With some of the world’s most beautiful beaches paying a heavy price for our plastic addiction, the travel and tourism industry is taking action to reduce its plastic footprint and encourage its customers to do the same.
One of Britain’s biggest tour operators, Thomas Cook, said in November 2018 that it would remove around 70 million single-use plastic items—enough to fill 3,500 suitcases—from domestic operations, planes and branded hotels during the next year.
A pilot scheme in its #noplaceforplastic campaign will run this summer on the Greek island of Rhodes where the company will try out sustainable alternatives and work with the local community and government to improve recycling infrastructure.
Thomas Cook will trial plastic-free toiletries in some of its brand hotels and promote water fountains and other fresh water sources. The company will also work with sustainable designers Wyatt and Jack to turn broken and discarded inflatables, like lilos and armbands, into bags and holiday accessories. On its airline, it will remove plastic wrappers on headsets and reduce the size of its duty-free plastic bags.
“This is very important because many of the tourist destinations that we travel to do not have appropriate systems for recycling,” says Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey. “Their action is important to create awareness amongst destination stakeholders and, more importantly, to empower them to look for solutions.”
While tourism contributes 10 per cent of global gross domestic product and accounts for one in 10 jobs worldwide, UN Environment’s research has shown that the industry’s use of key resources, like energy and water, is growing commensurately with its generation of solid waste, including marine plastic pollution, sewage, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.
The World Wildlife Fund reported in June 2018 that more than 200 million tourists visiting the Mediterranean every summer cause an almost 40 per cent spike in plastic entering the sea. With 80 per cent of all tourism taking place in coastal areas, this destructive pattern is repeated elsewhere.
Last April, the Philippines temporarily closed the island of Boracay to clean up dumped sewage and upgrade its drainage systems. Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the 2000 film The Beach, to allow it to recover from pollution and other damage caused by tourists. And in 2017, Indonesia declared a “garbage emergency” in parts of Bali.
As part of its Clean Seas campaign, UN Environment is working with governments, businesses and citizens to reduce the use of disposable plastics. Among those who have signed up are dozens of hotels from Thailand’s Phuket Hotels Association and the airline Hi Fly.
Increasingly aware of public dismay over the toxic tide of plastic, the industry is cracking down on single-use plastics. Delta Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Australia and United Airlines are among carriers pledging to phase out single-use plastics like straws and stirrers. Ryanair has pledged to eliminate all non-recyclable plastics by 2023, switching instead to wooden cutlery and biodegradable coffee cups, for example.
Hotel group Iberostar has made its staff uniforms out of recycled plastic and is eliminating single-use plastics from its rooms, while the Walt Disney Company is set to ban single-use plastic straws and stirrers from nearly all its theme parks and resorts from mid-2019. Polystyrene cups will be eliminated at its parks.
Hotel giant Hilton pledged to get rid of plastic straws in all its 650 locations and eliminate plastic bottles from its conferences. Marriott International is eliminating plastic straws and replacing small bottles of toiletries with dispensers in its North American hotels.
MSC Cruises aims to phase-out single-use plastics by March next year, while Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten says it has removed all unnecessary single-use plastic items. Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure cruise company, has said it is now free of single-use plastics with all such items banned from its 13 ships.
Royal Caribbean has said its 50 ships would stop using plastic straws by the end of last year. P&O Cruises and Cunard are also planning to abolish plastic straws, water bottles and stirrers by 2022, while Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has launched an anti-plastics initiative, including a ban on straws.
However, while eliminating plastic products is positive, the industry must do more, Font says.
“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,” he says.
In its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report in 2017, the World Economic Forum noted that degradation of the natural environment was having a serious effect on the tourism sector: as natural capital depletes—because of overfishing, deforestation or water and air pollution—so tourism revenues 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,” it said.
Some tour operators are going the extra green mile, offering holidays designed to help tourists ditch their plastic habits. For example, Responsible Tourism offers a “no single-use plastics” section on its website while Undiscovered Mountains offers a plastic-free trip in the French Alps which includes a night in a refuge with guests asked to carry the rubbish away with them.
Innovative solutions to environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
Authorities in some popular tourist destinations are doing just that. Fort Myers Beach, in Florida, has banned the sale or use of plastic straws throughout the island in a bid to protect turtles nesting on the beaches. In Italy, the archipelago of Isole Tremiti has banned all plastic plates, cups and utensils, with fines for those who do not comply.
While such initiatives may offer inspiration to others in the industry, Font says the scale of the plastic pollution problem demands a collaborative approach.
“What we need is for industry associations to get behind these individual actions [by tour operators, etc.] and introduce industry-wide standards as a requirement to be a member of the association. We need whole destinations to act on this. We are not there yet.”
The UN World Tourism Organization is developing a way to measure the sustainability of tourism to create an international standard for tourism statistics. The standard will eventually be able to connect tourism indicators to the Sustainable Development Goals, expanding existing measurements beyond primarily economic indicators.
Beyond industry initiatives, individuals can also play a role. The World Travel and Tourism Council has urged travellers to minimize their plastic footprint by doing four simple things: bring your own water bottle and purification system, carry a collapsible tote bag, refuse small bottles of toiletries in hotels and find out where you can recycle your plastic waste.
Simple steps, but if taken by every one of the estimated 1.3 billion international tourists, they could make a world of difference.
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, 4 to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.