ZERO-USE PLASTICS

On land, sea and air, the travel industry is battling to overcome its dependence on single-use plastics, employing new technology with varying degrees of success while also acknowledging that more must be done.

ZERO-USE PLASTICS

On land, sea and air, the travel industry is battling to overcome its dependence on single-use plastics, employing new technology with varying degrees of success while also acknowledging that more must be done.

BY THE TRAVEL WEEKLY STAFF

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

“Plastics.”

It’s the single word of advice Mr. McGuire so famously offered to Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock in the 1967 hit film “The Graduate.” Back then, it defined the materials that would define the future.

Today, “plastics” is once again a word that’s top of mind in thinking about the future. This time, however, it’s all about getting rid of the growing environmental disaster that single-use plastics now represent.

And while green and sustainable have been buzzwords in the travel sector for more than a decade, serious moves on the plastics front remained, until recently, mostly confined to smaller, luxury, wellness- and adventure-focused travel companies.

That began to change substantially in the past year, thanks in part to several high-profile documentaries that woke the world to the nightmare that plastics have created for our oceans and the environment. Suddenly, it seemed, there were daily announcements as cruise lines, hotels, even airlines, began pledging to rid themselves of plastic straws.

Virtuoso is working to eliminate single-use plastics at its events, including Virtuoso Travel Week, which this year attracted more than 6,500 attendees. (TW photo by Jamie Biesiada)

Virtuoso is working to eliminate single-use plastics at its events, including Virtuoso Travel Week, which this year attracted more than 6,500 attendees. (TW photo by Jamie Biesiada)

Virtuoso is working to eliminate single-use plastics at its events, including Virtuoso Travel Week, which this year attracted more than 6,500 attendees. (TW photo by Jamie Biesiada)

The movement has continued to gain steam, with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Marriott International this year announcing plans to remove from their properties those miniature plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion that so many travelers love to collect.

Last month, California upped the ante by outlawing single-use bathroom amenities. A similar measure is being considered in New York.

And everyone from tour operators to cruise lines and hotels, even San Francisco Airport, are now moving to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles.

A filling station for water bottles at San Francisco Airport, which banned the sale of plastic water bottles in August. (Courtesy of San Francisco International Airport)

A filling station for water bottles at San Francisco Airport, which banned the sale of plastic water bottles in August. (Courtesy of San Francisco International Airport)

A filling station for water bottles at San Francisco Airport, which banned the sale of plastic water bottles in August. (Courtesy of San Francisco International Airport)

But as our travels have shown, good intentions sometimes come with unintended consequences, underscoring the need for travel companies to educate guests about why the changes are necessary and to work with guests and suppliers to develop viable alternatives to the single-use plastics that have pervaded our daily lives.

Many tour operators, for example, have stopped handing out plastic water bottles, but they are still looking for ways to provide guests with refill stations on coaches. Without them, even guests who are committed to using only refillable bottles are often forced to buy plastic bottles once their personal bottle is empty.

And while an increasing number of air travelers carry reusable water bottles, filling them remains a challenge at many airports because of contradictory policies and the scarcity of stations that are designed to make refills easy and sanitary.

At one airline lounge recently, a bartender declined to fill a patron’s bottle, pointing her to the table where water and iced tea were available from plastic jugs with taps. But on the table was a sign asking that people not use them to fill personal bottles.

That’s understandable, given that there would be little room between the jug’s tap and a bottle’s mouth, making it hard to fill a bottle without contaminating the opening on the tap. The only option was to use one of the disposable plastic glasses next to the tap to pour water into a bottle.

No doubt these are just growing pains, and for every glitch, we can also (hopefully) expect innovative solutions.

G Adventures, for example, has big boxes of water on its coaches for guests to refill bottles throughout the day.

And in Asia, two entrepreneurs have launched Refill the World, which gives travelers refillable water bottles with QR codes directing them to restaurants and bars offering safe-to-drink water refills. Travelers get free water, and bar and restaurant owners gain foot traffic.

In this issue, Travel Weekly’s editors take a look at what the different travel sectors are doing to eliminate single-use plastics, along with the challenges and solutions they are finding along the way.

