Do we know everything about single-use plastic products in travel and tourism?

Linh Ngan
03:15:42 - July 06, 2021

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has just released a report in June 2021 entitled “Rethinking Single-Use Plastic Products in Travel & Tourism” to review the environmental and economic impacts of tourism when using single-use plastic products, thereby providing some recommendations for businesses in the industry to consider and make the necessary changes.

Single-use plastic is popular in travel and tourism since it helps keep up with health, safety and hygiene standards. Plastic is also a lightweight and cheap material that is available everywhere, which makes it very convenient for both staff and customers to use. Studies also show that tourist arrivals and plastic pollution are related to a certain extent. This can be seen in a number of other reports by Maione (2019) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) (2019): plastic waste in Zanzibar and the Mediterranean increases during peak travel seasons.

According to the Travel & Tourism Value Chain, which summarizes the entire value chain of supply-demand activities in the form of tourism products or services, Single-Use Plastic Products (SUPPs) in travel and tourism includes all products used directly by tourism businesses as well as products used throughout the value chain by all stakeholders. For example, to grow fruits and vegetables for tourism businesses, farmers can use plastic in crop coverage, mulch, packaging, containers, pots, irrigation and drainage pipes, and some of these may be leaked into the environment.

Source: WEF

Impact of plastic in travel and tourism

A plastic pollution hotspot is regarded as a component of the system, that directly or indirectly contributes to plastic leakage and its associated impacts, and that can be acted upon to mitigate this leakage. SUPPs are leaked into the natural environment in three main ways: littering, sewage systems, and inappropriate solid waste management, with waste management pathway generally the largest leak (UNEP 2008).

In the tourism industry, cruises, which receive an average of 210 million passengers per year (according to Cruise Lines International Association [CLIA] 2018), generate a significant source of pollution with the highest risk of plastic leakage. The medium level of leakage belongs to accommodations – providing an average of 4,000 million rooms per year (according to UNWTO, 2019) – and MICE – receiving an average of 1,650 million attendees (according to Allied Market Research and American Express, 2019). Aviation is the sector with the lowest risk of plastic leakage despite welcoming up to 4,500 million passengers a year thanks to strict cabin waste regulations.

In the accommodation sub-sector, 32% of SUPPs by weight was linked to water bottles, 31% to

toiletries, 15% to bags and liners, 9% to food packaging, 3% to cups, 4% to cling film, 3% to other miscellaneous packaging, 1% to cutlery, stirrers and straws and 1% to small food products. In particular, businesses are highly aware of the possibility of littering for plastic products such as water bottles and food packaging and cups. Besides, UNWTO also found a number of less-noticed plastic leakage hotspots including cigarette butts, wet wipes, sanitary products, fishing nets, agricultural plastics and tire abrasion.

While downstream plastic pollution is the most visible form of pollution, the environmental impacts of plastic also occur upstream. In fact, since plastic is often made from fossil fuels, the process of fossil fuel extraction and the plastic production stage later also produce greenhouse gas. Although plastic production and burning currently has a negligible impact on climate change compared to other fossil fuel uses, if plastic use and production continues to increase on the current trajectory, plastic pollution alone could account for 13% of global of the total global carbon budget by 2050 (WWF, 2019).

Today, about 90% of ocean plastic is derived from land-based sources (WasteAid 2020), mainly due to the high use of single-use products and plastic packaging, inadequate waste management systems, unregulated landfills and insufficient recycling rates. Plastic damage to marine ecosystems is up to 13 billion USD per year (according to UNEP, 2014). In addition, plastic pollution also affects tourism resources. For example, Geoje Island in South Korea has seen a 63% drop in visitors because the island’s beaches were littered with garbage after the heavy rains in July 2011, resulting in a loss of revenue of 29-37 million USD to the local economy.

The truth about replacing SUPPs with single-use alternative-material products in travel

There are now many plastic alternatives that have appeared on the market and are labeled as “biodegradable”, “compostable”, “natural”, “bio-based” or “plastic-free”. However, travelers/consumers are confused as there are too many types of alternative products with labels that are not clearly distinguished by the suppliers. In addition, if a product is labeled “recyclable”, its recyclability must be proven in practice. Most product suppliers have not really succeeded in this, and therefore, creating plastic-alternative products is hardly effective in changing consumption habits.

In addition, the replacement of SUPPs with alternative materials does not always significantly reduce the impact on the environment and may be unsuitable for the waste treatment infrastructure of the local. For example, the use of disposable plastic slippers in hotels creates an environmental impact of 8.13 (according to the environmental protection organization Save the Med), similar to the pollution level of using disposable slippers made from mixed fabric as an alternative to plastic. It is because the impact of a product on the natural environment lies not only in the material of the product itself but also in the entire manufacturing process (and recycling, if any) of that product.

Some recommendations from WTTC about SUPPs in travel and tourism

Although each sub-sector creates a different amount of plastic leakage, it is undeniable that global travel and tourism also contributes greatly to plastic pollution. To improve this, industries need to be aware of the causes of plastic waste leakage, its impact, and locate potential hotspots to address this situation promptly. Alternatives for SUPP have a relatively high price tag, and with Covid-19 reducing oil prices, plastic becomes even cheaper than before. However, more and more travelers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, so industry players also need to maintain their commitment to environmentally responsible business.

Reducing unnecessary SUPPs consumption

Regarding standard operating procedures (SOPs), the WTTC recommends that businesses redefine their unnecessary SUPPs (plastics that are not reusable, recyclable or biodegradable) so that they can reduce this plastic waste in the habits and operating procedures of both employees and customers. This also leads businesses to organize workshops to train their employees on alternative products or changes in SOPs.

In addition, not all SUPP alternatives are available at each site or suitable for each local waste infrastructure. Therefore, WTTC recommends that instead of trying to replace that product with an alternative disposable material, businesses should consider changing the process to eliminate or reduce the demand for plastic products.

Interventions to better capture SUPPs in circulation

In the current time, when the operation of businesses is affected and changed by health, safety and hygiene requirements, forcing them to use plastic, WTTC recommends businesses to seek advice from consulting companies specializing in health and safety management to be able to make decisions that both meet the new requirements and ensure to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic waste. At the same time, destinations also need to ensure their infrastructure and waste management processes are upgraded in preparation for peak tourist seasons, as well as to create educational campaigns guiding the proper disposal of SUPP in tourism and to work more closely with businesses and waste collection organizations.

Interventions to improve waste management recovery

Businesses should also stimulate demand for products with recycled content through procurement practices, collaborate with businesses innovating in the collection of problematic SUPPs, as well as raise funds to contribute to improving the area’s solid waste and wastewater management infrastructure. DMOs also need to create policies that support hotels, resorts and travel service providers to report on the amount of SUPPs they have, as well as ensure businesses stick to their requirements and targets set for eliminating the use of SUPP or non-recyclable plastics.

Do we know everything about single-use plastic products in travel and tourism?


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