Why the demand for less plastic is a huge opportunity for hotels

Awareness of plastic pollution is on the rise

Today, few people doubt that plastic pollution is a severe problem. The numbers speak for themselves and make it hard to ignore the fact. According to the UNEP, 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. If you find that number a little hard to grasp, here is a more vivid description. According to the WEF, every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans.

Picture by Brian Yurasits

The travel industry, and particularly the hospitality industry, plays a significant role in this. In almost every part of the hospitality sector, plastic items help to make guests’ stay more convenient in one way or another – many of these items only used once. Even worse, the OECD finds that only around 15 % of all plastic waste is recycled.This problem is not new. What’s new is that in recent years, more and more people across the world become aware and start to care.

On the one hand, governments become increasingly concerned. What many people don’t know is that China had been importing plastic waste from Western countries for a long time. China’s recent move to stop importing trash starting from 2018 came as a shock to many nations. Since then, governments are struggling to find other ways to get rid of their plastic-trash. This and other general concerns have led governments across the world to start banning plastic items in the hospitality industry. For example, the EU has banned specific single-use plastic items such as straws and cotton buds by 2021 . The UK has implemented a similar ban that is to become effective already in 2020. Encouragingly, governments across the world follow a similar track.

On the other hand, it’s individuals and particularly travellers, who are becoming more aware and more demanding. Not surprisingly, social media has played a significant role in this. The sad pictures and videos of sea life dying due to plastic waste are often the most powerful calls to action. But sometimes it’s also just a beach full of trash that makes people think. More and more often, travellers show their concern through directly addressing their dismay of plastic usage. Many even go a step further and actively participate in trash clean-up activities.

Opportunity or Threat?

Picture by Javier Allegue Barros

Whether this trend is perceived as a threat or an opportunity, depends a lot on the hotels’ perspectives. Plastic, has for a long time been one of the hotels’ best friends. Not without reasons, plastic has conquered the world by storm since its invention. It’s cheap, hygienic, shapeable and it can be used in almost all types of applications.

Using less or no plastic, may seem like an immense challenge to hotels. Typically, there are a number of implications this change involves. For example, make effort to find useful replacements for plastic, ensure that sourcing is feasible, fear that the change comes with higher sourcing cost, concerns that guests may react negatively, to name a few. This can indeed seem like a tough choice at the beginning.

However, history has repeatedly shown that the most successful businesses manage to use challenges like this one to their advantage. The most successful ones are often the ones who overcome a challenge and use it to get stronger. And so can hotels that tackle plastic pollution.

The most important factor in this is: travellers do care.

Research on travellers’ preferences is more than encouraging. Booking.com finds in one of their studies that 86% of travellers are willing to spend some time on activities that offset the environmental impact of their stay, with over a third willing to clear plastic and litter from a beach or attraction. This trend is especially true for millennials that constitute a rising share of travellers. In a survey conducted by Nielsen, 73% of millennials worldwide answered that they were willing to pay more for services from companies that are committed to creating a positive environmental impact. According to research conducted by Hilton, 33% of travellers actively seek this information about a hotel company’s environmental and social efforts.

This shows: Opportunities for hotels to gain from becoming more eco-friendly are significant. Not only is it good for the planet, it is oftentimes also good for business. A study conducted by TUI, show that 57% of consumers would book a more environmentally responsible holiday if they were more readily available.

What does it take?

To turn this trend into an opportunity, two steps are key for success. First, making genuine steps towards becoming more eco-friendly and second, actively communicating to guests.

Picture by Tim Swaan

Becoming truly eco-friendly is sometimes more difficult than it sounds. The choice in materials is enormous and information can sometimes be misleading. For example, bioplastics that are made from corn-starch often sound good. And indeed, they are usually better when it comes to production, as they do not rely on a petroleum base. But unfortunately, they often require a specific waste facility to be recycled properly. If such a facility is not available, bioplastics can be almost as harmful as conventional plastics.

Next to becoming more eco-friendly, informing guests should not be taken too lightly. A survey conducted by TripAdvisor suggests that many travellers don’t know enough about a hotel’s sustainability practices. According to the survey, 64% of respondents in the survey said they “rarely or never feel informed about whether a hotel is truly eco-friendly”.

Communication is obviously much easier for items that are obvious to the guests’ eyes. For example, in-room amenities, items in the lobby, key cards, to name a few. However, the more hidden parts are just as important and can certainly be made more visible to the guest through effective communication. One hotel in Bangkok went as far to claim that it is 100% plastic free and gained enormous attention in the media in 2018.

Of course, not all initiatives have such a wide-ranging impact. But even when going small steps and let travellers know: it does have an impact. In times of full transparency, even the small things that travellers notice and mention can be valuable.

Whether hotel executives do it for their own conscience and/or for bringing their business forward – either way, our planet will be grateful for all truly eco-friendly initiatives.

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