Hotel amenity packaging: Why it takes some thought to be truly eco-friendly

In a nutshell

  • Hotel amenities made of and packaged in plastic have become a serious environmental problem
  • Solutions for eco-friendly hotel amenities are available for the items themselves but also for the packaging
  • This article explores the different options that are potential alternatives: bioplastic, stone paper, white paper and kraft paper
  • Options are assessed according to how eco-friendly they are in disposal and resources, if they can be identified as eco-friendly by the guests, if they affect the guest experience and if the are cost-effective for hotels
  • We hold the opinion that kraft paper and stone paper offer the most favourable characteristics overall, while for bioplastics it depends a significantly on the exact material composition

Hotel amenities - convenience and curse at the same time

Amenities in the guest room and bathroom are an integral part of the guest experience in many upscale hotels today. However, while making guests’ lives easier, they have also become a burden for the environment – and thereby a problem for the industry. Plastic waste created by hotel amenities are often rotting in landfills or even worse – end up in the ocean. It is generally known that plastic waste when not recycled takes tens and hundreds of years to break down. And when it breaks down, it breaks down into dangerous micro plastic particles.

With rising awareness among travellers and governments, an increasing amount of hotels are taking steps to fight pollution caused by amenities. The first target are typically the miniature bottles filled with shampoo and shower gel. Small hotels and larger chains such as the Marriott have started to replace them with larger size dispensers.

Hotel cotton swabs
Picture by Sharon Mccutcheon

But next to bottles, there is a range of amenities where the path to becoming more eco-friendly is less obvious. These are amenities such as cotton swabs, cotton pads and shower caps that are typically provided in the room. In addition, many items are provided on-demand such as combs, dental kits, razors and more.

Each of these items are usually disposable and both the packaging and the items are only used once. One obvious way to reduce pollution is to offer less amenities. But oftentimes, neither guests nor hotels are willing to do entirely without amenities. In some cases, hotel standards and star ratings require certain amenities to be available.

The alternative is to use more eco-friendly hotel amenities. For many of these items, there are eco-friendly alternatives available made of bamboo or other natural materials. While this is a topic of itself, in this article, we want to deep dive on the packaging of amenities. Oftentimes, plastic packaging turns out to be a polluter much larger than the items packaged inside.

For packaging, a number of alternatives have emerged in recent years. These solutions range from bioplastics to stone paper to paper and the sheer variety of claims can cause headaches at times. Seeing through the jungle of options becomes increasingly complex. With this article, we provide an overview of the available options with a high-level assessment of their pros and cons.

First things first: What is important from the hotel’s perspective?

Before making an informed decision, it is worth looking at the criteria that we found most hotels use to assess more sustainable hotel amenities solutions. From our conversations with hotels, we see that there are 5 criteria that matter the most. The first two being directly related to eco-friendliness.

1. Eco-friendly disposal. What happens with the packaging once it is thrown away?

This question is an obvious one, knowing that disposal of plastic is an enormous problem. Waste disposal processes differs strongly among hotels depending on operations and infrastructure surrounding the hotel. This is why we typically consider all possible scenarios of what happens with the waste after it is disposed of. In the best case, it gets into the right recycling stream. In the worst case, it ends up in nature through many different ways. Given that a share of waste from developed countries is exported, this scenario is more likely than many would think.

In the disposal discussion, a number of claims have led to increasing confusion. The most notorious one is the term “compostable”. Compostable often raises the expectation that you can throw it into your garden and wait a couple of days until it decomposes. Some materials are actually “home compostable”. However, the large majority of so-called compostable packaging types actually requires very specific conditions to decompose. These only exist in professional waste facilities, where they often don’t end up in.

2. Resource usage: What is needed to make this packaging?

This part is often neglected when it comes packaging for eco-friendly hotel amenities. The gold standard is to use as few resources as possible and count on renewable ones wherever possible. While some packagings perform great on the disposable part, they are sometimes more resource intensive. Both should be taken into account when making an informed decision.

3. Communication: Will guests notice that it is eco-friendly? 

Many hoteliers have an intrinsic motivation to be eco-friendly. However, oftentimes it is at least to some extent the guests or the governments that ask for it. In our view there is nothing wrong with that: Doing well by doing good eventually is also good for the environment. In any way, it is beneficial for hotels to communicate when they are truly eco-friendly. Amenities are a great way to accomplish this. They are at the front line of the guest experience and highly visible. That makes it even more important that the amenities are clearly eco-friendly.

4. Does it affect the guest experience?

Being eco-friendly is important. But so is the guest experience. Most hotels are not willing to significantly compromise the guest experience when becoming more eco-friendly. Guests in upscale hotels can be especially suspicious if they think that hotels use sustainability as a reason to save costs at the guest’s expense. Therefore, the guests’ perception is a significant criterion in the hotels’ decision making process.

