Travel Beyond Plastics is a groundbreaking new Skift series about the travel industry’s addiction to plastics and what happens when companies and travelers try to kick this unsustainable habit.

Why a remote control in a hotel room would need to be wrapped in plastic is lost on Heather Richardson, a 32-year-old writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, originally from the United Kingdom. She’s been traveling regularly for work for the past five years and now spends a remarkable 150 nights a year in hotels. “I do find it crazy that everything has to be swaddled in plastic,” she said.

Richardson didn’t realize this at the time, but the turning point in her awareness of plastic waste came in 2011 on a trip to Fiji. Walking along a clean, golden, sandy beach, she eventually stumbled onto a stretch that was blanketed with garbage, most of it plastic. It was washing up straight from the ocean, reaching all the way to the palm trees. On the other side of that trashy patch the beach was spotless again, and it reminded her of how so many people see environmental issues: “out of sight, out of mind.”

In hotel rooms, particularly in bathrooms, Richardson regularly sees an excess of plastic, which will soon become waste on a beach somewhere. “It’s part of this obsession with everything being sanitary, and I think it’s gone a bit too far,” she said.

Right up there with fears of unsanitary bathrooms are fears of non-potable water, she said. Some travelers feel safer with a sealed plastic water bottle in hand, even when filtered water is available in more sustainable containers.

Plastics are omnipresent in hotels: cups, straws, coffee lids, shampoo bottles, amenity kits, individually wrapped chocolates, minibars, breakfast buffets, event spaces, the kitchen, supplier deliveries, and more. Plastics have much to offer both hotels and guests, and both parties are addicted to the familiar material.

It’s lightweight, durable, and incredibly convenient. It’s easy for travelers to carry with them and it makes housekeeping quick and easy — just throw it into the trash or recycling. Plastics also convey newness and cleanliness to guests, meaning these amenities are fresh, sanitary, and just for you.

Plastics are also cheap — unlike some other green initiatives, hotels may actually spend more money to avoid plastics. Few companies want that expense, and those that are willing to up their cost may pass it on to the guest.

But hospitality is now facing the fact that plastics severely damage the environment, and thereby harm the travel industry, which thrives on clean, beautiful landscapes.

Plastic recycling piles up outside a Best Western in Brooklyn, New York, in 2019, photo by Sarah Enelow-Snyder, Skift.

The idea that most plastics get successfully recycled is a joke at this point. Shockingly, 91 percent of plastic waste isn’t recycled, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic, and nearly one million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute worldwide, according to National Geographic. On top of that, China no longer wants to import foreign recyclables and more plastics are ending up in the ocean worldwide.

Many governments are getting involved — New York State is expected to ban single-use plastic bags in 2020, Thailand is aiming for 2022, and India, the world’s second-most populous country, is working in stages toward a broader ban in 2022. These bans are not complete eradications of single-use plastics, which would be very unrealistic at this point, but they rather target specific types and provide a push in a sustainable direction. “Most environmental solutions have some component involving a top-down government mandate,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, “whether it’s emissions standards for cars or regulations associated with how many fish you can catch.” Leonard added that for plastics, there is no silver bullet and it will be a journey.

Travelers’ social media feeds are filling up with images of plastic water bottles piled high on Thai beaches, old toothbrushes washing up onto the Galapagos Islands, plastic bags being extracted from dead seabirds in Hawaii, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic waste near Real de Catorce, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2018, photo by Adam Jones.

“Some [hotels] are doing a great job, but most of the players in the industry do not care at all,” said Benjamin Lephilibert, founder and managing director of LightBlue Environmental Consulting, based in Bangkok, Thailand. “Especially if it touches on areas where customers have no view.”

So how can both hotels and travelers make a behavioral shift away from plastics?

Part of the answer lies in snowballing global awareness, helped by viral campaigns like Skip the Straw that are putting social pressure on everyone to shun plastics. Another part of the answer may lie in legislative bans that will force hesitant hotels into action — the European Union approved a ban, slated for 2021, focusing on cutlery, plates, cotton buds, straws, and stirrers, which many hotels are already eliminating without much trouble. But the rest is a two-way street. Hotels need to set a better example by reducing their plastic use and travelers need to practice what they preach by not demanding plastics when alternatives exist.

