As part of Sustainable First’s partnership with the UNEP’s & UNWTO’s Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, we speak to Jo Hendrickx, Founder of Travel Without Plastic, about their commitment to the Initiative and the brilliant work they are doing with the industry to provide sustainable alternatives to single use plastics.
Question: You manage Travel Without Plastic, one of the leading consultancies helping hospitality businesses reduce single-use plastic since 2017. Your organisation is well recognized within the tourism industry. Thank you for kindly agreeing to share some tips with our network about sustainable alternatives to single use plastics. We know that many accommodation providers have difficulty finding alternatives for items sold separately, such as snacking and plastic bottles for juice and sodas in minibars. Do you have any recommendations?
Answer: I think there are a few ways to do this, but it depends on the type of hotel. Personally, I think it can be a good idea to offer the service on request or to make it more like a room service delivery option. That way, hotels could offer their own snacks and serve them in reusable containers. For example, they could offer their own biscuits and serve them on grease proof paper. It’s been a long time now since I’ve stayed at a hotel with a stocked mini bar. I think the prices of the products dissuade people from buying them and it’s a lot of energy to keep mini bars running if it is a service guests don’t particularly value. In my opinion, it is about re-setting expectations and having quick service to the room if guests order drinks and snacks. There are suppliers providing snacks such as nuts and crisps in glass jars, but these would need to go back to the supplier for reuse to be sustainable. If the glass jars are just being deposited into recycling, I wouldn’t recommend it because producing, transporting and recycling glass is very energy intensive. If a hotel wants to continue with a stocked mini bar, I suggest cans for beers, soft drinks and mixers, with the caveat that guests have access to recycling (where facilities in the destination exist). If replacing single-use plastic proves to be completely impossible now, make it easy for those plastic products to be separated and collected for recycling. Also, consider asking suppliers about bottles made from recycled plastic content and ensure that these too can be recycled after use.
Q: What about items sold in vending machines?
A: For vending machines, my first response would be to question their necessity in the first place and to try removing them. Hotels could also look at the types of products most sold via the vending machine and see if these could be offered in a different way that avoids so much packaging. If it must be kept, speak with suppliers to identify the possibility of stocking items that don’t rely on single-use plastic packaging. It may be possible to find products that are packaged in non-plastic materials, but we need to bear in mind that any material designed to be used once and discarded doesn’t really solve the waste problem and doesn’t put us into a circular mindset. Additionally, if you feel it is necessary to keep the vending machine, you can always remove the bulb to reduce its energy consumption. It might look like it is not working, but a simple sign to say something like “The lights may be off, but I am still working” could be a possibility.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for reducing plastic in grab and go operations?
A: In terms of Grab and Go products – again, I think we need to consider the behaviour behind this option. We see a lot of grab and go outlets in hotels that are popular with business guests who are presumably in a hurry to get to meetings and conferences, but also in some city break style hotels for people who prefer to spend their time exploring the destination rather than sitting in a breakfast room. In these cases, I would love to see hotels trial some new approaches to encouraging “Eat-In” and incentivizing this in some way, perhaps discounting “Eat-In” rather than charging more. I also wonder if there could be a very reasonably priced in-room breakfast service that uses reusable cutlery so busy guests can eat whilst watching the news or replying to emails in the comfort of their room. It would take some planning and possibly incentivizing with additional points or rewards, but it could be worth a try.
I don’t think it is realistic to suggest that everyone would be willing to “Eat-In and sometimes grab and go options are also used to avoid the complexities of offering a full breakfast service. It could be useful to find out what people are purchasing the most from these outlets and see if is there another way for those products to be packaged using materials that break down without causing harm. As disposal of any packaging is likely to take place off site, I highly recommend having information clearly visible (either on the packaging itself or near the counter) telling people how to responsibly dispose of the packaging after use.
Q: Currently, it is particularly challenging to find alternatives on the market for products such as milk pods and tea bags – not in the individual pack but the bag in the water – any recommendations on those?
A: Milk pods are difficult to replace. The only way to do it without single use waste is by decanting milk from a larger receptacle into small ceramic, stainless steel or Pyrex jugs and then refrigerating these. This requires a new set of procedures, such as constantly ensuring fridges are working at the right temperatures, ensuring processes to remove and replace the jug with a clean one daily and it would probably require communication with guests, so they feel confident that such procedures are in place. I think this could be possible in some hotels, but it would be a lot of extra work for many. Perhaps using powdered milk or creamers in paper sachets would be acceptable in some hotels. For teabags, I find doing a quick search for plastic free teabags on the web to be useful. There are a lot of brands going plastic free these days.
Q: What about products such as instant coffee sachets? Several GTPI signatories mentioned they find it difficult to find suitable alternatives.
A: Some hotels are making tea and coffee stations available in corridors, so that guests who wish to have a hot drink can do so using the machine (which avoids miniature sachets and milk pods). While some hotels might see this as a lack of service, this solution could be proactively promoted in a positive way – e.g., there are now 6 different coffee types you can have (cappuccino, americano, and more) rather than the standard cheap sachet you find in most places. There are also plastic-free coffee bags (just like tea bags) which are easily found online with a quick search. I have tried a few at home, and they were nice. The other thing you can do with coffee is decant it into smaller glass jars – again with the procedures in place to ensure they are removed, washed and refilled and supported with guest communications.
Q: Another product that is challenging to replace is garbage bags. Do you have any suggestions for alternatives available on the market?
A: Firstly, if this is for guest rooms, I would suggest avoiding using garbage bags, but instead having a procedure to ensure the inner cylinder of the bin is always cleaned. If the need for bags exists for whatever reason, use biodegradable bags in any bins where food or general waste will be deposited, but encourage guests to separate dry recycling in a bin that just has a cylinder. Ensure there are procedures not to change the bin liner if it is NOT soiled which helps to reduce consumption. There are also reusable bin liners available, we tested some in a project in Mallorca last year and got great results. In 2019, the hotel used 147,000 bin liners. Investing in reusable, washable liners would mean that no single-use bin liners (room size) would be needed, and the ROI is just 12 months. I thought housekeeping would hate them, but they loved them.
Q: Finally, do you have any suggestions for items needed for sanitary or health reasons (i.e. individual masks, food specific dietary items)?
A: I think we have to be realistic and accept that for many items there are often no suitable or affordable alternatives, and the best course of action in that case is to ensure that those items or packaging are properly disposed of, so they don’t become pollution. The disposal of personal protective items is usually legislated, so there is nothing a hotel can do differently in that case. In some countries there are organisations that collect personal protective equipment and turn it into new products, so hotels can ensure items are securely deposited into a specific bin which is then collected by such an organization. Packaging for dietary foods or to prevent allergens is not an area in which we have expertise, but we do recommend hotels speak with their suppliers and wholesalers to investigate new possibilities. For items that hotels cannot avoid now, they could track their impact (via weight for example) and then donate to an organisation like RIO Oceans Integrity, who would remove the same weight of plastic from the oceans around Indonesia. Hotels that cannot go any further in their own operations at the moment might like the fact that they can still be part of a positive outcome.