5. Does it increase the costs?

Next to being more eco-friendly, hoteliers need to keep close track of their profit margins. The good news is: travellers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly accommodations. 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. Most travellers understand that being eco-friendly can sometimes be a bit more costly. So, from a financial view, there can be a positive impact on revenues, either through a higher room-rate or higher occupancy rate. However, costs should at the same time not increase disproportionately when introducing eco-friendly hotel amenities. Many hotels go the route of offering fewer in-room amenities and accept a slightly higher price for the remaining ones.

What are the options for eco-friendly hotel amenity packaging?

Bioplastic

Are you confused by the term “bioplastics”? If so, you are certainly not the only one. It seems that thousands of bioplastic packaging solutions are flooding the market. Many with different claims regarding their properties. 

Bioplastics typically have one or both of the following characteristics:

  1. They are biobased: That means they are made from renewable sources such as corn starch, straw, vegetable fats or recycled food waste. Often times, they are made of so-called polylactic acid (PLA). These may or may not break down more quickly than conventional plastics. 
  2. They degradable: That means they degrade more quickly either through a smart composition of renewable resources or through the addition of an additive that makes plastic degrade more quickly

Unfortunately, one of the characteristics is currently enough to call it “bioplastic”. This means: Bioplastics can be based on renewable resources but be non-degradable. It can also mean that a bioplastic is fossil-fuel based but degradable. Or it can be made from renewable resources and degradable. 

To add to the confusion, bioplastics are often mixed with conventional plastics. Interestingly, this can be better in many cases than 100% bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable because they can still go into the regular recycling stream if the majority is conventional recyclable plastic.

1. Eco-friendly disposal

Given that the variety of bioplastics, a general judgement would be unfair. Therefore, it is very important that claims about biodegradability are accompanied by information about the timeframe and environment in which the material degrades. 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of bioplastics (biodegradable or nondegradable) cannot simply degrade in home compost. They decompose only under very specific conditions – thus require a specific industrial waste facility. There are two problems with this. First, those waste facilities are not yet available in many places. Second, in hotels, bioplastic waste is almost never recycled separately. Thus, if bioplastics end up in the environment, they can still be a burden. Surprisingly, when bioplastics end up in the regular plastic recycling stream, they often contaminate the recycling process and act as an obstacle.

It should be noted that there are some bioplastics that qualify for home composting. In Europe, the TÜV Austria Belgium issues the OK compost home certification that requires plastics to degrade about 90% within 12 months at ambient temperature. The company also has a scheme that clarifies in which environment the material is degradable. If bioplastics are being used, be sure to be very specific about the degradability of the material.

2. Resource usage

As mentioned, the term “bioplastics” often does not give an indication about whether or not the material is made from renewable sources. However, it if is made from starch or other renewable sources, it is generally preferable. Even though, when crops are used that would otherwise be used for food, the call is less clear. Once again, be sure to be very specific about the material and what it is composed of.

3. Communication

Given that bioplastics often look like conventional plastic, it is hard for the guest to see at first sight whether or not the packaging is eco-friendly. Increasingly, guests are becoming confused with the types of bioplastics and whether or not they are truly eco-friendly. This makes it even more important to choose the material carefully, be specific and to clearly and honestly communicate the benefits.

4. Guest experience

In many cases, bioplastics cannot be told apart from conventional plastic. In that case, the guest experience remains unaffected. In some cases, the starch is visible in the packaging or the material is not as transparent as classic plastic packaging. In this case, it might slightly affect the guest experience. But overall it can be said that there is a minimal impact.

5. Cost

Again, the variety of bioplastics makes it difficult to give an overall judgement. Bioplastics with some small addition of starch can be as cheap as conventional plastic. However, in some instances there may be doubt about the degree of eco-friendliness. On the other hand, properly certified products can be more expensive but are often still cheaper than other eco-friendly alternatives. The challenge is to get good value for money, given the variety of different options.

Stone paper

Stone paper has been around for a couple of years now. As the name suggests, it is largely made from calcium carbonate, one of the most abundant materials on earth. Most importantly, it has a texture similar to paper but requires no wood. The calcium carbonate is ground into a fine powder and makes up about 80% of the product. Nobody is perfect – and so stone paper also needs a little help from the plastic side to bind the stone powder together. In this case, it is combined with high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which in turn is a plastic made from catalyzed natural gas byproducts. HDPE is the same material that you would also find in a milk container and a shampoo bottle. The paper has a feel somewhere between paper and plastic. One key benefit is that it is resistant to water.

1. Eco-friendly disposal

Despite its HDPE content, stone paper does much better than regular plastic on this side. While there is no doubt that the disposal of the stone part is not a problem, it comes to question what to do with the 20% HDPE. HDPE is recyclable in the Type 2 stream. This requires that it neither ends up in common waste nor in paper waste. According to producers of stone paper, waste facilities are able to identify stone paper if it is mixed with regular paper and diverts it into a type 2 recycling stream. On the other hand, there is a high risk in hotels that the paper ends up in common waste. Once again, producers of stone paper indicate that when burning stone paper it does not release harmful gases. Finally, if it ends up in the ocean, the amount of residues are significantly smaller than with regular plastic. While the term “Stone paper” might hide the fact that around 20% is HDPE, it is clearly more eco-friendly than conventional plastic when it comes to disposal.

