Reducing plastic use in hotels

The theme for World Environment Day 2023 is Solutions to Plastic Pollution. And, it couldn’t come at a better time. The single-use plastics we mindlessly waste on business trips, in hotels and elsewhere wreak havoc on humans, land and sea creatures, and our physical world in ways we have yet to fully grasp. In the lead up to the June 5 observance, we spoke to Jo Hendrickx, Founder of Travel Without Plastic, an organization that helps hotels, tour operators and travel businesses to reduce unnecessary waste and costs using the “Let’s Reduce Single-Use System.”

Here’s Jo’s take on how the hotel industry can reduce its reliance on single-use plastics and some helpful tips for travel managers who want to add more hotels with robust plastic reduction plans into their programs.

Jo, tell us how you came to play a role in reducing plastics in travel and specifically hotels?

Jo Hendrickx Founder of Travel Without Plastic

My very first focus work on reducing plastic in hotels was back in 2011 when there wasn’t the attention that single-use plastics gets today. Together with the Travel Foundation, I worked on a project in Cyprus where we conducted a plastic audit on 26 hotels. We gave the hotels a range of different solutions for reducing single-use plastics. We got great results from the hotels we engaged – some reduced single-use plastic consumption by over 50 percent!

Then in 2017 I was travelling in the U.S. and everywhere I went I saw what I call the ‘Styrofoam Breakfast Scenario’ – Styrofoam bowls and cups and plastic cutlery. I just knew that we could do this differently, so I set up a Facebook page called Travel Without Plastic and never looked back.

My background is in Health and Safety, Quality and Sustainability auditing, so I wanted to bring these three things together and give hotels recommendations that would still allow them to have a safe environment, with good quality services while being more sustainable. And from here I developed a toolkit for hotels.

What improvements have you seen in the reduction of single-use plastics in the travel space?

A lot more hotels are comfortable with having water dispensers in their restaurants and bars, including high-end venues. Many water dispensing companies now have advanced technology to make sure pathogens don’t get into the water. Some even have a signature taste because of the way they do filtration – so customers are getting access to a brand of water that they trust, but without any single-use plastics. The reduction of transport of plastic bottles is also helping hotels to reduce their scope 3 emissions. 

There are some great innovations here, too. For example, I went to a hotel in Abu Dhabi recently, where they had installed atmospheric water generators. Put simply, these take moisture out of the air and turn it into drinking water right there and then. This is a good example of how hotels can best use the environment around them to support their plastic reduction goals.

Hotel suppliers are also starting to take responsibility for their own packaging. This is a positive step which is drastically increasing the number of times plastic packaging can be reused and reducing the amount of plastic that needs to be recycled.

We have also seen this issue become a large component of customer sentiment. More guests are complaining about using a lot of single-use plastics during their stay. Customer demand for the reduction of single-use plastic is interesting and is something that will continue to grow.

What’s the most innovative solution that you’ve seen?

Sometimes we can focus a lot on innovation and looking forward to what we can do differently, rather than applying clear processes that make sense.

Hotels are trying to not just reduce single-use plastic but find a use for the types of plastics that are very difficult to recycle, such as plastic bags or event signage. For example, giving plastic bags a second life by turning them into handbags or other items and selling them in the hotel and even making laundry baskets from woven plastic bags. Hotels like these are making whole campaigns around selling customers’ plastic waste back to them in a completely different form while they stay at the venue.

We’re seeing other innovative solutions like dissolving sachets for items like handwash, shampoo, shower gel and cleaning products. These are all great examples of how plastic reduction initiatives become part of the travel experience – as more and more customers want their hotels to make this a priority, this is a real opportunity for hotels. 

What are the key challenges to reducing the reliance on plastic in the hotel industry and how should BCD address them?

The most difficult thing to overcome is compromising the travel experience. Employees want to be able to travel as conveniently as possible, and plastic helps to do that. It’s lightweight so doesn’t add extra weight to hand luggage and is easy to travel with. It’s that convenience factor when it comes to travel – this is one of the biggest things to address.

What we all need to do is assess our relationships with each other in the value chain. We need to look at the customer journey and identify if there’s anything we can do in that journey to make it easier that doesn’t involve so much plastic waste.

For BCD that could mean working with customers to understand what they think is key about this issue – what is the most challenging thing for them to overcome and how do they see this being factored into the travel experience. You can also survey your preferred hotels to understand what single-use plastics they are avoiding and how are they tackling this issue.

If this is an important objective within a travel program, you can work with your customers to get feedback from their travelers on what’s important to them, what are the most difficult obstacles for them when it comes to reducing single-use plastic. For example, if an employee wanted to go door to door without using a plastic water bottle, there are apps that can support this goal. My favorites are Refill Ambassadors – a non-profit who collaborate with several refill organizations and apps all over the world – and local apps like Cleanwave in Mallorca, but there are lots of useful apps available. It’s about helping them to see how they could eliminate the use of one or two plastic items, based on their travel itinerary. If they try to do everything it could negatively impact their experience. Theme-based initiatives work well, for example focusing on reusable water bottles. BCD can also help facilitate progress by helping hotels understand what customers want.  

What’s your advice for travel managers who are trying to increase the use of hotels that have a clear plan for reducing single-use plastics?

  1. Communicate, encourage and facilitate progress on this issue. Understand how single-use plastic reduction fits into their company’s sustainability agenda and make sure they’re aligned with any goals and initiatives. Establishing what they want their role to be is key – whether it’s to drive awareness or have a more involved approach, this will help them determine where they want to focus their efforts.
  2. Incorporate relevant waste reduction questions as part of the hotel RFP process. Ask hotels for their policy on waste reduction. If hotels see an increase in demand for this kind of information, they’re more likely to factor it into their waste management. There’s also opportunity for travel managers and travelers to share great practices that they see when they’re travelling. Consider the single-use plastic items that could be removed from a hotel and use this as a starting point. Incorporate this list into the hotel contract.

3 questions to ask about plastics in a hotel RFP

  • Has the hotel eliminated single-use plastic water bottles?
  • Has the hotel eliminated single-use plastic straws and stirrers?
  • Has the hotel replaced single-use small bottle amenities with alternatives?
  1. Look out for the bait and switch, though. Hotels should not reduce single-use plastic and replace it with other materials that also have a negative environmental impact, such as single-use bioplastic, as there isn’t an infrastructure to deal with this. The policy will help travel managers to understand this. Travel managers can also ask hotels about single-use item initiatives – that broadens the focus beyond single-use plastic.

SUP-FREE provides a plastic free checklist as a useful resource as well as a certification for the hotel and accommodation sector. The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative is a partnership between the UN Environment Program, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN World Tourism Organization, aiming to address the root causes of plastic pollution. Their website includes a list of hotel signatories with their voluntary commitments for plastics reduction.

And finally, what will you be doing in support of World Environment Day to #BeatPlasticPollution?

For this year’s World Environment Day, I will be attending the 79th IATA Annual General Meeting & World Air Transport Summit to take part in a panel discussion about how airlines can reduce single-use plastics. There’s real scope for great discussion around how to rethink this given that they’re so restricted by regulations, for example, those around food packaging. 

I will be travelling without single-use plastic bottles. I use some great apps that allow me to plan when and where I can refill my bottle across my journey. Whenever I travel, I always try to make sure I’m single-use plastic free. I take my reusable coffee cup with me to the airport and make sure I pack my shampoo bar, which is also great because you reduce your travel liquids.

I love World Environment Day – it gives a great opportunity for organizations to really get behind environmental awareness initiatives.

World Environment Day is June 5 | Solutions to Plastic Pollution | LEARN MORE

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