Launched in 2018, the organisation Travel Without Plastic works with hotels and other tourism businesses looking to reduce plastic in their supply chains or go plastic-free. I spoke with their founder, Jo Hendrickx.
Jeremy: Why did you create this initiative?
Jo: Having worked for over 7 years supporting hotels with sustainability initiatives and preparing them for certifications such as Travelife, I was quite surprised to find that so many accommodation providers were still using single-use plastics across their operations. The tipping point came during a trip to the United States in 2017 where I experienced what can only be described as a Styrofoam breakfast. There wasn’t a single reusable item in the breakfast room. Plates, bowls and coffee cups were all made from Styrofoam and the plastic cutlery was all individually wrapped in plastic sleeves. Watching the waste pile up in front of my eyes as each hotel guest cleared away their table was shocking, I just thought there has to be a better way.
I found that there are a number of reasons that hotels continue to choose single-use items over reusable ones, ranging from not having the financial resources to invest in commercial dish-washing facilities, to a perception that any changes might impact health and safety.
With a background in health, safety and quality auditing together with 10 years of working in the sustainable tourism field, I knew that I could create a set of practical resources that would help hotels to reduce or eliminate unnecessary plastics without compromising health, safety or quality and that’s what I set about doing. I drew on the experience of others in the industry and partnered with Rachel McCaffery of Green Case Consulting and Nancy Brock, an independent sustainability consultant to create the Let’s Reduce Single-Use Guide and Tool Kit for Hotels and Accommodations which we launched on 5th June this year to celebrate World Environment Day.
Jeremy: Can you give us some more info on the resources you have created?
Jo: We wanted to create tools that could be used by hotels and accommodations all over the world to be able to make a huge positive impact. Our goal is to prevent one billion items of single-use plastic from going to landfill by 2020. For this to be possible our tools needed to be simple, accessible and fairly self-explanatory, so that hotels can easily get on with making the changes without the need for consultation or on-site assistance (although we do offer this service to hotels that would like to work with us directly).
The toolkit includes:
- The Let’s Reduce Single-Use Guide – which goes into the detail of the issues with single-use plastics and identifies the pros and the cons of the alternatives, breaking them down into no cost, low cost and investment opportunities. We share some of our Top Tips for implementation as well as a detailed case study.
- A self-assessment questionnaire – this is broken down into hospitality departments sections such as housekeeping, purchasing, food & beverage etc. which enables the hotel to identify exactly where plastic is being used throughout their operations.
- A cost v consumption spreadsheet – which allows the hotel to calculate how many items of plastic are being used and the financial cost to the business. After undertaking both of these exercises, the hotel management team can make an informed decision on which changes they would like to prioritise in order to make the maximum possible impact, both in terms of environmental savings and cost savings.
- Staff training templates – which can be adapted to include hotel branding and to be relevant to specific targets, save time as they are preformatted with ideas for staff engagement.
- Customer communications templates – these include adaptable infographics which again can be changed to suit branding and individual messages.
- A customer questionnaire – to help hotels check they are on the right track and that changes are not negatively impacting the customer experience
- A member’s area of the website includes access to an ever expanding global directory of suppliers providing viable alternatives to single-use plastics with links, discount codes, FAQs, case studies and much more.
Jeremy: What has the response been like so far?
Jo: Excellent actually, we knew it was something that a lot of businesses would be interested in, but we never realised how much coverage we’d get. We’ve developed some great relationships with other organisations like Travelmole, Travelers Against Plastic and ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association) along the way and they’ve shared news of our Tool Kit amongst their networks, significantly increasing our reach. We were really surprised to get such great coverage in The Guardian for Plastic Free July and are also delighted to have been asked to contribute to ONE PLANET – the Sustainable Tourism Programme of the UNTWO this year.
We’re now working with a number of hotel groups in Spain, Greece and Turkey and have identified some strategic partners who will help us roll out the programme across Australia, The USA and West Africa.
We’re also excited that Rachel will be presenting our approach to ABTA members later in September and we have some slides being presented on our behalf at sustainable tourism conferences in Myanmar.