“The plastic bag bans, the straw bans, the conversations around shampoo bottles in hotels — these are all early steps in the planet coming to grips with our collective love affair with plastics,” said Leonard. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

The Hard Truth: Cutting Plastics May Be Expensive

The cost of using less plastic, a famously cheap material, is hard to pinpoint. It depends on the item in question — cups, bottles, etc. — how much labor is required to clean a reusable alternative, and how much plastic reduction the hotel can actually accomplish. A hotel might lose money in the short term while saving money in the long term, but maybe not.

“The sad thing with plastic is there are no proper financial benefits in switching to more sustainable practices, beyond the good image,” said Lephilibert of LightBlue Environmental Consulting. “You’re giving up on convenience and you’re not even making more money.”

By comparison, the cost savings of cutting down on food waste are dramatic, according to Lephilibert.

“Any ownership group doesn’t want to pay more, sadly, to do the right thing,” said Ben Pundole, vice president of brand experience at Edition Hotels, a Marriott luxury brand. Regarding a water purification and bottling plant in Abu Dhabi designed to reduce plastic consumption, Pundole said, “In the long term it’s not that expensive, but the upfront costs were significant.” Some of the more feasible options for plastic water bottles include cans, glass, and Tetra Paks.

Reusable bottle, photo by Edition Hotels.

Unfortunately, any increased costs may get absorbed by the guest — not in the nightly rate, but in the minibar, for example, said Pundole.

Marriott International takes a similar approach. It would not raise a nightly rate due to delivering water in a different vessel, but for example if the materials in the minibar changed and became more expensive, that increased cost would be visible to the consumer in the minibar, according to Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity at Marriott International.

“For the amenity bottles, we believe it’s a net-net. It should be a cost-neutral exercise,” said Naguib.

According to Skift Research’s U.S. Experiential Traveler Survey 2019, a slim majority of respondents, 53 percent, said they were willing to pay higher rates to use a travel service provider that demonstrated environmental responsibility. Twenty-nine percent were neutral and 18 percent disagreed.

The potential cost savings of cutting plastics depends on the specific item in question, according to Daniella Foster, Hilton’s senior director of global corporate responsibility. “We’re still working through cost; this is happening in real time,” she said. “Sustainable materials will cost a little bit more, but you’re also going to be using less of them,” she said, adding that she doesn’t anticipate non-plastic straws will cost that much more, although the supply chain for sustainable straws can’t keep up.

Quantifying the cost of cutting plastics is difficult even for Michel Soucisse, guest relations manager at El Moore, an independent, five-year-old ecolodge in Detroit, Michigan, with just 11 rooms. However, he clarified that for him, financial cost is only one factor to consider. El Moore committed to a triple bottom line, which requires decisions to simultaneously uplift the community, safeguard the environment, and create a profit margin.

“We don’t make any decisions based simply on a financial bottom line,” said Soucisse, who added that organic products that involve less waste can often be more expensive.

Hotels Set Green Goals, But What’s the Progress?

Many hotels have set plastics-related sustainability goals — that’s the easy part.

Hilton plans to cut 250 million plastic straws globally by the end of July, straws and bottles being a top priority, according to Foster of Hilton. The brand also has a zero-plastics room in Amsterdam, reported saving 40 tons of plastic through 7.6 million digital key downloads, and tracks its waste levels not specific to plastics.

Straws and bottles are an easy entry point for many hotels, especially when compared to the complexity of eliminating the plastic associated with food deliveries from suppliers.

Foster asks herself, “Do we need it at all?” when considering eliminating something like straws, and in this case, the answer was no. She has experimented with alternatives like sweeter straws made from corn starch, which may be more appealing for some than a straw made from seaweed, and Hilton is still compiling its internal data on how all this is progressing.

