Interview with Wassim Daoud, Head of Sustainability and CSR at PONANT on its Global Tourism Plastics Initiative commitment
by Mafalda Borea & UNEP One Planet Network
As part of Sustainable First’s partnership with the UNEP’s & UNWTO’s Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, Mafalda Borea speaks to Wassim Daoud, Head of Sustainability and CSR at PONANT, and PONANT Foundation Member, on their commitment to the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative as part of their focus on responsibility towards the environment and indigenous peoples, and promoting sustainable tourism with the aim to reduce their environmental impacts through responsible consumption on board, the design of their ships and innovative fuel technology.
Question: You have committed to eliminating single-use plastics on board your ships as well as in your head offices and regularly clean beaches and collect and sort the waste on board to be brought to waste management facilities. Why is tackling plastic pollution so important for you?
Answer: Preservation of marine ecosystems is at the heart of PONANT’s commitment as a company founded by sailors, which is mobilised to promote sustainable and responsible tourism. We want to address plastic pollution, as it is one of the main sources of marine pollution, as well as one of the most pressing environmental issues. During the One Ocean Summit, held in February 2022 in Brest, PONANT has reaffirmed this commitment to completely eliminate single-use plastics aboard and ashore from 2022. We have placed a high priority on eliminating plastics in the oceans through a “life cycle” approach that includes source reduction, manufacturing, transportation, use, and end of life, which has led us to sign the Global Tourism Plastic Initiative. We have ambitious objectives and are pursuing our actions with determination, as it seems essential to us to protect the ocean, and we also want to inspire other players to get involved. For example, PONANT was one of the first companies to sign up to France Southern Region’s “Zero Plastic Waste” charter.
Q: Do you have any specific examples of alternative solutions to single-use plastics that you have implemented and are particularly proud of? Also, are there any specific recommendations and advice that you can give when it comes to the procurement of reuse models?
A: We pay particular attention to the elimination of non-recyclable plastic products and by 2019 we had eliminated straws, tacks, laundry bags, cups, single food portion containers, toothpicks, stirrers, both onboard and in our offices. We also found sustainable and biodegradable solutions for glass and toilet covers.
In line with our commitments, we have eco-designed Le Commandant Charcot, a latest-generation polar vessel, with the latest green technologies. Regarding waste management on board, we aim to eliminate single-use plastics and reduce packaging. As to recycling, we have conceived this vessel with a storage capacity twice as big as the rest of the fleet, especially in order to be able to store packaging to recycle them. Onboard Le Commandant Charcot (as well as onboard all our vessels), 100% of waste is separated and sorted, and PONANT has achieved 60% recycling of waste in 2019. On Le Commandant Charcot, PONANT has also chosen to replace plastic water bottles with water produced and bottled on board, thanks to a technology developed by the Swedish company Nordaq. It enables us to desalinate water and transform seawater into 100% drinkable water. We have estimated we will avoid using 150,000 plastic bottles per year onboard Le Commandant Charcot, which represents a significant reduction of 15 tons of CO2 and 4.5 tons of plastic per year (one PET bottle amounts to 100g of CO2).
In addition to Le Commandant Charcot, the whole fleet will be equipped with this technology later on during the year. Water fountains are also made available to everyone on board all thirteen vessels. Furthermore, each guest is treated with a 500 ml reusable bottle. This will help us save nearly a million single-use plastic water bottles a year, which represents over 30 tonnes of plastic. Regarding cabin amenities, we use onboard Le Commandant Charcot large-format pump dispensers in order to reduce plastic waste. We will extend their use to the rest of our fleet if this collaboration proves to be positive.
PONANT has also made its headquarters free of single-use plastics. To encourage our teams to stop using single-use plastics, every employee has been given a reusable water bottle and cup, among other sustainable everyday amenities. Recycling bins are available for both plastic, paper, and general waste on every floor. We manage to recycle 61% of cans and plastic bottles discarded there. The recycling collection is made by ELISE, a local solidarity company, which employs disabled workers and people experiencing difficulties integrating. All these measures have saved PONANT from using 10,000 kg of single-use plastic in 2019 alone.
Q: What do you think makes the operations around plastics different for cruises than for other signatories? What were challenges and how did you overcome them?
A: What makes the operations around plastics different for the cruise industry compared to others lies in the fact that cruise ships sail over extended periods of time at sea, without any possible connection ashore. Regarding the elimination of plastic bottles for reusable ones, our main challenge on board lies in guaranteeing the best water quality, at all times. We have to meet quality requirements, both biological and taste-wise, which compel us to constant control. We couldn’t guarantee its quality otherwise. Furthermore, putting in place alternative solutions has required extra efforts, for all teams. Given that all the vessels in our fleet sail to remote and secluded destinations, they can’t hand over water treatment to subcontractors during the stopovers, everything must be done on board, which has represented a technical and operational challenge. It also means adding an extra workload to crew members on board, as they have to clean used bottles, refill, and reseal them ready for the medical team’s controls.
Q: How do you enable successful coordination with local communities and destinations to ensure that plastic waste is properly recycled or disposed of?
A: PONANT is committed to a policy of leaving zero plastic waste behind in the natural environment. Any plastic waste generated is sorted and entrusted to specialised companies for treatment in our stopover ports around the world. Not only do we ask for certifications regarding the disposal process, but we audit these companies to ensure everything is fully and properly disposed of.
The PONANT Foundation has been supporting the Argentinian Garrahan Foundation since January 2020, a project that collects our recyclable waste accumulated on board by Ushuaia upon the return of our cruises in Antarctica and then sells it to fund the purchase and repair of equipment at the Garrahan Paediatric Hospital in Buenos Aires, train health teams and help fund aftercare homes for sick children and their families.
Q: What advice would you give to other cruise companies who are hesitating to reduce plastic in their products and packaging/ What competitive advantages have you gained by addressing the problem of plastic pollution?
A: The cruise industry has seen the emergence of many technological innovations in environmental matters and can pride itself on being one of the most dynamic sectors in this field. Sustainability is definitively a key driver for the sector.
Reducing the use of plastics goods has a direct effect on reducing environmental pollution. Producing water on board reduces transport and handling operations of water bottles, and also helps to save storage space onboard. We can advise the other companies to plan a progressive elimination of plastics starting with the easiest products to replace, such as straws or laundry bags.
Q: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your efforts to reduce plastics in your operation?
A: Handling the COVID-19 pandemic is very complex and unfortunately has led to the unavoidable single-use plastic masks and gloves. It has also delayed the installation of Nordaq drinking water treatment systems onboard all fleet ships.
Q: What are the benefits of including your commitment to sustainability when communicating with your clients?
A: We have noticed that sustainability is definitely a criterion that our clients take into account when booking their travels. Guests come aboard to enjoy an unforgettable voyage and discover the planet’s natural beauty and meet local populations. This experience of expanding one’s horizons and personal growth is an extraordinary opportunity, upon returning, to share our wonder and to emphasise the need to protect the environment. Expedition cruises, especially, are an amazing educational tool for it. All the good intentions in the world won’t matter if they aren’t resulting in anything tangible. Communication with our clients allows proving that our practices make a real, positive impact on the environment.
PONANT is working towards the following UN Sustainable Development Goals:
This interview was published in partnership with UN Environment Programme’s One Planet Network’s Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and is also available here.