Jeremy: What are the biggest challenges facing hotels and tour companies looking to reduce plastic or go plastic free?
Jo: Funnily enough we covered the top 3 barriers hotels tell us they face in a recent blog.
These are 1) Packaging, 2) Toiletries, 3) Customer Perception.
- Packaging – in particular cleaning products and some food products are always in plastic containers and most hotels we have spoken to tell us that they vast majority of their suppliers do not have a returns policy. Some hotels are able to return glass water bottles or large 20 litre bottles of water but little else. As packaging can account for 40% of a hotel’s waste, this is clearly an issue.
- Toiletries – we have become accustomed to expecting toiletries of some sort in hotel bathrooms and many of these are provided as a consequence of needing to meet local quality standards. Hoteliers want to provide the amenities and not all of them want to replace miniatures with dispensers. As more and more alternative suppliers come to the market however, we expect plastic free changes to be much easier for hotels to make.
- Customer Perception – As we’ve said, the industry has conditioned guests to have certain expectations – that the toilet isn’t clean without a plastic wrapper declaring it to be so, that drinking glasses are sanitised if they are wrapped in plastic (certainly not always the case), but we can also condition them out of this. It is important that we find out what guests want and what they think, rather than just making assumptions.
For tour companies, there are very specific issues depending upon the type of company, the destinations featured and the customer demographic. For instance, adventure travel companies can find it difficult to get customers to make the move from bottled water, particularly in destinations where water is not considered to be safe to drink. Even with the latest technology in filter bottles and steripens some travellers are wary and finding suitably filtered water along remote hiking trails is no easy task. Tour companies operating bus tours or even just the transfers from the airport can also find alternatives to bottled water are a challenge. Refill stations in airports do help but this requires travellers to be ready prepared which is not always the case. We’ll continue to look out for good examples of how others are dealing with this so that we can share ideas and practices with the Travel Without Plastic community.
Jeremy: What has inspired you most about the companies you have featured and worked with?
Jo: When researching the content for the Let’s Reduce Single-Use Guide we spoke with hotels that are already leading the way in terms of plastic reduction. All unique in their own way, it was really motivating to hear their stories, their successes, their challenges and how they overcame them. What is really clear is that hotels that get this right really have the support of their staff when it comes to implementation, and this is the same whether it’s an independent eco-lodge or a large chain, the ethics of the business are the foundation for change. It’s been fabulous just talking to so many ethical businesses.
I’ve also loved the conversations with the alternative suppliers, there are so many people out there creating amazing innovative products and being able to share their stories is an absolute privilege. Connecting with people with shared goals and so knowing that you’re not alone in wanting to create positive change honestly inspires me to keep going.
Jeremy: Where should companies focus their efforts when then they get started?
Jo: That’s a good question, and it would depend upon the business. Our biggest piece of advice would be to not assume that you know where you are using the most plastic. Often, when hotels have undertaken the questionnaire and completed the cost/consumption spreadsheet they’re surprised by the answers. We all know that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and this is the same, so taking the time to get these two first steps right is really important. Once you know the answer to these questions, you know where to focus your efforts to change and by continuing to monitor the impact they’ll know what is working for them.
Jeremy: What are your plans for the initiative for the coming 12 months?
Jo: Looking ahead, we’d like to develop more strategic partnerships and have the full Tool Kit available in a range of other languages so that we can expand the positive impact. Currently it’s in English and Spanish which does cover a significant number of destinations, but we’d like to cover more.
I would like us to be recognised as the go-to organisation for plastics in tourism and we’ll work on that reputation by creating case studies with the hotels that we are currently working with and delivering destination-based workshops. We will continue to expand our global directory of alternatives, giving hoteliers the opportunity to buy closer to home and support more local businesses.
We’d also love to be half way to our goal of reducing single-use plastic waste in hotels by one billion items by 2020 so any hotels or chains out there that have not yet started or would like to accelerate their plastic reduction programme, we’d love to hear from you.