Sustainability guru Dr Catherine Wilson explains how the industry can cut plastic waste
On July 11, 1907, the chemist Leo Baekeland wrote in his diary: “unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future”. If anything, Baekeland, a pioneer of plastic, was underplaying his hand. Soon, plastic was king and today an estimated 300 million tons are produced each year –
just 10 per cent of which is recycled.
Production is expected to double in the next 20 years, but about 50 per cent of all plastics, from miniature hotel toiletries to disposable coffee cups, are used just once, sometimes only for a few seconds, and then thrown away without a second thought.
The main benefit of plastic – its durability – has become its greatest environmental threat: a plastic bottle takes a whopping 450 years to decay. The result is an estimated eight million tons of plastic waste entering the ocean every year. Over time, the plastic degrades and fragments into microparticles, which absorb toxic chemicals in ever greater concentrations as they travel up the food chain, ending up on our dinner plates.
Roughly 75 per cent of litter in the sea is plastic and this is having a direct impact on wildlife – from turtles suffocating on plastic bags and litter islands affecting ecosystems, to fish consuming fatal amounts of microparticles.
With as much as 80 per cent of tourism connected to coastal areas, the impact of ocean plastic is a huge concern. Plastic waste is a visual eyesore, reducing beach use, wildlife sightings and well-being. The logical conclusion is fewer visitors, revenue and jobs. Sadly, travel and tourism is a major contributor to the problem. Between 2011-2013, researchers monitoring litter on 23 beaches across Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Latvia, found that an estimated 33 per cent of the waste was generated by leisure or tourism. More than half of this rubbish was plastic.
It’s clear that plastic has become a global problem; no part of the world has been left untouched.
What’s been done so far?
Travel companies and destinations have been looking at the issue of plastics as part of their wider sustainability strategy for some time now – working to improve waste management and recycling, as well as looking at the use of plastics by suppliers.
Sustainable tourism is essential for the industry’s long-term viability, however, as is often the case in travel, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. How destinations manage their waste varies, so what can be recycled in one resort can’t in another. ABTA’s sustainability programme seeks to address such issues, working with Members to develop their approach.
Tour operator Exodus, which specialises in adventure holidays, has been working to reduce plastic waste in areas where safe drinking water is an issue. It has implemented initiatives that have resulted in one million less single-use plastic bottles being consumed in 2017 (see case study, right). Expedition specialist Hurtigruten encourages guests to join beach clean-ups on its voyages along the Norwegian coast.
ABTA’s annual Make Holidays Greener Campaign (#MHG18), run in partnership with Travelife for Hotels & Accommodations, also shines a spotlight on the work being done in this area. The theme for this year’s campaign is ‘say no to plastic’, which is encouraging the industry and holidaymakers to find alternatives. For MHG last year, the TUI Group successfully brought together more than 1,400 participants, and undertook 52 beach clean-ups in 17 countries, resulting in a 1,000 filled black rubbish bags. Other successful initiatives include staff education at Barrhead Travel, which organises beach clean-ups near its head offices in Glasgow. Sharon Munro, chief executive, told ABTA Magazine: “Staff at Barrhead Travel decided they wanted to make sure that the beach at Lunderston Bay was clean and safe for all to enjoy.”
Another initiative is ABTA’s Travelife sustainability certification scheme, which involves over 1,400 hotels acting to minimise waste and packaging use. Dessole Malia Beach hotel in Greece has reduced the amount of plastic straws it uses by 95 per cent and introduced water coolers, cutting plastic water bottles by 75 per cent.
Public awareness driving change
Following the success of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II – the most watched TV programme of 2017 – and campaigns such as Sky News’ Ocean Rescue scheme, consumers are now increasingly aware of the damage plastics have on the environment. Customers now have higher expectations and businesses can use this to drive change internally, as well as with suppliers and destinations.
Many travel companies are already responding. The cruise sector, in general, has begun to make significant steps. P&O Cruises and Cunard, as well as other Carnival UK lines, have committed to removing single-use plastics from their ships by 2022; Royal Caribbean International has pledged to eliminate single-use plastics from 38 ships, including the newly launched Symphony of the Seas, the largest ship in the world.
Others in the tourism sector are delivering, too. In January, Eurostar promised a 50 per cent reduction in plastics by 2020, while Buffalo tours uses reusable water bottles which can be refilled from coolers. In February, London City Airport became the first UK airport to ban plastic straws, replacing them with biodegradable alternatives.
There have also been changes at destination level. In March, Malibu, California, became the latest city to ban the sale, distribution and use of single-use plastic straws and cutlery. The Balearic Islands are moving to ban the sale of all single-use consumer plastics by 2020; Costa Rica will follow suit in 2021. ABTA also works with destination authorities on the issue of waste management.
In December 2017, a UN resolution committed 193 nations to reduce ocean plastics, while UK policy is to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Initiatives include a successful 2015 UK plastic bag charge scheme, which saw consumer use cut by 85 per cent, with other countries, such as Kenya, following. In March 2018, the UK announced a new deposit return scheme for single-use drink containers. Innovation funding – for example, the £7 billion announced in January by the UK government – is also crucial in finding greener plastics.
The reality is, plastic pollution will not be resolved overnight. Instead, multiple solutions are be needed, over time, to help achieve global impact.
Dr Catherine Wilson is a research, policy and communications consultant who specialises in sustainable tourism. See enviconsulting.wordpress.com