The last (plastic) straw: travel and its environmental responsibilities

Some airlines, hotels and tour operators are now addressing the issue of plastics pollution but activists believe the solution requires everyone to take a stand
Isabel Choat The Guardian 4 Jul 18;

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 all single-use plastic.

Today, those little plastic tubes are a symbol not of fun times but of the catastrophic damage our throw-away 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; 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 tonnes will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

Figures like these combined with the ‘Blue Planet effect’ have prompted travel companies to act. In the past six months cruise companies Hurtigruten and Fred Olsen, adventure operators Exodus, Lindblad Expeditions and KE Adventure, Edition hotels, US glamping site Under Canvas and the Travel Corporation, whose brands include Red Carnation hotels, Contiki and Uniworld, have all introduced a part or complete ban on single-use plastics on their trips.

Others companies are building rubbish collection into holidays in remote locations. This year the Mountain Company is asking each trekker booked onto one of its trips to Nepal, Pakistan, India or Bhutan to pick up 1kg of rubbish. The long-term goal is for litter-picking to become standard procedure for every Mountain Company group.

Some tour operators have gone further, introducing holidays aimed specifically at helping travellers “quit” plastic. This month up to 15 travellers are taking part in the first Peloton Against Plastic, a 27-day cycling tour launched by adventure specialist Intrepid. Along the way cyclists will meet local organisations tackling the problem and 10% of the profits will go towards 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 ground-breaking: luxury resort group Soneva banned plastic straws in 1998 and stopped importing bottled water in 2008, but from this year companies pledging to reduce plastic waste will be the majority rather than the pioneering few. 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.

“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 they sell as pristine as possible. However, Joanne Hendrickx hopes to target smaller, three- and four-star hotels through her online toolkit Travel without Plastic.

Hendrickx says she reached “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 though I can’t contribute to this.”

So far 100 hotels have downloaded the toolkit, which advises on ways to minimise plastic waste and, crucially 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 7% in 2017, reaching 1.3 billion globally – but so is the problem, with headlines highlighting how plastic may outweigh fish by 2050.

Even someone aware of the issue, who takes their own stainless steel water bottle on holiday, can end up producing a mini-mountain of plastic waste before they reach their destination – from disposing of water bottles and cosmetics at security to buying miniature toiletries in duty free and then working their way through endless 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 only has 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 plastic footprint is massive too. In 2016 airlines generated 5.2m tonnes of cabin waste, a problem that is only just starting to be addressed. In March, Ryanair announced it would eliminate all non-recyclable plastics within five years as part of a new environment 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 momentum to build into meaningful action. Plastic Free July, a grassroots campaign that started with 40 people in Australia in 2011, estimates that two million people from 159 countries will participate in this month’s pledge to reduce their use of plastic. Sales of water filters are on the rise. Water-to-Go, which sells a filtration bottle that eliminates 99.9% of all microbiological contaminants in water, giving travellers a viable alternative to buying bottled water, has seen its biggest growth in sales since it launched 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. Where once she drew strange looks, now fellow travellers ask where they can get one from.

“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.”

Resources and how to get involved
• Responsible Travel’s new plastic-free guide features 40 holidays, the majority of them sailing or diving trips.

• PlasticPatrol is a nationwide campaign to rid the UK’s inland waterways of plastic pollution. It is organising a series of clean-up events at eight locations across England this summer (14 July-7 August). Just show up at one of the designated locations and they will provide the bags and litter pickers and dispose of the rubbish afterwards – and a paddleboard for those who want to help from the water rather than the towpath.

• Travelers Against Plastic lists 250 travel companies that have signed its pledge to reduce the use of plastic water bottles, which it plans to extend to all single-use plastic. Individual travellers can also commit to reducing their use.

• Wateratairports.com lists water fountains at airports around the world.

• The Cabin Waste project looks at how airline waste can be disposed of in a more environmentally-friendly way.

• Surfers Against Sewage is inviting people to become plastic-free community leaders with the aim of establishing 125 plastic free communities by 2020.

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