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Reducing plastic in the travel and tourism industry

Published 24 April 2024

The reduction of plastic is a global challenge. And it’s a particularly tough one, because we need plastic to live as we currently do.

Complex problems facing plastic reduction 

 

Food supply chains– from farm to plate – are highly dependent on plastic packaging. Without it, food would become unaffordable at best, and at worst, completely impossible to produce at scale. Further, global food waste would also increase without plastic packaging for transportation and storage.

Of course, pretty much every supply chain you can think of depends on plastic in some way, and a lot of that plastic ends up with consumers. This is where the problem of how to reduce plastic waste really gets… problematic.

So far, the successful reduction of plastic use has hinged on consumers “doing the right thing”. A huge emphasis has been placed on consumer plastics, sustainable choices, and alternatives.

There have been mass-market solutions in paper, glass, bioplastics, and a swathe of plastic alternatives now exist. And in a handful of cases, they’ve worked well. In others, not so much.

Many consumable items come in cardboard cartons, boxes or paper bags now – even iPhones come with paper protectors in the box instead of plastic ones.

But this runs us right back into the territories of greenwashing and performative environmentalism. Because the problem is far more heavily weighted on the industrial side, not the consumer side.

Once again, consumers are left footing the bill, while industry gets away with being the biggest part of the problem.

But for the travel and tourism sector, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place with plastic. It isn’t always just a simple case of “swap it all for paper!”. There are checks and balances to consider, and it’s not all that straightforward.

Plastics, alternative materials, recycling, biodegradables – it’s all part of an incredibly complex network. When you look more closely, paper and cardboard aren’t exactly what we’d call green. Bioplastics are only biodegradable in very specific circumstances. And what good you do manage to achieve in one area, you invariably do harm in another.

Like we said, it’s incredibly complex. The best you can end up with is a compromise. Let’s see if we can explain that a bit better…

Weighing up the alternatives to plastics in travel and tourism

 

In hotels and hospitality, we need to consider many, many factors about the sources of plastic that we encounter. All food and beverage, bedding and laundry, supplies and deliveries – the entire ecosystem that backs up our supply chains needs to be considered.

See the image below to give you an idea of some of the sources of single use plastics within tourism and travel:

 

Reducing plastic waste in travel and tourism industries around the world.
For a detailed view of the plastics network in the travel and tourism space, check out page 8 of this PDF from the UN: Rethinking Singleuse Plastic Products In Travel & Tourism. There’s a tourism value chain map on this page, with key plastic products and uses. Here it is The point is clear – when it comes to hotel and hospitality supply chains, there’s plastic at every stage. A lot of this is (for now) unavoidable, like in food production. Agricultural use of grow bags yields better crops, and food in transit is best preserved with plastic. Alternatives like paper are single-use, weigh more, and don’t offer enough protection to prevent food waste.

The problem with recyclable paper

 

On the face of it, paper and cardboard appear perfect. They’re recyclable, biodegradable, sustainable and naturally-sourced. Naked cardboard has a great eco-look to it, and it’s brandable.

It’s perfect. Right? Well, no. Paper, and by extension card production, is an incredibly damaging process.

Trees are, of course, renewable – and plantations for paper production are one of the only truly sustainable resources, even if they do take land away from other important uses. The issue is how paper is made.

Despite their eco branding, paper bags take 400% more energy to make than plastic bags – and the lifecycle of paper production to recycling is incredibly water-intensive.

Paper mills are mostly found in China and North America, where they need to be close to a waterway. Runoff from paper mills destroys local waterways with toxic pollution, and the process creates a potent, dirty fuel called black liquor, burned for energy.

The paper and cardboard manufacturing process is so poisonous that cancer risk is elevated for paper mill workers and people who live close to paper mills, with “significantly elevated mortality from all causes, all cancers, heart disease, lymphomas, and brain cancers”.

Disturbingly, paper is worse than plastic for the world’s water. It’s just easier to see plastic on the beach than toxins in your tea.

To make things worse, paper and card products cannot effectively be reused and, if they come into contact with food or oil, may not be recyclable at all. And paper can’t be recycled forever – it only works a handful of times before the pulp disintegrates and it has to be disposed of for good.

On the plus side, paper and cardboard decompose quickly under the right conditions, with moisture and plenty of space. And if there are no harmful inks or plastic barriers embedded into them, the waste they produce is relatively inert. But if that’s the only side of it we consider, we’re not looking at the whole picture.

So, if paper isn’t the answer – what is?

 

Finding the solutions that will work for your tourism business

 

We don’t have a perfect alternative to plastic yet. But the problem won’t get better if we just throw our arms up in the air and decide it’s not even worth trying.

We can, as travel businesses, do better. We can always do better.

One of the best things you can do as a hotel to reduce plastic is to eliminate the option from your offerings altogether. We discussed this in another post, How to reduce packaging waste in your tourism business, where we suggested ditching single-use plastics:

“Tiny shampoo, soap, and lotion bottles might be convenient, but they produce heaps of unnecessary plastic waste. Switch to larger, wall-mounted dispensers that can be refilled with products from local producers…”

“…provide guests with branded reusable bottles they can keep and refill at water stations across the property.”