In response to the EU ban on certain single-use plastics, Hilton was already addressing some items — like many other hotels — but is now actively addressing cotton buds, cutlery, plates, and drink containers, said Foster by email.

Marriott International pledged to remove plastic straws and stirrers globally by July and is in the process of replacing tiny toiletry bottles with larger ones that hold more product and last longer. Some of these containers are refillable and all are recyclable, according to Naguib of Marriott International.

Breakfast at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront on Dec. 30, 2012, photo by m01229.

Measurements of plastic use elude the world’s largest hotel company. “It has been an unbelievably challenging thing,” said Naguib, who recognizes that plastic is omnipresent, but not tracked as easily as water and energy, which are routinely calculated by utility companies.

When asked about the EU ban, Naguib responded by email that Marriott is complying with all laws and is working on this with its vendors. Marriott was already addressing some of the types of plastic included in the ban.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts appears behind the curve. Michael Babicki, the senior director of sustainability, said only that the brand is considering single-use plastic alternatives in a very brief emailed statement. Wyndham declined an interview about the company’s global efforts. Four Seasons also declined an interview, saying by email that it has eliminated plastic straws worldwide, but has been unable to measure its plastic use or associated financial implications.

Hostelling International USA aims to eliminate single-use plastics by the end of 2020, having already eliminated single-use plastic hygiene products and disposable dinnerware, and limited plastic water bottles to vending machines.

“The real tough one is food-related plastics,” said Zach Hetrick, sustainability manager at Hostelling International USA. The brand is concerned here about following health codes, but is exploring its options, especially because the communal kitchen is so key to the hostel experience. Hetrick said he’s still working on measuring the brand’s plastic use.

Many hotels are indeed attempting to calculate their plastic use, but might resist an outside party conducting an audit on their progress.

“How much transparency are those guys willing to accept?” asked Lephilibert of LightBlue Environmental Consulting of hotels in general. “Their corporate is asking them to produce some data, so they’re producing data, but it’s bullshit,” he said, echoing that measuring food waste and plastic waste is trickier than measuring energy or water usage.

“There is not enough pressure yet on hotel operators,” he said.

Though some hotels do acknowledge the tough road ahead.

“That was a very bold statement,” said Pundole of Edition about an earlier pledge to eliminate single-use plastics by the end of 2018. He admitted this did not happen, but it remains a passion point. For him, straws and bottles constitute a significant place to start, and the process is ongoing. Cardless entry is proving a little more difficult to implement.

Edition is also confronting its level of waste. The brand examined four properties in London, Miami, New York, and China, and found that they collectively “used over a million plastic water bottles in 2017, and that was shocking,” said Pundole. The London property alone used around half a million plastic straws in 2017.

When asked about the EU ban on certain single-use plastics, Pundole was enthusiastic, saying that such a municipal directive “gives legs and legitimacy to the cause.” He said the ban is “just a little beyond the current expectations, which I think is exactly where it needs to be. If it were too aspirational, it might go over people’s heads.” Edition was already addressing much of the ban, but Pundole said the ban will push them to expedite some additional changes, particularly regarding key cards and selecting alternative materials.

Toiletries at a Radisson in Germany on Mar. 15, 2006, photo by David Malouf.

Edition reported that it has removed plastic straws from all food and beverage outlets, removed all plastic from minibars, and is switching guest toothbrushes from plastic to bamboo, among other regional improvements. Edition works with Naeco on some of its materials.

“I don’t think anyone can say they’ll completely eliminate single-use plastics,” said Pundole, adding that a 90 percent reduction would be far more realistic.

Who Cares About Back-of-House Waste?

Many hotels are concerned with the plastic waste that guests can see, but who’s addressing the use of plastics behind the scenes?

Hotels are especially slow to address this area because there’s little public visibility, according to Lephilibert of LightBlue Environmental Consulting. The pressure to make a room plastic-free is much higher than the pressure to reduce the number of straws used by workers or the amount of plastic used to transport food.

“It’s all about those easy wins with the consumer,” said writer Richardson.

