Can we reduce the flood?
Fluggesellschaften, Hotels und Reiseveranstalter haben endlich das Ausmaß der Umweltverschmutzung durch Plastik erkannt und wollen etwas dagegen unternehmen. Umweltschützer fordern, dass jeder einzelne aktiv werden muss. Von ISABEL CHOAT
For decades, the image of a brightly coloured plastic straw in a cocktail against a backdrop of sea and sunset signalled one thing — carefree holidays. But 2018 is the year the travel industry will say adios not just to plastic straws but to all single-use plastic. Today, those little plastic tubes are a symbol not of fun times but of the catastrophic damage our throwaway culture is doing to the planet. Photographs of straws littering the seabed and beaches are on every news site and eco-conscious social media account — along with a litany of grim statistics and stark warnings: 480 billion plastic bottles sold worldwide in 2016; up to one trillion single-use plastic bags used every year; more than half a million plastic straws used every day around the world. If we continue to generate plastic waste at the current rate, approximately 12 billion tons will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.
Figures like these combined with the “Blue Planet effect” (an increased interest in marine biology in reaction to the BBC’S popular television series) have prompted travel companies to act. Among those introducing a partial or complete ban on singleuse plastics on their trips are cruise companies Hurtigruten and Fred Olsen; adventure operators Exodus, Lindblad Expeditions and KE Adventure Travel; Edition hotels; US glamping
site Under Canvas, and the Travel Corporation, whose brands include Red Carnation Hotels, Contiki and Uniworld.
Other companies are building rubbish collection into holidays in remote locations. This year, the Mountain Company is asking each trekker booked on to one of its trips to Nepal, Pakistan, India or Bhutan to pick up one kilogram of rubbish. The long-term goal is for this to become standard procedure for every Mountain Company group.
Some tour operators have gone further, introducing holidays aimed specifically at helping travellers “quit” plastic. In July, up to 15 travellers took part in the first Peloton Against Plastic, a 27-day cycling tour organized by adventure specialist Intrepid. Along the way, cyclists met local organizations dealing with the problem, while ten per cent of the profits will go to a Cambodian charity, Rehash Trash. Undiscovered Mountains, a much smaller adventure operator based in the southern French Alps, has advised travellers to leave all plastic behind and is to provide plastic-free accommodation on a dedicated trip.
These initiatives are not groundbreaking — luxury resort group Soneva banned plastic straws in 1998 and stopped importing bottled water in 2008 — but from this year, companies promising to reduce plastic waste will be in the majority. We may be drowning in plastic, but the tide is starting to turn.
“This is the year the corporate world woke up to the scale of our plastic problem and the travel industry is no exception. From airlines to cruise lines, we have heard a raft of measures aimed at cutting throwaway plastic,” says Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK.
Much still to do
“But there’s a lot more ground to cover. Some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations are in coastal areas, sometimes in countries already awash with plastic waste. Unless we tackle the problem at the source, more plastic will keep washing up
on beaches. There’s a lot that travel operators and hotel chains can do to cut plastic waste, from eliminating sachets and disposable cups to encouraging the use of refill stations,” says Edge.
So far, most of the action has been taken by large companies, with dedicated sustainability managers and a vested economic interest in keeping the environment that they sell as clean as possible. However, Joanne Hendrickx hopes to reach smaller, three- and four-star hotels through her online toolkit Travel Without Plastic (www.travelwithoutplastic.com).
Hendrickx says she reached her own personal “peak plastic” during a stay at a US hotel where breakfast was served exclusively in plastic dishes with plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic. “I was watching the waiter clear it away and he must have filled three bins. Actually seeing it piling up before my eyes pushed me over the edge. I thought, ‘I can’t contribute to this’.”
The site gives advice on ways to minimize plastic waste and, importantly for small hotels, the potential economic impact of switching to environmentally friendly alternatives. “We do all the research and set out the pros and cons of switching. For example, if you take toiletry miniatures out of rooms, what do you replace them with? What are the cost implications?” Exactly what effect these initiatives and bans will have is yet to be seen. The travel industry is huge — according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals grew seven per cent in 2017, reaching 1.3 billion globally — but so is the problem, with headlines saying that plastic may outweigh fish by 2050.
“In 2016, airlines generated 5.2 million tons of cabin waste”
Mountains of plastic waste
Even someone aware of the problem, who takes their own stainless-steel water bottle on holiday, can end up producing a mini-mountain of plastic waste before they even reach their destination: from throwing out water bottles and cosmetics at airport security to buying miniature toiletries duty-free and drinking plastic cups of water and hot drinks in flight.
Airports say they are doing their bit. Gatwick recycles all plastic bottles and says all food and drink outlets offer free tap water, although it has only five water fountains across its two terminals (compared with 100 at Heathrow). Until recently, the focus on air travel and pollution was almost exclusively on emissions, but the plastic footprint is massive, too. In 2016, airlines generated 5.2 million tons of cabin waste. In January, Ryanair announced it would eliminate all nonrecyclable plastics within five years as part of a new environmental policy. Others are more vague about the level of their waste reduction. British Airways has stated it is “actively seeking to source non-plastic alternatives where possible”.
But campaigners are confident that consumer awareness is high enough for the movement to build into meaningful action. Plastic Free July, a grass-roots campaign that started with 40 people in Australia in 2011, estimated that two million people from 170 countries participated in this year’s pledge to reduce their use of plastic. Sales of water filters are on the rise. Waterto-go, which sells a filtration bottle that eliminates 99.9 per cent of all microbiological contaminants in water, giving travellers a practical alternative to buying bottled water, has seen its biggest growth in sales since it began in 2010. Christine Mackay, founder of the Travelers Against Plastic (TAP) campaign, who also runs a non-profit adventure company, Crooked Trails, has been using filter devices for years. “There will be a tipping point when it becomes embarrassing to hold a plastic water bottle. In five years’ time, no one will be holding one,” Mackay says.
Plastic everywhere: waste in a river in the Philippines