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The Travel Industry’s Battle Against Plastic Has Begun

The travel industry owes a lot to the natural world. If it wasn’t for the spots of outstanding natural beauty, the pristine beaches, the untouched wildernesses; many of us would be out of a job. These are the things that most people enjoy. These are the things that help make travel worthwhile.

Which is why the travel industry has a clear vested interest in keeping the natural world in the healthiest state possible. But that’s not always easy. Inevitably, travel means pollution. So unless you’re going to force tourists to cycle from one destination to another, that’s one thing you have to allow for and mitigate against. Governments are already stamping down on dangerous emissions, for example, and encouraging electric vehicles where possible.

But one other side of pollution is the human footprint left behind at travel destinations: the rubbish, the waste and – most destructive to the long-term health of the environment – the plastic.

Single-use plastics, such as shopping bags and drinking straws, are perhaps the epitome of the globalized, consumerist world. They are cheap enough to make and use to be totally disposable, but they are not degradable in the environmental sense. They don’t just go away and break down. They clog up our beaches, harm our wildlife, pollute our water and entangle the animals living in our oceans. One million seabirds die each year die from ingesting plastic.

All of which isn’t ideal for an industry reliant on the natural world remaining as pristine and untouched as possible.

Earlier this year, the EU introduced the first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which is aiming to transform the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. Better design of plastic products, higher plastic waste recycling rates, more and better quality recyclates will help large companies dealing with plastic to be more environmentally friendly.

But aside from actions taken to stop plastic and the use of non-recyclable materials at a governmental level, what can the travel industry actually do? And what steps have already been taken by travel giants to handle waste in a more responsible manner?

Alaska Airlines Leads the Way

As you might expect, the battle to become more sustainable is starting with travel companies associated with more nature-driven customers. For example, in a couple of weeks, Alaska Airlines will become the first in the US to ban straws on their flights. The airline distributed 22 million plastic straws in 2017 alone – that’s a huge amount of plastic.

The plan, in line with their partnership with environmental charity Lonely Whale, is to replace stirrers and straws with birch stir sticks and non-plastic straws. Most of their juice boxes will also be replaced with recyclable aluminium cans.

The initiative is part of Alaska Airlines’ push for sustainability and the ultimate goal of reducing in-flight waste per passenger going to landfills by 70 percent by 2020.

“Whether providing fantastic service or leading in sustainability, caring about people and communities is in our DNA,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of external relations.

“Without a doubt, we fly to some of the most beautiful places on earth, including many communities that depend on healthy oceans. We’re thrilled to partner with Lonely Whale to take this next step in our sustainability journey, and help keep the places we live and fly beautiful for years to come.”

Another popular travel company, Ryanair, is seeking to back up its claim of being Europe’s ‘greenest airline’. Much of the company’s efforts are targeted towards the significant challenge of CO2 emissions, but there was also a plastic policy unveiled earlier this year.

The company has pledged to be plastic free by 2023 as part of the five year ‘Always Getting Better’ plan. After the announcement, Ryanair’s Chief Marketing Officer, Kenny Jacobs, said, “We are very pleased to announce our Environmental plan which includes our commitment to eliminate all non-recyclable plastics from our operations over the next five years.”

“For customers on board, this will mean initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, bio-degradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products We will also introduce a scheme to allow customers to offset the carbon cost of their flight through a voluntary climate charity donation online.”

Hotels making progress with plastic waste

Beyond airlines, other major travel companies are also taking steps to reduce plastic waste and, in some cases, go entirely plastic-free. For example, hotel giant Hilton is planning to eliminate the use of straws in all of its 650 global accommodations, as well as plastic bottles from its conferences – all by the end of 2018. Marriott International is also the way to reducing plastic use by replacing those small bath bottles in its North America hotels with dispensers.

Simon Vincent, Executive Vice President and President, EMEA, Hilton said: “As a leading global hospitality company, we have a huge responsibility to act as stewards of our natural resources, and support the communities in which we operate. Through our corporate responsibility strategy, Travel with Purpose, we are constantly looking for new ways to reduce our environmental impact. Extending a ban on plastic straws across our managed portfolio is an important move in the right direction, and one which we are committed to building on in the coming years.”

Hilton’s move will mean that in Europe, Middle East & Africa alone, more than five million plastic straws and 20 million plastic water bottles will not be put into circulation. For a dose of respective, that amount of straws saved each year laid end to end would exceed the length of the River Seine.

It makes sense that hotels chains are making these big steps. They have guests with environmental and sustainable values. They also have a moral responsibility to not produce waste that will mostly impact those who could never afford to be one of their guests.

