Let’s talk travel plastics

Let’s talk travel plastics

The war against single-use plastic in the travel industry is still in its infancy. We look at how businesses and consumers alike can help kick the plastic habit.


Close to 300 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured globally and barely ten per cent of that is recycled, according to the environmental organisation Plastic Oceans Foundation. The Earth Day Network estimates that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. Not only does plastic wash up on our beaches, it also descends to more than ten kilometres in the ocean, strangling or choking wildlife, and even entering our food chain. Apart from which, it ruins the natural beauty of the places we live in and travel to.

Figures vary on the percentage of the total of single-use plastic generated by the global travel industry, but there is no denying its enormous impact. Dependence on plastic remains widespread but travellers, and just as crucially the travel industry itself, are finding ways of kicking the plastic habit.

Jo Hendrickx, founding CEO of Travel Without Plastic, welcomes this awareness, but warns that action needs to be appropriate and well-informed. Her organisation was set up with the specific aim of supporting the tourism industry, and especially hospitality, to cut and eventually eliminate single-use plastics.

“Simply swapping plastic for other materials isn’t necessarily the answer, particularly if destination infrastructures aren’t set up to deal with materials such as bioplastics,” she says. “Depending on what is being replaced, research by the Trucost research company suggests that many so-called better materials have a worse overall impact on the environment, if sourcing, use, transport, and disposal are considered, than the plastics they might replace.”

Changing the habits

In common with many other environmental campaigners, Hendrickx sees a reduction in overall use of materials in general, not just plastic, as a key driver. “The travel industry can adapt if it tackles the old habits,” she says. “The industry has given people expectations of bottled water in rooms, mini toiletries, cheap slippers, and so on. But it can equally condition people out of these expectations by using good communications and leading by example.”

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line CEO Richard Fain recently committed his company to eliminating plastic straws from ships, recognising that “healthy oceans are vital to the success of the company.” The Hilton hotel group is planning a similar commitment as well as discontinuing the provision of plastic water bottles in conference facilities. Conscientious airlines, including Finnair, are continuously cutting the use of plastic wrappings, although hygiene regulations for inflight food preparation make it difficult to eliminate completely. The Indonesian island of Bali has introduced a tourist tax to help counter plastic pollution.

Cost remains an issue for some larger travel industry operators. “Bigger chains that cater to package tourists operate on very tight margins, so costs are key and often single-use plastic is the cheapest option,” says Hendrickx.

“Guests are asking us more and more about our environmental measures.”

Some habits persist, she says. “From work carried out by Travel Without Plastic in a chain of hotels in the Canary Islands, we saw that an average of 15 per cent of unnecessary plastic is used out of habit. This means putting plastic bags over the glasses in the bathroom, a sign over the toilet to tell you it’s clean, using plastic cocktail stirrers shaped like palm trees, or using plastic shot glasses on the buffet to control portion sizes.”

But customers are becoming increasingly informed and their demand generates a response from business.

“Guests, and especially our corporate clients, are asking us more and more about our environmental measures,” says Vanessa Butani, director of sustainable business at Scandic Hotels, which also manages Hilton Hotels in Finland. Scandic was ranked A- by the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Climate Change Report in 2018.

“We started using refillable toiletry dispensers as long ago as 1995. We wanted to make a statement, so we designed our own refillable Scandic water bottle that we fill from our tap – that means four million fewer plastic bottles across the Scandic group annually. We’re also phasing out plastic straws. We encourage guests to support us, for example, by sorting waste in their rooms using compartmental bins,” says Butani.

Significant change can take effect from small acts of consumer choice and behaviour, and perhaps this is where most hope lies for the traveller desperate to make a difference but overwhelmed by the challenge of ditching the plastic habit.

Text Tim Bird
Illustration Outi Kainiemi


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