Reducing plastic waste is just step one. Step two is implementing alternatives to plastic. But how do companies get travelers on board if the alternatives are flawed? Part of the answer lies in forthright communication.
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.
Travel companies are reducing their plastic waste in earnest, but less progress has been made on implementing plastic alternatives, many of which are frustrating travelers. Companies have more work to do in identifying plastic alternatives that travelers will love to use, not just use out of environmental guilt.
“I don’t really love the texture [of bamboo], especially the spork,” said Jason DiVenere, a frequent flyer who spent much of his career as an aerospace engineer at Boeing and SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic. “Sometimes they break in half. Then I have to use multiple sporks and that’s kind of wasteful.”
“Am I happy about using it? No, but I still use it because I know it’s better for the environment,” he said.
These kinds of products are still fairly new to the marketplace and structural flaws are common. “This whole industry is in its infancy, and as more and more people use these things, more companies will spend R&D trying to figure out ways to make it better,” said DiVenere. “Eventually we’ll get a good bamboo fork or spoon that people will like. Right now the volume is probably not there to make it worth anyone’s while to really invest in research.”
DiVenere pointed out that frequent flyers like himself spend a lot of time in lounges using real cutlery and glasses. But in the rest of the airport, flyers may not have these options, so it’s up to them to carry something like a Final Straw. Cruisers have a similar choice to make.
“Some people don’t really want to do ‘dishes’ while on vacation,” said one traveler on a Cruise Critic message board about the prospect of bringing their own metal straw on a cruise. “And using the same straw over and over without washing could get pretty yucky.”
“We had paper straws on my last cruise, and they are terrible — they do have a paper taste once they get damp,” said another respondent. One Carnival Cruise customer hated the ship’s edible and paper straws so much that he created lengthy video reviews of his bad experience, including that the edible straws break, collapse, and get sticky: “Biodegradable, sustainably sourced alternatives are good, but they have to work.”
In the Cruise Critic thread, travelers debated how they would handle the disappearance of plastic straws from many ships. Convenience was a big concern, as well as cleanliness, and single-use plastics deliver convenience and cleanliness very well. Some cruisers planned to bring their own supply of plastic straws while others wanted to bring their own compostable straws, stainless steel straws with cleaning brushes, or Yeti cups.
On the other hand, for some people, sweetly flavored edible cups and straws sound like a fantastic trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Some people’s kids enjoy the novelty. Others fear that the porous material will absorb germs from surfaces. Some think they taste like wax when you take a bite. Some report that the cups break and distort too easily. These fears and discomforts stand in the way of travelers testing out such an alternative, which is the first step to adopting it permanently. One member of the women’s travel community Wanderful, Abbie Synan, reported doing trial-and-error research on various brands of shampoo bars and toothpaste bites before settling into daily use of those products.
Some travelers are skeptical of seaweed because they anticipate an off-putting taste, but it’s one of the more readily available alternatives, and manufacturers can add flavors like cherry or vanilla. Loliware is one of the better-known makers of seaweed straws and they are soon partnering with Marriott.
“In the Caribbean there is a major problem with sargassum seaweed washing ashore. If landed seaweed can be used to make a product, rather than extracting it directly from the ocean, I think that would be great,” said Kristal Ambrose, founder of Bahamas Plastic Movement. The advocacy group leads a summer camp and other educational initiatives.
Reusable shopping bags, commonly used among travelers, do not face the same public-perception or ease-of-use challenges as reusable straws. On March 1 New York’s statewide plastic bag reduction law goes into effect, accompanied by a fee for paper bags, which will affect visitors and residents alike.
Some travelers are so ambivalent about plastic alternatives that they wonder if they’re even worth pursuing. “Why are we creating a paper alternative? I get it’s biodegradable, but if we are getting rid of plastic straws, just get rid of all straws,” said Josselyn Thornton, social media strategist based in Portland, Oregon, for Sparkloft Media, whose clients include numerous airlines and tourism boards.
February 28 was National Skip the Straw Day, which focuses on elimination, not sustainable replacement — though organizations like the Ocean Conservancy consider straw elimination to be a year-round effort.
Nixing the alternative completely works best with items like straws, which are not strictly necessary much of the time. Cutlery is a different story and does require an alternative — hotels, airlines, and airport vendors will have to offer cutlery of some sort. “It’s something that needs to be eased into. I don’t think taking away plastic forks altogether is a good idea to do overnight,” said Haley Kretz, business development manager at Sparkloft, based in Portland, Oregon.
Thornton also finds that consumers need clear information in order to make this behavioral shift away from plastic. “People hate change, which is why they are in an uproar about not having a straw or a takeaway fork,” she said. “If brands start making purposeful changes and provide information — signage, social posts announcing the change, etc. — the customer will begin to accept it more. The way I see it, people aren’t going to stop drinking Starbucks because when they sit there for four hours working, they have to use a ceramic cup.”
A new Greenpeace report emphasized that companies are falling short on their plastic communication efforts. The report said that customers are routinely misled about how easy it is to successfully recycle plastic, suggesting that plastic is not so harmful to the environment because it’s supposedly getting another life. Author and Greenpeace Director of Ocean Campaigns John Hocevar said in the report that “most types of plastic packaging are economically impossible to recycle now and will remain so in the foreseeable future,” and that “companies need to develop their own recycling expertise.”
Once travel companies can provide new-and-improved plastic alternatives and communicate about them clearly, it’s up to travelers to do the work of adopting them.
“Behavior is the hardest thing to change,” said Ambrose. “It just takes getting in the habit of using reusable materials and bringing them with you wherever you go.”
Photo credit: A person driving drinks through a reusable glass straw, a sustainable alternative to plastic. Chiot's Run / Flickr