—Jeri Clausing

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AIRLINES

Delta has replaced plastic drink stirrers on flights and lounges with beechwood stirrers. (Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Delta has replaced plastic drink stirrers on flights and lounges with beechwood stirrers. (Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Single-use plastics have long been something of an addiction on commercial aircraft.

Think, for example, about the meals you’ve eaten aboard planes: Drinks are served in plastic bottles or cups; plastic utensils are sealed in plastic wrappers; dishes are often served in plastic; rolls are wrapped in plastic.

According to IATA, a 2012-13 waste audit at London Heathrow revealed that the typical passenger generated 3.15 pounds of cabin waste per flight, 17% of which consisted of recyclable materials, including plastics. Further, IATA’s research showed that flyers generated 5.7 million tons of cabin waste in 2017, and that figure could double by 2027 as a result of growing passenger numbers.

Beginning last summer, however, and accelerating through this year, carriers have announced a string of initiatives to reduce their use of plastics.

Last October, for example, Delta announced its intent to eliminate nearly 300,000 pounds of plastic waste annually. Measures include replacing plastic straws with compostable alternatives, wrapping utensils in biodegradable napkins and replacing the plastic wrappers in amenity kits with tamper-proof amenity kit latches. 

Plastic bottles are also a target of green-thinking airlines. In July, Air New Zealand removed individual plastic bottles from business and premium economy cabins as part of a much broader plan to remove 55 million plastic items from its operation this year. 

Similarly, Air France said in June that it would remove 210 million single-use plastic items, eliminating 1,300 tons of the stuff by the end of this year.

Alberto de Lucio, the U.S. vice president for Linstol, which supplies carriers with in-air products, including food service items, said that steps like these have resulted in a surge of interest by airlines in renewable alternatives. 

“We are trying to find replacements for every single-use thing in an airplane,” de Lucio said.

‘We are trying to find replacements for every single-use thing in an airplane.’
—Alberto de Lucio, Linstol

For example, he said, United has just begun using a new Linstol paper coffee cup called the Super Cup. Typical airplane coffee cups aren’t recycled because they are lined with plastic that is difficult to separate from the paper. But the Super Cup uses a proprietary liner technology that has 51% less plastic and separates from paper much more easily.

The Super Cup, developed by in-air products supplier Linstol, uses 51% less plastic than traditional airplane paper cups. (Courtesy of Linstol)

The Super Cup, developed by in-air products supplier Linstol, uses 51% less plastic than traditional airplane paper cups. (Courtesy of Linstol)

The Super Cup, developed by in-air products supplier Linstol, uses 51% less plastic than traditional airplane paper cups. (Courtesy of Linstol)

Still, de Lucio said, airlines face significant barriers when they try to phase out single-use plastics, because those products are cheap and effective.

“Any change toward a natural material is going to require either more money or a bit more complicated operation,” he said.

Paul Steele, a senior vice president at IATA, agreed that doing away with single-use plastics isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. Carriers flying across international borders must deal with a hodgepodge of regulations related to hygiene and food delivery. Airlines can run afoul of those rules when they replace plastics with other materials.

Of course, the use of plastics in the commercial aviation industry isn’t limited to airlines. In August, San Francisco Airport became the first in the world to ban the sale of plastic water bottles by its retail concessionaires.

—Robert Silk

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CRUISE SHIPS

Water cartons were available to guests on a preview of Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Encore. The cartons are made of 54% paper and 28% plant-based plastic. (TW photo by Rebecca Tobin)

Water cartons were available to guests on a preview of Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Encore. The cartons are made of 54% paper and 28% plant-based plastic. (TW photo by Rebecca Tobin)

Water cartons were available to guests on a preview of Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Encore. The cartons are made of 54% paper and 28% plant-based plastic. (TW photo by Rebecca Tobin)

In the ocean cruise industry, getting guests to give up plastics is a little like turning around a megaship: It takes time.

“Anytime you introduce something new into the business, whether it be in the sustainability area or elsewhere, there is the element of change management,” said Eddie Segev, assistant vice president of environmental stewardship, security and public health at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL). 

