Published 2 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Andrea Davis/Unsplash
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
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
Our scramble to protect ourselves has over-ridden any previous convictions to
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
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Latex gloves should be used sparingly. Thorough handwashing is more
efficient at preventing transmission, and gloves actually make staff wash
Use reusable face masks and wash frequently, as recommended by the WHO.
Provide refillable hand sanitiser near touchpoints.
Develop clear cleaning protocols for sanitisation of touchpoints (door
handles, card machines, remote controls, pens, computer keyboards, elevator
Wrapping things in plastic film is not a sanitisation measure in itself.
Instead, disinfect surfaces regularly.
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.
Choose essential single-use items carefully, considering their environmental
Single-use plastic items should be viewed as temporary measures, and their
use reviewed periodically.
Plastic waste should be segregated accordingly and recycled when
Communicate your cleaning procedures to your guests and explain your
long-term plastics strategy.
Plastic entering our
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
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
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.
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
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
responsibility and sustainability must once again be given priority to
futureproof the industry.
Published Sep 7, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST