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Waste Not
How the Tourism Industry Can Help Fight the Plastic Pandemic

When COVID hit in 2020, tourism frantically tried to carry on, with hygiene at the crux — often by wrapping everything in plastic. As travel struggles to regain its footing, responsibility and sustainability must once again be given priority to futureproof the industry.

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, hospitality plastic use was dropping as a result. Customers no longer wanted disposable cups and mini plastic toiletries in their bathrooms or single-use plastic water bottles in their mini fridges.

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 face masks 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 percent 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 up to 7 days on non-porous surfaces such as plastic and steel. Wrapping things in plastic just gives us a dangerously false sense of security.

So, how can the hospitality industry help fight the plastic pandemic?

  1. Latex gloves should be used sparingly. Thorough handwashing is more efficient at preventing transmission, and gloves actually make staff wash less.

  2. Use reusable face 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. Reintroducing 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 measures, 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

Plastic entering our oceans was already a major challenge before COVID — and tourism has a vital role to play in contributing to the solution. 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 percent during the summer season. To counter this, UNEP, UNWTO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative in January 2020 to help the industry take coordinated action against plastic pollution generated by travelers. 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 — circular plastics consultancy Searious Business — 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 thrive in our absence, but the environmental benefits will likely be short-lived if we don't take concrete action. As tourism operations resume, responsibility and sustainability must once again be given priority to futureproof the industry.