“Change management, effecting people’s behavior, is very, very difficult,” Segev said. “People are used to something, and all of a sudden you are replacing it with something else. There may be a great story behind it, but it doesn’t so much matter sometimes unless you can drive home the message and educate [guests].”

‘Change management, effecting people’s behavior, is very, very difficult.’
—Eddie Segev, RCCL

As an example, Segev cited RCCL’s introduction of paper straws to replace plastic ones in frozen drinks.

“The feedback wasn’t very good from a quality perspective,” Segev said. “Some people didn’t really like it. Other people didn’t understand that we were making an effort. So we had to respond very quickly.”

The line put out a series of talking points to staff to help them explain the rationale for the change to guests. It also did customer surveys, solicited feedback from guests and tested alternative straws.

Segev said RCCL picked straws, coffee stirrers and cocktail spears as a first target not because they were easy but because they posed the clearest threat.

“Because they’re so small, we had to pay attention to them, because the risk of them falling through our garbage-sorting process into the water is greater,” he said. 

RCCL plans to soon move on single-serve condiment packaging such as ketchup packets and coffee creamers for the same reason.

As for plastic water bottles, which are less likely to be improperly disposed of accidentally, RCCL is taking a multichannel approach.

With its Celebrity Cruises brand, managers created a commemorative aluminum bottle for the introduction of the Celebrity Edge, which was given to passengers as a substitute for plastic bottles.

“This is sort of a pilot for this technology,” Segev said. “Also, looking at another alternative, we’re going to pilot a boxed-water type.”

A third prong is working with Coca-Cola, its supplier of beverage-dispensing machines that are used as part of a beverage package on the Royal Caribbean International brand.

The task, he said, is to resize those machines to be smaller, while continuing to tie them into a beverage package.

A fourth pilot involves replacing water fountains in crew areas with water-dispensing stations for containers, which has now been done on about 20 to 25 ships. 

“We’ll be able to test the machines and learn as we go and also provide something for the crew” Segev said. “I cannot tell you it will replace all of the plastic bottles tomorrow.”

There’s a filling station for water bottles on each deck with cabins on the Roald Amundsen, Hurtigruten’s 530-passenger expedition ship. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

There’s a filling station for water bottles on each deck with cabins on the Roald Amundsen, Hurtigruten’s 530-passenger expedition ship. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

There’s a filling station for water bottles on each deck with cabins on the Roald Amundsen, Hurtigruten’s 530-passenger expedition ship. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

Other companies have joined the war on single-use plastics, as well. Carnival Corp. has pledged to “significantly eliminate” their use on its ships by 2022, while Norwegian Cruise Line will swap paper cartons for plastic water bottles by the start of 2020. (The cartons were available to guests on a preview of the line’s Norwegian Encore last week.)

On the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora, which was introduced over the summer, Celebrity built individual water-filling stations in each cabin. Some lines, such as Hurtigruten, have them on new ships in public areas on each deck. 

But adding water-filling dispensers in passenger areas on larger ships is a thorny issue, Segev said.

“There is a challenge with it because you have to have a very specific machine that is U.S. Public Health Service-approved,” Segev said. “And the reason for it is because of cross-contamination. It cannot be in a place where food is served. So there are a lot of limitations.”

—Tom Stieghorst

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RIVER CRUISES

A passenger fills a reusable bottle provided by Tauck at a station onboard one of the company’s river cruise ships. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

A passenger fills a reusable bottle provided by Tauck at a station onboard one of the company’s river cruise ships. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

A passenger fills a reusable bottle provided by Tauck at a station onboard one of the company’s river cruise ships. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Like much of the travel industry, river cruise lines last year jumped whole hog into banning straws and other single-use plastics.

Because of their size, they have always used fewer single-use plastics than the big ocean cruise ships, tending toward real cutlery and dishes even at coffee stations. The exceptions in most cases, have been bathroom amenities and bottled water.

Most lines have moved or are committed to moving away from both, but they differ on how to do it.