2. Resource usage

Given that 80% of the product is calcium carbonate, an abundant resource and waste product, stone paper is very strong on this point. The production also typically requires less chemicals and water than is required for producing plastic and regular paper

3. Communication

In this dimension, stone paper is better than plastic but less good than regular paper. Its white colour does not immediately occur as an eco-friendly hotel amenity. It can be mistaken for regular white paper or even for coated paper or plastic. Therefore, using stone paper must be communicated clearly to the guests in order to ensure that it is well perceived

4. Guest experience

Since stone paper is more sturdy and water resistant than paper, it is usually quite similar to plastic when it comes to the guest experience. Therefore, the guest experience is typically not significantly altered. One difference is that for amenities, sachets instead of boxes are used when it is packaged in stone paper. However, sachets do not significantly change the guest experience as compared to boxes

5. Cost

When comparing stone paper to conventional plastic, it is more expensive. However, when comparing it to paper or kraft paper, it is sometimes slightly cheaper

Regular white paper

Classic white paper does not need much explanation. For amenities it is usually used as a card box or as thin paper sachets. Typically, cellulose fibers are extracted from a wood and converted to pulp. The pulp is then combined with water in a paper making machine.

1. Eco-friendly disposal

Paper has clear strengths on the disposal side. If is disposed of properly, it can usually be recycled more than once. If it is not disposed of properly, it does not release toxic gases when it is burned. Should paper end up in nature, especially in the ocean, it decomposes relatively fast and poses a less significant threat to marine life. And unlike plastic, it cannot contaminate waterways through toxic microparticles. It is very important to note that sometimes paper has a PE coating on it. While paper plus plastic might look better than just plastic, it is worse most of the time. Composites are hard to recycle taking away the opportunity for paper or plastic to be recycled.

2. Resource usage

In terms of resources used, regular white paper is less favourable. The use of water and wood draws on resources. The key here is that forests need to be managed sustainably in order to avoid deforestation and make paper sustainable. Marks such as the FSC-label indicate whether paper comes from sustainably managed sources. In addition to the question of wood, the white color of the paper is another aspect that makes it less eco-friendly. Wood fibres are not naturally white and white paper must go through an additional chemical bleaching process.

3. Communication

White paper by itself will likely not be noticed by guests as a particularly environmentally friendly. Too often, white paper boxes are combined with a small plastic sachet inside. If the white paper box is combined with a white paper sachet that has no coating, attentive guests may notice. In general, white paper boxes are not as easy to communicate as stone paper or kraft paper packaging. It requires active effort and explanations on the packaging.

4. Guest experience

White or coloured paper usually has an elegant look and is already today used in many instances. Therefore, it is not expected to negatively affect the guest experience in any way.

5. Cost

If a pure paper sachet is used instead of a plastic bag, costs will likely increase. However, many hotels are willing to spend slightly more, especially when the paper comes from sustainable sources.

Kraft paper

Kraft paper is brown in colour and the fibres are often visible in the paper structure. It is more robust than most other types of paper. While the production is similar to that of paper, it does not need the typical bleaching process. It also often comprises recycled paper in the production process.

1. Eco-friendly disposal

Just like regular paper, kraft paper is strong in characteristics when it comes to disposal. It can be recycled if it goes into the paper recycling stream. At the same time, the pollution is significantly lower than with plastic when it goes into another recycling stream. Also in the worst case where it ends up in nature, kraft paper causes little to no harm as opposed to many other solutions.

2. Resource usage

As mentioned for white paper, the weak point in kraft paper is that it uses wood and water as resources. However, often, these are mixed with recycled fibres to reduce the input required. Once again making sure that the wood comes from sustainable sources and is certified is important. As opposed to white paper, kraft paper is a more eco-friendly option given that there usually is no highly chemical bleaching process.

3. Communication

With the brown packaging, guests can notice immediately that hoteliers have spent thought on protecting the environment. It has a more natural look and feel than all other packaging types. This is an additional benefit that kraft paper brings to the table.

4. Guest experience

This fully depends on the guests perspective. Some might express the concern that brown paper looks less luxurious as opposed to white paper. However, recently kraft paper has seen a revival in popularity. More and more manufacturers across industries are using kraft paper for their packaging and it is increasingly incorporated into many styles of hotels.

5. Cost

Just like white paper, the production is more expensive than simple plastic packaging. Compared to conventional packaging, it sometimes raises costs slightly. However, usually these costs are minor compared to the benefits that more eco-friendly amenities bring.

What is the right eco-friendly hotel amenity packaging for your hotel?

Which packaging is right for your eco-friendly hotel amenities depends a lot on your specific situation. It depends on how you manage waste, where you are located and what your budget is for amenities. There is no clear-cut solution but it certainly helps to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of all possible packaging solutions.

Elementura GmbH

Wallstraße 16
D-40878 Ratingen
Germany

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