“This way to beach” read a hotel lobby sign in Hurghada, Egypt. It was 2010 and, despite the area being a jumping-off point for thousands of scuba divers exploring the Red Sea’s marvellous marine life, this private stretch of beach was so thick with rubbish – from disposable nappies to plastic straws and ice-cream tubs – that I could barely see the sand.
It’s certainly not a place to swim, even if you could beat a path to the sea. Pity, then, the creatures that call these waters home.
Long before Brexit and Covid-19 obliterated all other thoughts, the travel industry’s over-reliance on single-use plastics was the big issue.
Plastic pollution is damaging the very destinations and wildlife that we travel to see around the world, and scientific research even suggests it can harm our health. It’s perverse, then, that the travel industry is such a significant contributor to the proliferation of plastics – from single-serving butter pots and milk packets to plastic plates and cutlery – polluting our planet.
Fast forward a decade to summer 2020, when most holidays have been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. I was strolling along the beach in Pegwell Bay, Kent, when, among the thousands of pieces of splintered plastic waste and discarded fishing line that fringed the shoreline, I spotted a new plague blighting this nature reserve: PPE.
According to a June 2020 report by the American Chemical Society, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves are being used globally each month, resulting in widespread environmental contamination.
But PPE is not the only way Covid-19 is contributing to the plastic problem – it's also changing the way the hospitality industry is run.
For example, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is currently recommending that restaurants and bars “avoid using or sharing items that are reusable” and use disposable items where possible instead.
It also advised businesses to “avoid use of food and beverage utensils and containers brought in by customers.”
So what does this mean for the future of the hotel industry, which had already been facing its own reckoning with plastic?
Not so fantastic
It’s while we’re travelling and staying in hotels that we tend to encounter the most single-use plastic. Even before Covid-19, we were using around 500 billion disposable plastic bottles every year around the globe, with 550 million plastic straws being used in the UK and America each day.
Those numbers could increase dramatically in the age of Covid-19, when we’re being told that disposable plastics are the key to protecting ourselves from virus transmission. But it doesn't necessarily need to.
According to a statement released in June 2020 – signed by 118 scientists from 18 different countries – reusable plates, cutlery, cups, and napkins can be safely used during the Covid-19 pandemic merely by following the basic hygiene rules already in place in the hospitality industry. These scientists insist that standard industry practices provide “more than adequate protection against virus transmission.”
“Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” the statement points out, adding that reusable items are safe to use when cleaned with soap and water.
Even the CDC agrees in its guidelines: “If disposable items are not feasible or desirable, ensure that all non-disposable food service items are handled with gloves and washed with dish soap and hot water, or in a dishwasher.”
The plastic revolution
“The hotel industry needs to change,” says Jo Ruxton, co-founder of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, a nonprofit organisation campaigning to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
“They should start with the easy changes: no bottled water in hotel rooms; no plastic cups wrapped in cellophane; put out pats of butter and milk jugs instead of individual plastic-wrapped pots; provide shower gel in dispensers or put out bars of solid soap.”
While we all enjoy cramming dolls’ house-sized toiletries inside our suitcases to take home, the environmental cost of tiny plastic bottles (that contain enough product for, at most, two showers) is huge.
Before Covid-19 gripped the world, change was beginning to happen, and it wasn’t just eco-lodges and boutique hotels that were getting on board.
The world’s largest hotel chain, Marriott – which owns over 7,000 hotels globally, including Le Méridien, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, W Hotels, and Westin – announced last year that it will stop providing single-use plastic toiletry bottles and switch to recyclable, bulk-sized, multi-use bottles in most of its properties by December 2020.
Marriott estimates the bottles will be 10 to 12 times larger than their current miniature toiletries and estimate that their efforts alone would stop 500 million tiny bottles ending up in landfill each year.
IHG – which owns over 5,600 hotels around the world, including the brands Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Kimpton, Regent Hotels, and Six Senses, among others – similarly announced plans in July 2019 to ditch single-use toiletry bottles by 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a stumbling block in that process, however.
Catherine Dolton, vice president of global corporate responsibility at IHG, said of their plans: “We will make this transition mindful of the impact that Covid-19 is having on both our owners and supply chains. In some instances, this could mean delays to implementation as we work through it.”
She added: “New and enhanced cleaning measures can lead to varying impacts on sustainability right across the hospitality industry.”
Armando Kraenzlin, regional vice president of Four Seasons Resorts Maldives, points out that they’ve been supplying guests toiletries in refillable containers for over 20 years, and over the course of the past 10 years, they have eliminated all single-use plastics in rooms and restaurants.
“We currently offer Covid safety kits in the rooms, consisting of wipes, sanitiser and masks. The masks are reusable cloth masks,” Kraenzlin tells me, but adds, “The sanitiser is presented in a single-use plastic container – we can’t wait to get rid of these as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Kraenzlin also mentions that – while they have resisted making any major changes to their plastics policy – coronavirus safety measures have lead to an increased use of plastic gloves in the food and beverage, and housekeeping areas.
“I’m not happy about that,” he tells me, “but for the time being, it is the best we can do.”
Maslina Resort, on the Croatian island of Hvar, only opened its doors for the first time on 10 August 2020. The luxury resort’s development director, Zoran Pejovic, clearly believes Covid-19 will negatively impact hotels’ efforts to minimise disposable plastic use.
He said: “It’s very likely there will be an increased reliance on single-use plastic at some properties throughout the world. Many establishments have opted to use only single-use plastic, especially in the early days after the re-opening.”
Pejovic says such measures don’t fall in line with his resort’s philosophy and that Maslina will continue to do all it can to minimise the use of plastics.
“We decided to increase the level of training for our team members, and closely monitor our cleaning procedures instead of introducing such simple solutions as disposable plastics. Simple solutions for complex problems are not going to last long. Training, education and understanding will take us much further.”
With holidays put on hold, this could have been a time for the hotels industry to take big steps to address its contribution to the global plastic pollution pandemic. Instead, we’ve slipped backwards.
In March 2020, just before global lockdowns began, New Jersey, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Washington were among the US states planning stricter controls over the use of some single-use plastics. Weeks later, all seemed forgotten.
Single-use carrier bags returned to states in which they’d already been banned, cafés started refusing to refill reusable coffee mugs, and eateries returned to using plastic straws, disposable cups, and individually packaged condiments. By late June, nearly 50 single-use item reduction policies across the US had effectively been binned.
According to Keith Barr, CEO of IHG, changes in the hotel industry aren’t driven by government legislators – whom he says have been slow to react to the threat of plastic pollution – but by holidaymakers themselves.
Barr’s comments show that it’s with whom consumers choose to spend their money, where they choose to stay, and what they demand from their chosen hotels, that ultimately changes company policy.
So – when we each feel safe and ready to start travelling again – if we leave plastic bottles in the mini-bar and opt for cans instead, insist on paper straws in hotel bars, demand disinfected glasses, metal cutlery and china plates in their restaurants, and book with hotels that commit to the best possible practices in the time of coronavirus and beyond, then eventually all hotels will take responsibility… before it hits their bottom line.