Tauck has eliminated plastic bottles and miniature bathroom amenities on its river cruises; instead, it gives guests reusable bottles and puts refillable shampoo, conditioner and bath gel containers in the showers. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Tauck has eliminated plastic bottles and miniature bathroom amenities on its river cruises; instead, it gives guests reusable bottles and puts refillable shampoo, conditioner and bath gel containers in the showers. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Tauck has eliminated plastic bottles and miniature bathroom amenities on its river cruises; instead, it gives guests reusable bottles and puts refillable shampoo, conditioner and bath gel containers in the showers. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

AmaWaterways, for example, has not moved to refillable bottles, with co-founder and president Rudi Schreiner citing hygiene concerns about the mess that sometimes surrounds water stations. Instead, this year the line has begun passing out recyclable Tetra Paks of water to passengers headed out on daytrips.

That solution, however, raises new questions about whether or not ample recycling facilities exist to serve various ports of call, an issue the line is studying.

When it comes to being free of single-use plastics, the winner so far is U River Cruises, which has the advantage of having only two ships and being only two years old. On a recent sailing, I saw not one piece of single-use plastic, including in the bathrooms. Because it is not a luxury line, it doesn’t provide amenities such as plastic-wrapped vanity kits and shower caps. The shampoo, conditioner and lotions are provided in large, reusable containers.

As with its sister line, Uniworld River Cruises, water carafes with glasses are provided in each room, and there is a tap for refilling those and guests’ personal water bottles near the coffee stations.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection CEO Ellen Bettridge said that eliminating plastics has been relatively easy across the U and Uniworld ships. The only things left to deal with are the miniature Hermes-branded bathroom amenities in Uniworld’s suites and a few back-of-the-house items such as plastic wrap for food and plastic gloves for cleaning.

“We are almost there,” Bettridge said. “We are looking for every solution out there.”

‘We are almost there. We are looking for every solution out there.’
—Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Avalon Waterways said it is working to eliminate all single-use plastics across its operation by 2020, including by adding refillable water stations on its Europe ships.

This year, it has moved to wooden stirrers, starch-based straws, compostable cup lids and washable fabric gloves for waiters to wear when setting tables.

Tauck has replaced plastic straws and stirrers with washable glass alternatives. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Tauck has replaced plastic straws and stirrers with washable glass alternatives. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Tauck has replaced plastic straws and stirrers with washable glass alternatives. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

On Tauck, as on Uniworld, guests are given refillable water bottles upon arrival. Its L’Occitane bathroom amenities are distributed in large, refillable containers, and the line now uses washable glass straws and stirrers.

—Jeri Clausing

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HOTELS

Bulk bathroom amenities at InterContinental Hotel Group’s (IHG) Kimpton Fitzroy London. In July, IHG became the first major player to announce a companywide transition to bulk-size offerings.

Bulk bathroom amenities at InterContinental Hotel Group’s (IHG) Kimpton Fitzroy London. In July, IHG became the first major player to announce a companywide transition to bulk-size offerings.

Bulk bathroom amenities at InterContinental Hotel Group’s (IHG) Kimpton Fitzroy London. In July, IHG became the first major player to announce a companywide transition to bulk-size offerings.

On the heels of widespread plastic-straw bans and a recent crackdown on miniature bathroom amenities, many of the world’s leading hotel companies are making the continued elimination of single-use plastics a high priority. But for many companies, removing single-use plastics at scale can prove uniquely challenging.

Making the switch from miniature bath products to bulk-size pump bottles, for example, can result in myriad operational hurdles, and hotels have to navigate everything from guest contamination concerns to refill logistics.

Bulk-size bathroom amenities are already standard at IHG’s Holiday Inn Express properties.

Bulk-size bathroom amenities are already standard at IHG’s Holiday Inn Express properties.

Bulk-size bathroom amenities are already standard at IHG’s Holiday Inn Express properties.

“The pump [bottles] create a huge question,” said Yvonne Hunter, director of public relations for Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, which is currently in the product-development stage for bulk bottles it expects to launch sometime next year. “It actually becomes a full-time job for someone at the hotel to check and refill those vessels every day.”

IHG, which in July became the first major player to announce a companywide transition to bulk-size offerings, is working out similar kinks.

“There’s actually a lot to consider,” said Catherine Dolton, IHG’s vice president for global corporate responsibility. “How do you get that last little bit of product out of a bulk bottle? And how do you find the right product and bottle for each brand or market and make sure those products still look attractive?”

