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How is the Travel Industry Reducing Plastic Waste

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

As reports indicate the near ubiquitous presence of micro-plastics in the environment and even in our bodies, I've been reflecting a fair bit on the way in which my business deals with plastics and the ways in which our client travelers here at Odyssean Travel have the best opportunity to participate in plastic reduction - while also sticking to a positive theme.

Travel is meant to be fun and relaxing, but I'm sure none of us care to contribute to the demise of the world around us in its enjoyment. Isn't it then easier to relax when we don't have to spend our time micromanaging the standard services, such as disposables?

I'll note here that there is no perfect answer, we can simply try our best. While it's pretty obvious to most of us (I hope) that we should pick up after ourselves, sometimes we're served unnecessary items or packaging by businesses. That includes in the travel industry.

I've reduced as many business processes as possible to digital forms and invoicing, taken the options for digital membership instead of plastic cards where possible, I try to reuse my lanyards and effects from cruises and meetings... to be fair there isn't a lot of consumable anything flying out of my office other than business cards and my time!

I'll have a pina colada, please, hold the straw

Proper disposal is obviously a concern, but what about prevention being the best cure?

We can probably all agree that by simply choosing to avoid plastics where possible, we're actively contributing to a reduction in its presence in the environment.

Plastic is among the types of visible pollution which doesn't readily degrade but simply gets smaller - like Mickey's broom in Fantasia, or more realistically, like Itchy & Scratchy's Scratchtasia, this stuff just gets smaller and smaller until it has the potential to flow through our veins.

Ever seen a kilo of carbon emissions? Me neither.

You may have difficulty envisioning what a kilo of carbon offset actually looks like, but what about a plastic bag in a tree or a bottle top in the surf?

If we're tackling scourges one at a time, it may indeed be easiest to start with those most visible as it more readily inspires the public to change.

What about those horrendous images of seahorses clinging to cotton buds or that poor turtle with a straw somehow fully penetrating its nose? Not to make light of such a terrible experience to our hapless sea friend, but I do wonder what in the hell enthuses a sea turtle so much as to take an inedible object that far into an orifice not designed for consuming solids!?!

A gannett nests with plastic garbage and other waste near the coast of Germany
Gannetts off the coast of Germany have taken to nesting with the trash they find

Some of the simplest means include saying no to the straw, using a metal spoon to stir your coffee, or even using a refillable bottle for water while on the road.

What about when we're paid passengers and someone else selects my implements?

It makes sense that airlines rely heavily on plastic and single use items, doesn’t it? Passengers expect low costs and efficient turn-around times. Further, fuel is not only expensive, but also a polluter itself. It makes sense to reduce the weight of a plane by relying on lightweight plastics, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with the unsurprisingly short list of relevant airlines. There may be some outliers in other jurisdictions making plans to reduce or remove altogether, but it would be nice to see some links directly out of their corporate newsletter or at least a company blog before I introduce them to my list!

Was it Virgin's idea or Alaska's?

Alaska Airlines readily re-branded Virgin earlier this year, but seems to have leaned heavily on the perceived “forward thinking” with the reduction of plastic stir straws and citrus picks (not sure what that is, little swords???) from summer 2018. They claim to be making further future reductions by replacing items with alternates. Glass for aluminum, for example.

They also claim to have made some serious landfill redirection statistics (learn more).

I'm still waiting to see what else is being done by other airlines, but with an overall reduction in the number of flights offering meals in the first place, maybe consumption en route should take a back seat for now.

What about your destination, what are they doing?

A number of towns & cities have made the move to tackle single-use plastics, with whole states and even countries making declarations regarding acceptable use.

As I have prepared this article during the last month, the EU has stepped in to provide guidance on a plastic straw-free European Union just this week.

Here's a BBC article touching on the topic and which features one of my all-time favorite individuals, Sir David Attenborough.

In the US, individual states are taking their own approach. Here’s a state legislature chart showing action taken since 2014 in various US states to tackle the issue and how many have enacted.

It's a small but good start, with Hawaii leading the way - no surprise, beach, wildlife, and the associated tourism are among the largest contributors to their economy!

Is the developing world leading the way?

It may be surprising to learn that several developing nations have gone considerably further already in banning items outside of specific circumstance.

