technically the first as a pilot because of its proximity to the research center.)

Although the winter season is when most visitors come to Breck, the town welcomes people wanting to explore its year-round outdoors, especially for mountain biking.

Breck's slopes are renowned for its five peaks and for being home to the highest chairlift in North America.

Breck’s slopes are renowned for its five peaks and for being home to the highest chairlift in North America.

Breckenridge “had a lot of work already done in the community that helped them succeed and exceed many of the other destinations,” Kirr said.

Other ski resorts, like Big Sky Resort and Jackson Hole Mountain Resorts, run on totally clean electricity. (Breck has said it doesn’t have the infrastructure to do this yet but is working on it.)

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How did the residents help Breck to be more sustainable?

Breckenridge's welcome center used to have a gift shop but it's been replaced with a Be Like Breckenridge education wall.

Breckenridge’s welcome center used to have a gift shop but has been replaced with a Be Like Breckenridge education wall.

The 2022 Be Like Breck campaign pillars were largely shaped by the locals themselves, according to Breder.

Hundreds of residents chimed in in workshops and public surveys to discuss the sustainability goals of COTs. To launch the campaign, the town aired sustainability tips on the radio that were recorded by community members, she said.

For the campaign’s inaugural year, the town partnered with 25 businesses, ranging from mom-and-pop retailers to large hotels, that wanted to include the BLB messaging in their business operations.

“Hotels, we need to lead by example,” said Emily Kimmel, sustainability manager at Breckenridge Grand Vacations. “If we didn’t have any of these initiatives in place, (guests) would be less likely to participate in them. We want to show people we care about where we live and the importance of preserving it.”

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Many businesses in Breck already have been composting or encouraging guests to be more sustainable. The hotel Gravity Haus has a coffee shop that serves to-go coffee in a glass jar. You can keep it or return it for a discount on your next cup of Joe.

“I’m proud of the leadership in our town, our town council and the BTO that they actually take the time to listen to, and they’re really ultimately the ones who set up these programs and make it happen,” said Jen Cawley , director of operations for Hearthstone, a fine-dining restaurant in Breckenridge since 1989 and one of the local business partners for BLB.

“Even though it’s one of the busiest ski areas in the world, it still has a very small community feel.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why you need to visit the ski town where plastic bags are banned

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