It's easy to say that travel companies should ditch plastics to help save the environment, but this will be much harder for airlines than some other sectors.
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.
Many travel companies are now working to reduce their plastic waste, but is this a taller order for some sectors than others?
Airlines face challenges here that hotels simply don’t, according to Christian de Boer, managing director of Jaya House River Park, a 36-room luxury boutique hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “For hotels, I think we might have a leg up on this one,” said de Boer.
“Airlines have a much more challenging job in sustainability and plastic reduction than hotels,” said Anne De Hauw, founder of design firm In Air Travel Experience, citing by email time constraints between takeoff and landing, onboard space, and weight among other factors.
Chiefly, hotels are not as concerned with the weight restrictions that dictate so much of airline operations. Plastic allows airlines to cater food and beverage while minimizing the plane’s weight, thereby increasing fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Replacing plastic with heavier glass or china would have a noticeable negative effect.
Even plastics that potentially comprise small portions of the plane itself — including tray tables and overhead bin doors, which are very durable and far from single-use — help lower the overall weight. “In the case of the aircraft, plastic definitely still is a valuable option,” said De Hauw. Among the biggest environmental priorities for Delta Air Lines is reducing fuel consumption through modernizing its fleet, according to chief marketing officer Tim Mapes. “There’s a degree of wrong with single-use. There’s also potentially a degree of right with plastic that’s intended to be recycled and repurposed and reused,” he said.
Regarding the structural part of the plane, plastic is nonexistent, though CFRPs (carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites) are increasingly used, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at research firm Teal Group. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner for example is 50 percent composite by weight.
Airlines also uniquely face ultra-cramped space as well as potentially handling breakable materials in the air, though many airlines already successfully do this for first and business class service.
Despite the challenges, de Boer has high standards for airlines delivering plastic-free flights. “That should become the norm,” he said. These have been piloted on a one-off basis by Etihad Airways and Portuguese charter service Hi Fly — free of single-use plastics, not free of plastics altogether — and Qantas ran a zero-landfill-waste flight.
But heavier materials are not necessarily an easy win for hotels. Reusables like china and glass need to be cleaned and this adds valuable time to the housekeeping process. Hoteliers have to calculate how much money it costs in human labor to collect and sanitize reusables.
“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 Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity at Marriott International.
Complying with government regulations often applies to hotels and airlines alike, although California introduced a hotel-specific bill back in February to prohibit individual plastic bottles containing personal care products, to take effect in 2023. The EU ban on certain single-use plastics, one of the more comprehensive government actions on the subject, would apply to hotels and airlines alike. Thailand and India have their own sizable bans in progress as well.
The cost of switching from famously cheap plastic to another material seems universal. De Boer said he raised Jaya House’s nightly rate by $2 to compensate for the cost of metal bottles — a negligible difference, but Marriott International and Edition Hotels told Skift that they hide that cost elsewhere, for example in the minibar, to prevent all guests from shouldering the burden. By comparison, while a plastic offset is not standard in aviation, Scandinavian Airlines picks up the cost of offsetting carbon for its loyalty members, and many airlines allow flyers to buy a carbon offset.
“Cost is one of the main obstacles to changing materials,” said De Hauw. She also stressed that plastic reduction has no one-size-fits-all solution and that each company must evaluate its usage and needs independently.
Homesharing has even more of a plastic-reduction advantage than traditional hotels. “It’s a totally different animal,” said Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe and frequent business traveler who stays up to 40 nights per year on the road. An Airbnb “isn’t a place of super-consumption,” she said, since many hosts rely on things like reusable cutlery and don’t systematically wrap their amenities in plastic like hotels do. However Airbnb lacks a universal standard of service that traditional hotel guests expect. “We have to make sure that with any change we’re not disturbing the experience that our guests have,” said Naguib.
Jaya House is reaching 95 percent plastic-free, according to de Boer, but right now, the last five percent is out of reach. “It’s not a discussion — we’re going to do this,” said de Boer about working with suppliers to reduce back-of-house plastic waste.
Editor’s Note: Jaya House River Park created a reusable bottle program called Refill Not Landfill, which Skift used at Skift Global Forum 2018.
Photo credit: A Boeing 737-8 Max on May 16, 2018. Much of the interior of an aircraft is made of plastic, including seatbacks and tray tables. Caribb / Flickr