A cleaning cart at the Port-O-Call hotel in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 2019, photo by Skift.

Leonard of the Ocean Conservancy echoed that idea. “If it’s not out for the public to see, there’s often very little motivation for the private sector to fix the problem,” he said.

Marriott International is putting some pressure on its suppliers as well as working with sustainable companies. Instead of getting cleaning products shipped in plastic containers, Marriott International works with Ecolab on capsules of cleaning solution that dissolve in water and don’t require plastic packaging. Some produce and seafood is also shipped in reusable crates instead of plastic-lined cardboard.

In Thailand, Marriott’s suppliers actually get punished for using non-recyclable packaging. Suppliers are not allowed to leave non-recyclable packaging at the property — they must haul it away themselves.

Major chains like Marriott and Hilton can push the supply chain to go green, according to Kurt Bjorkman, general manager of The Ranch at Laguna Beach in California. Suppliers who use lots of plastic to ship food, for example, are more likely to respond to pressure from industry giants than a small operation. Bjorkman asks his suppliers to avoid shrink wrap and lean on bulk containers, but they are not always willing.

Edition has replaced back-of-house plastic water bottles with water fountains and stainless steel bottles for every staff member, according to Pundole, who feels it’s important to integrate sustainability into the work culture. Edition used over 67,000 plastic water bottles for its staff alone at its London property in 2017.

Hostelling International USA is still struggling with reducing plastic on the back end, but does have waste reduction built into its supplier agreements, and tries to purchase in bulk as much as possible.

It’s Far Easier to Start Green Than to Make the Switch

Eliminating plastics from a global chain is a tall order. Some small operations have an easier time setting a good example, especially if plastics were never part of the hotel’s DNA to begin with.

El Moore in Detroit has no single-use plastics as part of the guest experience and only buys them in bulk, for example five-gallon containers of shampoo for its refillable dispensers.

Plastic-free room at El Moore in Detroit, photo by Marvin Shaouni, El Moore.

“It’s not like trying to push a square peg into a round hole,” said Soucisse of El Moore about sustainable measures being in place since the beginning.

The Ranch at Laguna Beach eliminated plastic key cards in November 2018. “It was a low-hanging fruit situation,” said Bjorkman. He said the new bamboo keys generate an educational conversation at check-in, and he sees fewer keys go missing as guests become more mindful, which means less waste. The bamboo keys do have an RFID chip in them, but he said they’re completely biodegradable.

Bjorkman is currently trying to better measure the property’s plastic usage through Greenview, an online tracking tool that he hopes will help show the return on investment for sustainable policies.

Hotels should take the lead and then guests will follow suit, according to writer Richardson. “The onus has to be on the hoteliers to make the change first and explain why they’ve done it,” she said.

“It’s about educating the customer rather than the other way around.”

Some Travelers Preach Better Than They Practice

Hotels may have green goals, but many will stop pushing when it becomes clear that guests will react poorly. As far as guests’ intentions, Hilton has done some preliminary research.

Travelers want alternatives more than they actually want to stick with plastic, according to Foster of Hilton. Eighty percent of surveyed guests said a hotel’s social and environmental efforts mattered to them, and over 60 percent said these efforts would influence their booking decisions over the next 12 months.

What’s a little more telling is that one-third of guests actually research these efforts before booking. Hilton is still trying to measure guests’ reactions to the sustainability efforts being rolled out.

Despite these noble declarations, there are reasons to be skeptical of whether travelers walk the walk when they’re on the road. Some travelers are very committed to sustainability, but others are on their worst behavior away from home. In the name of convenience and carefree relaxation, they may ditch their reusable bags, buy more plastic water bottles than usual, and enjoy the perceived value of their hotel amenities, even if they just get thrown away later.

“The last frontier for us is in-room coffee products,” said Bjorkman of The Ranch at Laguna Beach. When asked if he would consider eliminating in-room coffee in favor of serving it in a communal environment, he said this is where pushback from guests becomes a real concern. His rooms are spread out over three acres and it would be a longer, grumpier morning journey to such a communal place.

