How can the tourist industry help fight the plastic pandemic?

The pandemic unfortunately reversed a lot of previous efforts to reduce plastic in hospitality. With health and hygiene concerns obviously taking priority, the emotional response was to turn back to single-use, plastic-wrapped items. How can the tourist industry begin to build back better?
How can the tourist industry help fight the plastic pandemic?
This article was initialed published on 23 Sept. 2021. The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

Back in 2019, more and more tourist outlets were actively engaged in sustainability. Single-use toiletries were ditched in favour of refillable dispensers, and breakfast buffets were adorned with trendy jars filled with condiments and crunchy muesli toppings. Some of these changes were made in the name of sustainability, and some were just fashion or profit. Whatever the reason, plastic use was dropping as a result. Customers no longer wanted disposable cups in their bathrooms or expected their towels to come wrapped in plastic.

Then, in 2020, Covid hit, and it hit the tourism sector hard. Hotels and restaurants were forced to close, jobs were lost, and businesses went bankrupt. The industry frantically drew up plans to re-open with hygiene at the crux. The emotion-based response was to show guests that everything was clean and safe. How did they do that? They wrapped everything in plastic.

Staff wore latex gloves, disposable facemasks and PVC visors. Transparent screens were hastily erected at reception desks. Back came the individual jam cups and wrapped slices of cheese on the breakfast buffet, satisfying our increasing germaphobia. Remote controls and credit card machines were covered in cling-film to show that they were untouched by human hand, and single-use glasses were once again a regular sight in hotel bathrooms. The International Solid Waste association estimates that single-use plastic consumption has risen by 250-300% during the pandemic. Our scramble to protect ourselves has over-ridden any previous convictions to reduce plastic.

But plastic doesn't stop the coronavirus. In fact, COVID-19 thrives on plastic. Scientists have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can survive for days on non-porous surfaces such as plastic and steel. Wrapping things in plastic could give us a dangerously false sense of security.

How can the tourist industry help fight pandemic plastic? 

  1. Latex gloves should be used sparingly. Thorough handwashing is more efficient at preventing transmission, and gloves make staff actually wash less.
  2. Use reusable non-medical masks and wash frequently, as recommended by the WHO.
  3. Provide refillable hand-sanitiser near touchpoints.
  4. Develop clear cleaning protocols for sanitisation of touchpoints (door handles, card machines, remote controls, pens, computer keyboards, elevator buttons, handrails)
  5. Wrapping things in plastic film is not a sanitisation measure in itself. Instead, disinfect surfaces regularly.
  6. Introducing reusable items allows you greater control over hygiene processes, e.g. Cleaning condiment containers between uses instead of providing single-use sachets that could accidentally be touched.
  7. Choose essential single-use items carefully, considering their environmental impact.
  8. Single-use plastic items should be viewed as temporary, and their use reviewed periodically.
  9. Plastic waste should be segregated accordingly and recycled when appropriate.
  10. Communicate your cleaning procedures to your guests and explain your long-term plastics strategy.

Plastic on holiday

Before the pandemic, plastic entering our ocean was already a major challenge and the tourism industry has a significant impact. Research from the IUCN suggests that, in holiday hotspots like Menorca, tourism is the second largest contributor to the plastic waste generated. (Image: IUCN Plastic Twitter)

Much of the plastic used by holidaymakers is designed to be thrown away and often can’t be recycled, leading to large amounts of trash. The WWF found that plastic entering the Mediterranean sea actually increased by 40% during the summer season. We come home from holiday with a golden tan, but we leave behind a toxic legacy of plastic waste. To counter this, UNEP, UNWTO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Global Tourism Plastic Initiative in January 2020 to help the industry take coordinated action against plastic pollution caused by tourism. 93 businesses, organisations and NGOs have signed the pact, committing to address the root causes of the problem.

Build Back Better

One of the signatories, Searious Business, a circular plastics consultancy, produced zero-waste toolkits for hospitality, tour and cruise companies to give operators practical guidance to reduce plastic waste.

“The pandemic has given us time to pause and re-examine standard practice. We have an opportunity here to build back better than before," says business developer Rosemarie Wuite.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the role sustainability needs to play in our everyday life. With tourism brought to a sudden halt, air and water quality visibly improved. Nature seemed to profit from our absence, but environmental benefits are likely short-lived if we don't take concrete action.  As tourism operations resume, responsibility and sustainability must be given priority to futureproof the industry.

A green recovery is a strong recovery.

(originally published in Sustainable Brands)

To learn more, read as well the OECD Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060, Through a series of policy packages to bend the plastic curve, the Outlook demonstrates the environmental benefits and economic consequences of adopting more stringent policies.

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