Can the travel industry go plastic free?

Can the travel industry go plastic free? The travel industry has a close relationship with plastic. It uses vast quantities of the material across all corners of the world. It is the perfect travel companion. It’s lightweight, convenient and affordable. Water from single-use bottles is often seen as the most hygienic way to access clean water. Yet our love affair with plastic is having a huge impact on tourism, both directly through plastic pollution and indirectly through climate change. 

Globally, we generate 300 million tonnes of plastic per year and only 9% of this is recycled. Our oceans are the biggest casualty in this crisis, with up to 12 million tonnes of plastic ending up in waterways every year (the equivalent of a full rubbish truck being emptied every minute), adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes that is already suffocating our seas. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 

Plastic is found on every beach in the world, and with 80% of global tourism taking place by the sea, the economic, environmental and social impacts of the plastic crisis is massive, particularly for those who rely on pristine marine environments. The plastics industry also contributes to climate change. By 2050, up to 13% of the total carbon budget will be spent on plastic. Tourism is also highly vulnerable to climate change, including sea level rises, temperature changes and biodiversity loss.

Some casualties of the plastic problem in travel

Examples of destinations suffering the fallout from plastic pollution are numerous now. A 2018 WWF Report found that 40% of plastic waste in the Mediterranean was contributed by the 200 million tourists who visit each year, and the region had some of the highest plastic pollution in the world. Over four million people landed on Ibiza’s shores in 2018, but the island is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the volume of visitors. Ibiza’s plastic footprint is 14% higher than the rest of Europe, and double that of mainland Spain because of the influx of visitors over the peak summer season. 

Many low-income destinations do not have the infrastructure to deal with escalating plastic rubbish either, amplifying the problem. Bali has been burying plastic to deal with the crisis. The peak season between November to March is now nicknamed ‘garbage season’ as the scale of the problem continues to grow. Thailand has closed Maya Bay, the secluded bay made famous by the film The Beach, until 2021, to give the coral reefs time to recover from overtourism and plastic pollution.

Phasing out single-use plastic and rethinking how the material is best used within such a diverse and global industry such as tourism is incredibly complex.

Plastic rubbish may not always originate from overtourism at a destination. Research by the Galapagos Conservation Trust identified that plastic waste comes from as far away as Peru, Ecuador and China, as well as from local sources. On uninhabited UNESCO World Heritage Henderson Island there is now an estimated 18 tonnes of plastic, brought there by the powerful South Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that sweeps anti-clockwise. The plastic problem is a global one. 

Why is it so difficult to reduce plastic use in the travel industry?

Phasing out single-use plastic and rethinking how the material is best used within such a diverse and global industry such as tourism is incredibly complex. Change within business practice is often driven by economics. Plastic is cheap and easy to come by, and sourcing alternative options may be more expensive for companies, particularly in the short term. Unfortunately the crisis is simply not on many companies’ radar, either due to a lack of awareness or apathy. 

Replacing or eliminating single-use plastic in the hospitality sector is a massive undertaking, both logistically and operationally.  Mini toiletries, amenity kits, wrapped slippers, key cards, plastic water bottles, straws and glasses are still the norm for most hotels. Countries will have big differences in government policies and cultural expectations too, and hotel chains may be franchised, adding an extra dimension to altering operations. Customer experience is another area of concern. While many tourists are supportive of a more sustainable holiday, there are many who want the packaged goods, the convenience and the perceived cleanliness. If the norm is disrupted, customers may choose to holiday elsewhere. 

Reducing plastic use behind the scenes in cleaning and catering operations, staff behaviours and through suppliers is often ignored as it doesn’t affect the customer experience, and changing how suppliers operate is particularly difficult. They are often smaller, have different business models or lack the resources and capacity to alter practices.  

Airlines also have a tough job, limited by space, weight, time and security constraints on board aircraft. Food-based plastics are often trickier to swap than items like straws and bottles because of how ingrained they are in the supply chain but also because of health and safety regulations. 

Passenger flights now account for 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste, most of which goes to landfill.  Even if airlines do invest in compostable and recyclable materials, they may still end up in the wrong place, as waste management of material is often dictated by what facilities the airport has.

Airport logistics tend to make conscious choices for travellers difficult too. Plastic bags are needed for checking in liquids and refillable water sources are hard to come by in departure lounges. It’s also difficult for travellers to avoid the volume of single-use waste from plane food, plastic cups, toiletries, wrapped blankets and earphones once on board the aircraft.

Is the travel industry doing anything to limit plastic use?

There has been a huge increase in the last few years of steps the industry is taking to minimise impact. For starters, over 150 organisations in the tourist industry have signed the International Tourism Plastic Pledge to show their commitment to reduce plastic pollution. 

In the global hospitality industry Intercontinental Hotels launched a new initiative to switch all mini toiletries to refillable bottles by 2021 and Marriott International is getting rid of plastic straws and mini bottles in North American hotels. Hilton is also eliminating plastic straws along with any single-use plastic bottles from its conferences. Iberostar is going one step further and removing all single-use plastic. 