We still believe this is the right path. Single-use plastics are not necessary, and not even that convenient. Attitudes towards them are changing – but by eliminating them, you also eliminate the opportunity for them to enter the ocean, regardless of how they’d get there.

Controlling plastic pollution goes way beyond travel and tourism, but as a sector, we need to invest in a more circular economy. And not just with plastics.

We’ve seen the stories about what happens to plastics being shipped off to developing nations to be burned. And even though this can yield energy, it’s not exactly a good source of energy.

But recycling plastic is a challenge. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be swimming in it.

For a start, not all plastics can be recycled, and sadly, much of what we do put into recycling programmes goes to landfill instead. Sorting is hard, and finding buyers for used plastics is tricky, with so many restrictions on where recycled material can be used. And just like with paper, recycling can only be done so many times before the material degrades.

So, besides eliminating single-use plastics, what other practical measures can hotels and tourism businesses take to actively contribute to the reduction of plastic?

Solutions to reduce plastics in hotels and tourism businesses

6 Solutions to reduce plastics in hotels and tourism businesses

Devise a plastic-free policy

 

Restrict the use of plastics on the hotel premises and encourage guests to minimise their plastic consumption during their stay. Like we said before, giving reusable bottles is great for this (and brand-building in general!).

Give access to information and resources that educate guests about the environmental impact of plastic pollution and encourage responsible behaviours.

Extend this to the restaurants and food outlets onsite. Switch to reusable tableware, serve food and drinks in non-plastic containers, and treat takeaway orders like room service, with collections for cutlery and tableware instead of providing single-use disposable utensils.

 

Buy in bulk – and develop a circular economy with suppliers

 

Your logistics chain will have plastic in it. This, for now, cannot be avoided.

So, to limit the impact this has, buy all supplies and products in bulk quantities, and reduce overall pallet use by getting fewer, larger deliveries. Work with suppliers to source items in larger containers, or develop refillable, circular packaging policies together.

This might work a little bit like the old glass milk bottle deliveries from back in the day – give the containers back to the supplier at the end, to be cleaned and refilled for another delivery.

Why not see what your suppliers can do, and work on a practical plastic reduction case study for your hotel?

 

Rethink recycling

 

By now, we know that plastic recycling is flawed at best. But we really need to get with the programme on recycling – so reevaluate how it works at your hotel or resort and investigate what your local authority is doing about it.

If the local authority isn’t doing much, then campaign for change. And if change is a long road, then take matters into your own hands – by reusing and repurposing plastic as much as possible. Reusing plastic is an amazing way to keep plastic waste out of oceans and landfills – and we should all be doing it.

Water bottles have countless uses in them before they’re no good, and can be used to store just about any liquid (or small solids, for that matter). Fill them with ballast and use them as water savers in toilet flush cisterns – two ways to reduce waste in one.

Repurposing plastics is even better. Plastic bags make for good makeshift waste bin liners for back of house areas or employee accommodation. For fun engagement sessions with employees on waste reduction, consider a craft knife and a bit of glue, and old plastic packaging can be transformed into tools, toys, or anything else your imagination can stretch to.

Of course, this is all… small scale. It won’t move the needle much. But it will help change attitudes – and it’ll inspire others to be more mindful of their plastic waste.

 

Partner with locals

 

Collaborate with local environmental groups, communities, and take part in initiatives focused on the reduction of plastic. Go out to beach clean-up events, and ask guests if they want to take part, too. Support plastic recycling programs – even if they aren’t the perfect solution yet. And contribute to local educational outreach, to raise awareness and promote sustainable practices within your local community.

 

What else can you cut?

 

Do you give guests gifts on arrival? Do you have promotional materials that are made of plastic? Do your guests really need another lanyard or branded pen? Rethink all of these “perks”, and view them from a waste perspective. What value do they add to the stay, and what’s the environmental cost?

 

Empower and educate

 

Give training to your hotel employees on the importance of plastic reduction and sustainable practices. Let them lead by example, and encourage guests to participate in plastic reduction schemes during their stay.

 

It’s a complex issue. But the key is reducing waste overall

 

The reduction of plastic is not as clear-cut as it first seems. Paper and alternatives have carbon, water, and longevity penalties that all need to be balanced against productive and practical use. And it’s not just about environmental sustainability – it’s also about economic efficiency.

The key is to find ways to reduce all waste. Not only plastics.

Every year, hotels generate 289,000 tons of solid waste, placing immense pressure on natural resources, ecosystems and waste management systems. By reducing overall waste production and adopting some of the strategies we’ve outlined, hotels can start to change the way they’re perceived in regard to waste.

Maybe best of all, waste reduction can lead to cost savings for hotel and hospitality businesses.

We think a return to circular economy models where materials will lead to greater resource efficiency and long-term environmental resilience, at least until a proper, viable plastic alternative is invented. Even then – a world with less waste is one we surely all want to be a part of.

How Weeva can help hotels and resorts reduce waste?

 

Weeva has created an entire parameter to help travel and tourism businesses with their waste management – called Zero Waste.

Book a demo today to see how Weeva can help you to reduce your plastic use.

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