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What's Next For Plastics and Environmental Stewardship in the Travel Industry?

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 2019-09-18 Mia Taylor
hotel soap, toiletries, hotel bathroom © E+ / HowardOates hotel soap, toiletries, hotel bathroom

It seems not a single day passes by lately without a travel industry brand or company announcing that it will be doing away with plastic straws or perhaps single-use toiletry bottles.

As an article from the United Nations Environment Program noted earlier this year, the travel industry has clearly taken aim at the very serious issue of plastic pollution and its devastating impacts on the environment and wildlife.

One of the most recent, high-profile announcements came from Marriott International, which at the end of August revealed that its efforts to do away with environmentally harmful single-use plastics would be expanded to include the elimination of single-use bottles of shampoo, conditioner and bath gel in guestroom showers.

The smaller toiletries will be replaced with larger, pump-top bottles and thus far, Marriott has rolled out the new effort in about 1,000 locations across North America.

Another well-known hotel brand, Hilton, has pledged to get rid of plastic straws in all of its 650 locations and eliminate plastic bottles from its conferences.

Other notable efforts and announcements have come from The Travel Corporation’s (TTC) family of brands, which at the beginning of its 2019 operating season ceased making single-use plastic bottles available on its coaches, and Carnival Cruises, which has promised to significantly eliminate its purchase and consumption of non-essential plastics by the end of 2021.

Perhaps one of the most sweeping efforts over the past year was the move by officials in Quintana Roo to pass legislation that bans single-use plastics throughout the entire state. And Quintana Roo is not alone, an entire island in Croation (Zlarin) has signed a charter promising its businesses would cease using such items as plastic bags, plates, cutlery, straws and more.

All of this is great news. But as that recent UN article notes, while eliminating plastic products is a positive step forward, much more can and must be done.

“If a hotel group, for example, removes plastic straws, this is great to create staff and customer consciousness around this topic. But this cannot be the only thing that the company does. Otherwise, it becomes tokenistic, and any campaign that focuses on that is another form of greenwashing,” Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey told the UN Environment Program.

Font’s comments were echoed by Court Whelan, Ph.D., and director of sustainability and conservation travel at Natural Habitat Adventures, who recently shared his thoughts on the subject with TravelPulse.

“Plastic straws account for only a small fraction of discarded plastic,” Whelan told TravelPulse. “However—and a big, however—they are still a significant source in terms of poundage and volume, and more importantly, they are hugely symbolic. The fact that plastic straws were yanked from so many food industries (a prime example is Starbucks committing to be 100 percent straw-free in the next year or two) shows that with the right cause, the right momentum, and the right messages, we can impart big change.”

“But realistically, we must look well beyond just these if we’re to solve the problem,” continued Whelan.

The travel industry and all of us for that matter can always do more, said Whelan.

Travel companies, in particular, have the power to influence the influencers of our world, and thus should be continuing to lead the vanguard in terms of getting people to think differently.

“Part of thinking differently is not just doing things because we’ve always been doing them,” continued Whelan.

Yes, it may be normal and accepted to see single-use shampoo bottles in hotel rooms, but at what cost in terms of our long-term impact on the planet?

In the same vein, it may be normal to serve people at restaurants large helpings of food because they will leave full and happy, continued Whelan.

“Sure, that makes sense, but considering 40 percent of all food created gets thrown away, how long can we sustain that thought process?” he questioned. “I think food waste in the travel industry is the next thing we must tackle. And let me stress, this is no attack on customer service, nor fun holiday indulgence, but rather it’s a call to action to minimize the waste, which nobody benefits from.”

It is important to point out here that Whelan and Nat Hab are not making empty suggestions. The company has in fact been leading the charge on these sorts of efforts.

Earlier this year, for instance, Natural Habitat Adventures engaged in a bold and ambitious eco-friendly experiment.

The small group tour company, which has been one of the trailblazers in the ongoing travel industry shift toward more sustainable operations, revealed that it would host a trip that was being dubbed the world’s first "Zero Waste" itinerary.

The mission of the trip, in addition to providing travelers with a memorable Yellowstone National Park experience, was to divert 99 percent or more of all on-trip waste produced as a byproduct of Natural Habitat-sponsored operations and activities.

The trip, which took place in July, endeavored to fit the waste produced by 12 travelers during four hotel stays, nine restaurant visits and seven days of touring into a single quart-sized Mason jar. To that end, 50.9 pounds of waste was recycled, reused, refused, Terracycled and composted (an impressive feat, as the average American, is thought to create 4.4 pounds of trash per day.)

Nat Hab plans to incorporate the lessons learned from its first zero-waste adventure into more trips in the future. And eventually, intends to share the trip’s best practices for waste management in the form of a published resource, in hopes of inspiring the rest of the travel industry to become more committed to sustainable tourism.

“I think the travel industry must address food waste,” noted Whelan. “On our recent zero waste trip, we noticed that even with a group of highly conscious eco-travelers, we still had food waste, and it still was the largest percentage of diverted waste. We were able to compost it because of our ardent efforts, but this is probably the exception and not the rule when it comes to travel.”

There’s also far more to be done in the hotel industry, said Jessica Blotter, CEO, and founder of Kind Traveler, a cutting edge platform that's the world’s first socially conscious ‘Give + Get’ hotel booking website.

“When it comes to reducing plastic waste in hotels, while opting for paper straws over plastic and doing away with single-use toiletries is a step in the right direction, hotels also need to think about eliminating other plastics that include plastic water bottles, to-go containers, key cards, coffee pods, stirrers for cocktails and coffee, toothbrushes, q-tips, bags and more," Blotter told TravelPulse.

Ultimately, it behooves the travel industry to do everything it can to protect the natural environment and destinations around the world.

In its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report in 2017, the World Economic Forum points out that degradation of the natural environment is having a significant impact on the tourism sector. That’s because as natural capital depletes due to such things as overfishing, deforestation or water and air pollution, tourism revenues also decline.

“Given the close relationship between natural resources and a very large segment of the tourism industry, then, a lack of progress on fostering sustainability, both from a general and sectoral point of view, will reduce tourism development opportunities,” states the report.

So what are the next steps for the travel industry with regard to plastics and broader environmental stewardship? Whelan offers this parting thought.

“I firmly believe, that the most important thing we can do today is to get huge numbers of people thinking about conservation and sustainability, and to create a conservation culture,” he said “Targeting obvious yet easy to solve things like straws and other single-use items during travel is a very meaningful and strong step in the right direction.”

“I also believe that we should be looking at every major impact travel has on the planet and come up with game plans of how to mitigate them,” he added. “We in the travel industry have unprecedented access to the thinkers, the movers, and shakers, and the influencers of our world, we can target this to create worldwide momentum.”

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