Rwanda, tourism hot spot for viewing gorillas, banned the use of many plastic items as far back as 2008. Although the enforcement has not arisen without criticism. Successes here are reflected in the tourism sector, here’s a nice little summary from Deutsche Welle

Although I haven’t found a suitably sourced article reporting the latest on Kenya’s successes with their plastic bag ban, the enacted rules from last year are a bit stiffer and undoubtedly a huge deterrent: apparently selling or importing plastic bags can lead to a fine of up to $19,000 or jail time. Ouch. Here's a piece from the NY Times to help you think about the realities unique to each destination.

Many other countries around the globe are making or considering their move to follow suit or to try their own initiatives. Sometimes the first step is a deposit or fee.

What about my upcoming trip?

Returning to the micro-environment of your next trip, when it comes to that place to hang your hat, where exactly do you stay to reduce your consumption of single use plastics?

We received a notice from Sandals that as of 01 November 2018, they’re going to do away with single-use plastic straws and stirrers in their entire resort chain. For those with specific need, their version of “eco-friendly” paper straws will be available by request instead.

Marriott Hotels enacted a policy removing plastic straws from a number of its properties, offering alternatives “on request” and a policy to remove all such plastic straws from their 6,500 properties by the end of next summer.

Anecdotally, my wife and I stayed at a Marriott in Arlington during the past summer when we visited Washington, DC. I noticed the cleaning staff had a larger container of gel shampoo they were using to refill the smaller toiletries – something which might at first seem a bit misleading. They weren’t branding their own bottles of luxury soaps and just filling them with cheaper concoctions, however, so I’m happy enough to see even the smaller in-room bottles gaining a longer lifespan. Small steps in the right direction!

Those of you who love exotic Asian destinations as much as I do may rejoice in the Anantara brand proclaiming their dedication last December.

Disney might fit as either a place to stay or as its own destination, but perhaps a nice segue to cruising as the effort touches on their cruise line.

They make reference to the words of Walt Disney himself in their stewardship video. Claiming to remove single use stirrers and straws by “mid-2019”.

What about those floating hotels and city-like structures the cruise industry has become?

While I can't help but feel the cruise industry might be the place with room for most improvement, I would also point out its proven history in being flexible and adopting practices early and swiftly when there is a demand.

While the smaller ships and expedition vessels aren’t without their own environmental impact issues, larger ships have evolved into floating cities or hotels at sea where just like their counterparts in vacation resorts on land, inclusive drinks packages, luxurious dining facilities, and plastic straws seem to go hand in hand (in hand? Hand in hand in hand, is that a thing?).

I’m able bodied and I don’t have sensitive teeth, I would almost never serve myself a straw during meal times and try my best to either ask for “no straw” when ordering a drink or take the straw from my first drink and move it along to subsequent cocktails...

Yes, I drink cocktails.

I'd certainly not call myself the most conscientious, but I do think about my consumption. Regardless, I still manage to get through a couple of straws whilst on board. Service staff are so swift and efficient in their services that it's difficult to intercept that straw during the seating process. I can't even tell if that plastic straw was accompanied by its own plastic wrapper.

Fear not! Paper, bamboo, and other biodegradable materials will start to become the norm. A number of ships and whole cruise lines have enacted, with the rest of the industry eager to catch up. The cruise business is booming but it is amazingly competitive, with such changes coming swift and fast - it doesn't hurt that so many brands are owned by only a handful of larger businesses.

A full plastics audit

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines overseas Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur, and TUI, and is now the majority stakeholder in luxury cruise brand Silversea Cruises.

They've already moved to a “by request” policy and wholly banned single use plastics from their enormous Symphony of the Seas. They're aiming to push that step further with a full plastics audit to include even condiment packets.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Oceania Cruises has joined the pledge and spread from the ships to their two island destinations.

The larger brands join some of the smaller, luxury and boutique brands, alongside the river cruise segment (an Odyssean Travel favourite). Such as Uniworld and AmaWaterways, or expedition ships such as Hurtigruten or even G Adventures and their Galapagos itineraries.

In most instances, these companies suggest they already have plans for an alternate or “by request” item available for those who have specific needs, think about the young, the old, those with health issues, for example.

In the end, it's hopefully less a case of too little, too late and more a solid step in the right direction. I welcome any practical solution to a global problem.

Like many things in life, travel is best achieved through happy balance. It's also important to review where that balance might best be achieved.

Maybe we can all start by at least saying no to the straw!


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