Toiletries at a Marriott in Massachusetts on Apr. 13, 2017, photo by Evan Didier.

Marriott International is likewise hesitant to make changes that it feels won’t be well received, for example if switching to reusable materials requires more labor to clean and sanitize them properly. “If we make a change and all of a sudden the housekeeper is taking twice as long to clean a room, that’s going to impact the guest experience,” said Naguib.

At El Moore, Soucisse finds it rare that a guest requests a plastic water bottle, but it does happen, sometimes because the guest refuses to drink tap water in any location. “I keep one case of [bottled] water in the basement. It’s over a year old at this point,” he said, adding that he uses this as a teachable moment while still accommodating the guest. As an educational nonprofit, Hostelling International USA also finds value in teaching, according to Hetrick.

“It’s in strange places. The plastic cups are wrapped in plastic. The plastic comb is wrapped in plastic. The earplugs, the Q-tips, the cotton buds. The shoehorn being wrapped in plastic is nonsense,” said writer Simran Sethi, who travels several times a month for business and splits her time between Mexico, Italy, and the U.S.

She sees a real failure of logic in some places — at a breakfast buffet, the bread might be sitting out in the open, and yet bananas, which grow in their own biodegradable protective coverings, are wrapped in plastic.

Stowe Boyd has been traveling for business for over 30 years. As the managing director of research institute Work Futures, he’s now spending at least 25 nights a year on the road in hotels.

Every time he checks in, the 65-year-old Boston native is reminded that hotels are absolutely dependent on plastics. In recent years, he decided he doesn’t want to be part of the problem.

“I go to a hotel, look at all the toiletries on the counter, and say ‘I’m not gonna use any of those things,’” said Boyd. His plastic awareness didn’t come all at once, but gradually increased over time. “There’s an ongoing assault,” he said.

Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, also finds little use in those individual toiletries, which so infrequently cater to black hairstyles. “I am not somebody who ransacs amenities,” she said. “If it’s not a natural hair care product, I can’t use it anyway.”

Meetings and Events Face the Same Behavioral Challenges

Conference attendees face a similar glut of plastic as leisure travelers. Plastic bottles, straws, trinkets in swag bags, and food and drink containers are omnipresent in hotel event spaces.

Fifty percent of plastics in the hospitality industry are single-use, and 15 percent of that is deemed unnecessary or a force of habit, according to a report by UK-based sustainable meetings organization Positive Impact and the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers, based on a panel at the United Nations Environment Programme. Positive Impact’s sister company, Sustainable Events, promotes ISO 20121, an international standard for event sustainability.

Attendees are often unaware of what actually contains plastic, said Kayleigh Lee-Simion, research coordinator at Positive Impact. “You don’t think the lanyard is an area of plastic pollution, but almost everyone has a lanyard and a lot of the time they’re made out of PVC, which is a very toxic plastic that causes a lot of pollution to make and doesn’t break down.” Lee-Simion also noted that signs are frequently overlooked as plastic waste.

Swag bags at SXSW on Mar. 7, 2008, photo by Roo Reynolds.

When it comes to swag bags, there is some hesitance to abandon promotional materials because they convey the company’s branding. “At the end of the day, you want your business to be recognized too. There needs to be a middle ground,” said Lee-Simion.

That compromise also extends to the relationship between the event planner and the hotel. A planner may start out wanting to achieve maximum sustainability, but the hotel may have limitations on sustainable energy, for example, that can’t be addressed overnight. Reducing plastics is a long journey and plastic-specific data is hard to come by, according to Lee-Simion.

“That’s where there is a ton of opportunity,” said Foster of Hilton about reducing plastic consumption in meetings and events. Hilton said it has removed plastic water bottles from meetings and events in Asia Pacific and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Meeting planners see a big opportunity in reviewing their single-use products, according to Marriott International’s research. On the other hand, meeting planners can make many of their own choices — some will stick with sustainability basics and others will go above and beyond. If attendees have a choice between having their coffee in a ceramic mug or a to-go cup that incorporates plastic, many will go with the convenient to-go cup and head into the next session, said Naguib.