The airline industry is also working to minimise single-use plastic. Portuguese airline Hi Fly has shown that flights can be plastic free. It has replaced all plastic with bamboo or compostable alternatives. Etihad was the first major airline to fly long-haul with no single-use plastic and has committed to removing 80% of its single-use plastic across the organisation by 2022. Ryanair has committed to removing all single-use plastics by 2023 and Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Australia and Delta Airlines will all be phasing out various forms of single-use plastics. Many airlines are also investing in waste management systems on board aircrafts to minimise the likelihood of waste going straight to landfill, and the Life Zero Cabin Waste project is looking at improving the management of catering waste from flights. San Francisco airport is on the way to becoming the world’s first zero waste airport by 2021 and Gatwick airport is the first airport to achieve the ‘zero waste to landfill’ accreditation from the Carbon Trust. The airport has installed free water fountains after security checks, provides free water at food and drink outlets and recycles all single-use plastic bottles. Innovations such as reusable filtered water bottles and plastic free flight meal trays are providing alternative solutions for the industry. 

Examples of large tour operators looking at the plastics crisis include TUI, Thomas Cook and Kuoni. TUI set up a plastic waste reduction workstream in 2018 with the aim of accelerating the reduction of single-use plastic across their operations. They aim to remove 250 million pieces of single-use plastic by 2020. Kuoni have launched a ‘Stay Beautiful’ campaign, offering reusable water bottles to customers and packaging brochures in compostable bags as well as looking to make its small group tours plastic free by 2021. Thomas Cook has pledged to remove 70 million single-use plastic items from operations in 2020 and will work to turn used plastics into usable holiday items. 

Smaller tour operators are making positive changes too. They also benefit from being more agile and able to change business practices faster and with less disruption than larger tour operators, and tour companies that have sustainability at the heart of their business tend to go one step further than just eliminating front-of-house items. For example, Natural Habitat Adventures have recently launched a zero-waste trip and Active Adventures only choose suppliers that have invested in their own low waste practices. Responsible Travel has listed some further tour companies that are leading the way towards a plastic-free holiday.

There has been a huge increase in the last few years of steps the industry is taking to minimise impact. For starters, over 150 organisations in the tourist industry have signed the International Tourism Plastic Pledge to show their commitment to reduce plastic pollution. 

What about destinations?

At a larger scale, over 50 countries are taking positive action to stem the flow of plastic. The UN has compiled a report on who is doing what and the National Geographic has a detailed and updated feature on what countries are doing.  Most countries are tackling specific single-use plastics such as plastic bags or bottles, though some, such as India and Canada, are pledging to remove all forms of single-use plastic. The EU is banning throwaway plastics by 2021.

Some places that are directly affected by plastic pollution are already taking larger measures. On the Galapagos Islands a long-term project is underway to make the reserve plastic free again. The Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda banned single-use plastics in 2016, the first country in the Caribbean to do so. Single-use plastics will also be banned in the Everest region from 2020. The Nepalese Mountaineering Association, trekking companies and airlines will work with the Nepalese government to enforce the ban. The Balinese government banned plastic bags, straws and polystyrene in 2018 and are introducing a $10 tourist tax to help raise funds to tackle the problem. Locally-run campaigns are now helping raise awareness and recycling schemes are being rolled out to prevent the problem worsening. 

Delivery on legislation is not an easy achievement. Speaking at the 2019 World Travel Market, Colin James, the CEO for Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority gave advice on how to make legislation successful including investing in alternatives for businesses, making changes meaningful and of economic sense for businesses, implementing the ban in timed phases, and rolling out an island-wide education programme alongside. 

Are we doing enough?

The short answer is no. Demand and production of plastic are increasing even though awareness of the single-use plastic crisis is high and there are many positive examples of change happening. In fact, plastic production is expected to triple by 2050 according to the World Economic Forum.  Escalating tourist numbers are also fanning the flames. Travel and tourism is the second fastest growing sector in the world according to The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), and over 1.4 billion people took a holiday in 2018, a rise of 6% from 2017 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). 

Collaboration within the industry is crucial for lasting change.  The International Tourism Partnership (ITP) works to share knowledge and best practice within the industry, including that of plastic reduction. It currently consists of 15% of the hotel industry. Ideally, more industry associations and country governments should be supporting those businesses that are taking steps forward to change their practices too, and to encourage more of the industry to join in.

For real, lasting change a transition to a proper circular economy needs to happen, where no plastic ends up as waste. The New Plastics Economy, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation along with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working towards making this a reality, but with only a fifth of the plastics market on board, there is still a long way to go. Economically, single-use plastics make no sense either. The overall cost to the economy and environment is estimated at $40 billion per year, way more than the profits it draws in. 

We need to drastically reduce the generation of new plastic and be much more resourceful in how we reuse what we have. Plastic as a material is not the problem; it is our throwaway culture which is causing the crisis. A radical cultural shift is needed, where zero waste is promoted and plastic is seen as a resource not rubbish. 

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