Travel companies have been warned their efforts to reduce single-use plastics must not come at a net detriment to the environment.
Delegates at WTM London heard how a complete switch to plastic alternatives could cause greater environmental harm than present usage.
Speaking at a panel discussion on plastics, Ian Rowlands, director of Incredible Oceans, said key to sustainable use was reusability and recyclability.
Rowlands described plastics as a “scourge” and a “pestilence” - but also an opportunity to highlight the environmental impact of travel. “It’s the canary in the coal mine,” he said, adding disposability “was not an option” and stressing recycling had to be part of the lifecycle of all plastics.
Soren Stober, business development director S&P Global, said the “environmental cost” of current plastic usage would result in $139 billion damage a year, and a move to more sustainable plastics $98 billion.
A complete switch to plastic alternatives though would cost $533 billion a year due to the increased environmental impact of sourcing and producing other materials, said Stober.
“Switching away from plastic is not the answer,” he said. “It’s important to look at the wider value chain of the whole plastics industry. Before we switch, we must make sure it doesn’t create any additional factors.”
Delegates also heard from Jo Hendrickx, who founded Travel Without Plastic (TWP) last year after she was horrified by the amount of single-use plastics in use at a hotel in the Cayman Islands where she was staying.
TWP has since produced a toolkit to help hotels reduce single-use plastics with a view to eliminating a billion items by 2020. “It’s about solving a problem without creating another,” said Hendrickx.
Hendrickx explained how TWP had worked with 10 Gran Canaria hotels, producing 6.6 million items of single-use plastic waste a year, managed “in five minutes” to reduce this by a million simply by analysing their purchasing arrangements.
TWP has also been working with Thomas Cook to reduce plastic waste at its own-brand hotels.
Cook announced its own plastics pledge on Monday (November 5), acknowledging the 40% annual increase in plastic waste dumped in the Mediterranean every summer was likely a direct consequence of the travel sector.
Cook has pledged to reduce 70 million items of single-use plastics from its operations over the next 12 months, although environmental manager Victoria Barlow warned delegates plastics remained vital to some of its divisions, such as its airlines, due to its weight and food preservation qualities. The operator is also piloting sustainable alternatives to plastics in Rhodes.
Perhaps though the most striking approach to plastic reduction was detailed by Sherin Francis, chief executive of the Seychelles Tourism Board.
The island nation is home to around 100,000 people, with around two members of every household employed in tourism - an industry built around the Seychelles’ outstanding natural beauty.
Every year though, said Francis, around eight million single-use plastic items were being dumped in the sea. The government announced a blanket ban on single-use plastics in January 2017 and gave the sector six months to respond.
“There was a natural transition,” said Francis. “None of the businesses that said they would go out of business did. Today, it’s business as usual.
“The tourism industry [here] is built on the environment, it is the cornerstone of the industry. When it’s your livelihood, you don’t have a choice [but to protect it].”