How tourism can remove single waste plastic from its supply chain

How tourism can remove single waste plastic from its supply chain

“Gradually, then suddenly”. It’s how a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, describes how he went bankrupt. I was unaware of the phrase until last week. Yet when I searched the news, there it was describing Trump and the Shut Down, the rise of the Indian economy, the collapse of the housing market.

In nearly 20 years writing and talking about environmental issues, I have seen this phenomenon time and time again. Yet people were talking and writing about climate change and biodiversity loss and the problems of GDP long before I started. Gradually these issues have raised in prominence.

Suddenly they are everywhere.

Just look at our discussions and actions around plastic. Gradually we got better at recycling, at remembering our reusable shopping bags, and then our water bottles, and then our cups for coffee.

Suddenly the issue and how to respond to it is on every day, in every page, in every store.

I could fill the rest of this blog with lists of the latest case studies. Just today a story in the Guardian revealed that Bali is introducing a tourist tax to tackle the problem. By WTM London 2019 this November, I expect there will be many more destinations who have done something similar. We will be sharing their stories and exploring ways forward together.

Jo Hendrickx has witnessed this remarkable acceleration first hand. Last year she founded an initiative, Travel Without Plastic, designed to support hotels and other tourism businesses in removing unnecessary plastic from their supply chain. By WTM London that same year she was announcing partnerships with Thomas Cook, and being followed around the halls of ExCeL by a BBC film crew (the feature starts at around 35 mins), who recorded her interactions with numerous stall holders, as she talked with them about the challenges and the opportunities to make easy changes.

Two months after the event, and she is working with hotels and tour groups across Europe, helping them develop strategies and customer engagement, offering them a range of services from a ‘Let’s Reduce Single-Use Toolkit’, to dedicated client support, to a soon launching online platform which will make the sourcing of sustainable alternatives as easy as possible.

Working with all of these companies has also made Jo acutely aware of the scale of the challenge. She shared with me some findings from her work over the last year:

  • Even hotels with environmental certifications are consuming upwards of one million single-use items per year.
  • Despite switching to reusable alternatives like polycarbonate glasses, guests often incorrectly dispose of them. Some hotels have therefore lost 80% of their reusable stock, and neither the business nor the environmental case for re-usables is being made.
  • Business hotel guests can be harder to engage with the change, as some business guests complain that this is not convenient for them.
  • Tour companies are struggling with not offering bottled water down to perceptions of hygiene and safety, or the logistics of getting reusable bottles to customers and finding places to fill them.

At the same time, what Jo and Travel Without Plastic are learning and bringing together are the ever-growing numbers of case studies and solutions that tourism companies worldwide are adopting to address these and many other challenges. The speed of change makes two things absolutely clear:

Suddenly there is an opportunity to address this issue. And the time for gradual is gone.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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