Sonu Shivdasani, the chief executive of Soneva Resorts, a small luxury hotel chain that stopped its use of single-use plastics way back in 2008, said “Hotels serve the richest 30 percent of the world’s population, and in doing so, consume far too many natural resources that weigh negatively, impacting the other 70 percent of society. We, as an industry, continue to consume far more than our fair share of resources.”

Cruise companies joining the fight against plastic

Nowhere is the scourge of plastic more obvious than in our oceans. Plastic straws alone take 200 years to biodegrade. On top of that, an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans every year.

For that reason, it makes particular sense for travel companies reliant on the seas to go some way to protect them. And so several cruise companies have been taking steps in the right direction.

This week cruise giant Royal Carribean announced that the 50 ships across all of the company’s brands will stop using plastic straws by the end of this year. The move is a step forward from the previous position, which was to only provide straws to guests on request.  Next year, guests who ask for straws will receive paper ones. Royal Caribbean also wants to tackle the use of other single-use plastics on its ships, including condiment packets, cups and bags.

Chairman and chief executive of Royal Caribbean Cruises Richard Fain said: “Healthy oceans are vital to the success of our company. For over 25 years, our Save the Waves programme has guided us to reduce, reuse and recycle everything we can. Eliminating single-use plastics is another step in that programme.”

And they aren’t the only ones. Norweigan Cruise Line Holdings has launched an anti-plastics initiative. P&O Cruises and Cunard also announced plans earlier this year to abolish single-use plastics including plastic straws, water bottles and coffee stirrers from all cruise ships by 2022.

Changing things from the bottom up

All of these examples feature big travel companies removing plastics from their operations, which is undoubtedly a positive step. But for real change to occur, it needs to happen from the ground up. It requires a state of mind shift for travellers and a more widespread recognition of the damage we are capable of doing to the natural world.

You’ll have to travel literally as far from the ocean as possible to find a place where this shift has started to take place: Mount Everest.

The world’s highest mountain is, unsurprisingly, an extremely popular tourist destination. 100,000 people – mainly adventure tourists – visit the region every year and help to make the Everest basecamp path one of the world’s busiest trails. On top of that, each year around one thousand people go via the mountain’s base camp and attempt to reach Everest’s summit.

In a recent Guardian article, wildlife journalist Ben Fogle describes how, on a recent trip to the top of Mt Everest, he was taken aback at how clean the mountain was looking.

everest plastic rubbish cleanup

Over the years, Everest has developed a reputation for being something of a dump. Climber and hikers have nowhere to put their rubbish and use supplies, so they inevitably get tossed to one side  – especially when rapidly changing conditions force climbers to keep on moving.

But over recent years, local agencies have teamed up with climbers and sherpas to help clean up the mountain and remove the tonnes of plastic that were thought to be partially responsible for dangerous avalanches.

The job isn’t done yet, but Mount Everest perhaps offers proof that, even in the most remote and wild locations, we can undo the damage of unsustainable, unecological tourism.

As Fogle writes, “I have spent time in many of the world’s popular wilderness locations and I would say Nepal should be proud. It is an example of man repairing the damage he has done. As our focus turns to the oceans and the seemingly impossible task of repairing our marine habitat, we could look at Everest as a fine example of turning back the clock.”

There’s a long way to go

According to an article in the New York Times, “Many big luxury hotel brands, airlines and cruise ship companies — notorious for their oceanic waste and high carbon footprints — remain slow to curb unnecessary single-use plastics like bottles, slipper wrappers and plastic swabs that end up in the very oceans and beaches their guests travel across the world to experience.”

“It’s surprising that the travel industry doesn’t show more leadership in terms of sustainable practices,” Clark Mitchell, a former editor at Travel & Leisure and now director at The Band Foundation, a conservation charity, told NYT.

“People go on a cruise to see beautiful islands, clear waters and gorgeous beaches. These companies have a direct stake in keeping these places pristine. And yet single-use plastic, like straws, are literally everywhere a traveler looks, in the drinks being sold, in the water and on the beach.”

plastic wastre travel industry declares war on plastic

Inspiring the next generation

The travel industry has an important role to play in the fight against single-use plastics. Sure, individual companies can take steps to reduce their plastic waste and encourage their customers to treat the environment with respect.

But we already know that a sustainable world requires sustainable humans. So what’s ultimately required is a state of mind change. We need to think differently about how we treat the environment as travellers. Luckily, travel is an easy way to inspire that kind of mental shift. Encouraging people to get out there and explore the world is the best way to motivate them to protect it.

That’s probably why we’ve seen eco-tourism evolve as a sector in its own right. Environmentally-minded travellers are starting to demand trips that combine conservation with sightseeing and exploration. Perhaps we need to find a way to bring this attitude into mainstream travel. Just as mountaineers scaling Everest are asked to collect any rubbish they see en-route, maybe we should all start with the little things to help make tourism viable and enjoyable for future generations.