Reusable glass water bottles from the Brooklyn Water Co. at the Equinox Hotel in New York. (TW photo by Christina Jelski)

Reusable glass water bottles from the Brooklyn Water Co. at the Equinox Hotel in New York. (TW photo by Christina Jelski)

Just like miniature amenities, plastic water bottles are increasingly considered passe in a hospitality setting. Many hotels have adapted by offering reusable decanters and installing refilling stations, among other approaches. 

At Sister City on New York’s Lower East Side, for example, guests can refill their glass carafes at a refill area available on each floor, while the luxe Equinox Hotel at nearby Hudson Yards offers glass bottles of water from the locally based Brooklyn Water Co., which picks up the empty bottles and returns them to the property cleaned, refilled and resealed.

This fall, Hyatt announced a new companywide initiative to reduce its single-use plastic water bottles use—and eliminate miniature toiletries—by June 2021. Hyatt said the company plans to increase availability of water stations in hotel public spaces, allowing guests to refill reusable water bottles, as well as serve water in carafes or other containers for meetings and events, with single-use water bottles available only on request.

A water-filling station is available on each floor at the Sister City hotel in New York. (TW photo by Christina Jelski)

A water-filling station is available on each floor at the Sister City hotel in New York. (TW photo by Christina Jelski)

A water-filling station is available on each floor at the Sister City hotel in New York. (TW photo by Christina Jelski)

When it comes to introducing such alternatives, however, changing guest perceptions and behavior can sometimes prove to be the ultimate challenge.

LightBlue Environmental Consulting manager Lauren Kharouni, said, “With refilling stations in particular, it’s very important to communicate to your guest.” 

She added that single-use water bottles are still very much “the norm” across the hospitality industry. 

“Some people will not be confident about the water quality, especially in certain markets, so a hotel needs to offer some additional reassurance for refilling stations to be effective,” she said.

Likewise, said Caitrin O’Brien, senior manager for corporate sustainability at Hilton, glass is not always a clear-cut solution in some markets.

“We are trying to avoid a situation where all plastic bottles get replaced with glass bottles, because in many places, glass is not recyclable,” O’Brien said. “Another issue with glass is that it’s so heavy that when you ship it, the carbon emissions of shipping can actually offset the benefits of using a nonplastic. So, what we’re really focused on is making sure we properly recycle items that we’re using and then finding alternatives that are environmentally preferable across all aspects.”

‘What we’re really focused on is making sure we properly recycle items that we’re using and then finding alternatives that are environmentally preferable across all aspects.’
—Caitrin O’Brien, Hilton

In addition to water bottles, LightBlue’s Kharouni said, plastic packaging used by suppliers, especially food packaging, can be particularly difficult to phase out.

“Hotels and restaurants need to pressure suppliers to change their habits and offer more reusable packaging,” Kharouni said. “But if they don’t have those alternatives yet, it’s hard to move forward.”

Food and kitchen-related plastics are also a challenge for the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru.

Armando Kraenzlin, regional vice president and general manager, said, “The most difficult single-use plastic item for our resorts to replace would be plastic cling wrap. This is mostly used in kitchen operations to keep food fresh and to adhere to strict hygienic standards. We are yet to find a sustainable replacement that can meet the same standards.”

Kharouni said one promising alternative to plastic wrap is beeswax wrap, which has started to be adopted by ecoconscious consumers and could become a potential option for hotels. Such change would be in line with Kharouni’s belief that hotels industrywide need to step up their behind-the-scenes sustainability efforts.

‘Tackling plastic straws is not going to save the planet. It’s a good action, but it’s also the easy one to take.’
—Lauren Kharouni, LightBlue Environmental Consulting

“Today, hotels are focusing more on visible action and what the customer can see, like plastic straws, which is good,” Kharouni said. “But tackling plastic straws is not going to save the planet. It’s a good action, but it’s also the easy one to take. We need to see hotels move to back-of-house plastics and take a more comprehensive approach.”

—Christina Jelski

Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.


The online version of this story has been changed to include information on Hyatt’s latest efforts to reduce single-use plastics.

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