“People are going to behave the way they want to behave,” she said.

No plastic water bottles are permitted at events at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, which hosts a variety including golf tournaments and weddings for hundreds of people. This can be difficult for some event planners to accept but is non-negotiable, according to Bjorkman.

Plastic water bottles seem especially unnecessary to Stephen Taylor, frequent business traveler and chief revenue officer at travel tech company Sojern — he would just as soon have glassware and information about tap water potability. He travels more or less weekly for business and also finds many hotel amenity kits to be wasteful, especially because he brings his own toiletries.

“It’s more than just not good, it actually annoys me as a traveler. It makes me reflect on the property I’m staying at,” said Taylor.

“I don’t always have my own water bottle at a conference,” he said, but he does frequently travel with his own reusable water bottle and is wary of the potential waste involved with replacing a bunch of plastic water bottles with a bunch of metal ones branded with a company logo.

How Do You Convey Luxury With Reusables?

By one school of thought, many reusable containers — for example refillable shower caddies offering shampoo, conditioner, and gel — do not convey luxury. This is fine for a budget hotel, but what about an upscale brand?

“Seventy-two percent of survey respondents said dispensers don’t convey luxury, while 87 percent get the impression that they are being used to reduce costs,” Joao Rocco, Sofitel’s vice president for luxury brand management, told Skift in 2018.

But is this representative of the current consumer thinking?

“I immediately think, how dated, what a lack of awareness,” said Pundole of Edition about unsustainable items in hotels. “I honestly believe it’s the new luxury,” he said about sustainable practices.

There is a “fear of looking cheap,” said Lephilibert of LightBlue Environmental Consulting, but this can be addressed through smarter design. Lephilibert tries to explain to hotel public relations departments that sustainability is truly desirable for travelers, especially as that traveler gets younger — Generation Y is coming up and behaves differently than baby boomers.

Design is key here. “The primary thing is that look and the expectation of the product that is in that bottle,” said Naguib of Marriott International. Luxury guests do expect amenities, but the quality of those amenities is not reliant on single-use plastic bottles. For many luxury travelers, sustainable containers are a plus because they match their values.

Recyclable (not refillable) toiletries, photo by Marriott International.

Refillable dispensers designed for budget travelers at Hostelling International, photo by HI USA.

Hostelling International USA for example has an easier time here, as their target demographic is 18 to 30 years old, young budget travelers for whom sustainability is familiar and not a hard sell.

“[Hotels] are not keeping up with the change in demographic of their customers,” said Lephilibert, who identified Soneva and Six Senses as succeeding with high-quality design of sustainable materials in line with the eco-luxury image.

“Luxury guests actually expect this,” said Foster of Hilton about sustainable materials.

Over half of Edition’s hotels are in coastal environments, so contributing further to the ocean’s plastic plague would make little sense for them. “Why would we be part of that? That’s certainly not luxury,” said Pundole, who added that Aman sets the eco-luxury bar with its refillable shower gel.

Luxury travelers do expect great amenities, but they can be conveyed to guests more sustainably using refillables for example, according to frequent business traveler Taylor of Sojern.

Hotels Are Just at the Starting Line

The acknowledgement of the plastic plague is young in hospitality, and it will take time for brands to make real steps toward achieving their goals. It may take even longer for hotels to accurately measure the extent of their reliance on plastic, and for travelers and event attendee habits to evolve.

What’s certain is that plastic is a gargantuan environmental problem and what’s bad for the environment is bad for the travel industry.

“This is the only road to be on,” said Bjorkman of The Ranch at Laguna Beach of reducing plastic usage.

Cleaning up the ocean will be an unthinkably large undertaking, said Hetrick of Hostelling International USA. “The first thing we have to do is stop the flow.”

Photo Credit: Hotel shower dispensers in Japan on Feb. 20, 2011. Hotels are deeply reliant on plastics, and many travelers expect them as well. Chris Guy / Flickr