FOCUS ON: Single-use plastic and hotels

by: Felicity Cousins | January 29, 2024

Hotels use a lot of single-use plastic – in fact the global hotel industry generates 150 million tonnes each year. And a lot of that ends up in the sea. But what are the regulations, challenges and the solutions to this problem? 

What is single-use plastic? Anything plastic that is used but then not reused. Think of plastic cutlery, plastic plates, cotton buds, straws and stirrers.

Where does single-use plastic end up? Unfortunately, even though most single-use plastic can be recycled, only about 10 per cent of it actually is, so around 32 per cent of all plastic packaging ends up in the sea each year. And according to World Economic Forum (2016), it is estimated there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. 

The United Nations defines our volume of plastic waste as a global crisis, ranking it a major threat to the environment and unfortunately the global hotel industry generates 150 million tonnes of single-use plastic each year. 

But aren’t there laws against single-use plastic now? Yes, for example in 2019 the European Parliament voted for a ban of single-use plastic by 2021. At the time lead MEP Frederique Ries said: “This legislation will reduce the environmental damage bill by €22 billion – the estimated cost of plastic pollution in Europe until 2030. Europe now has a legislative model to defend and promote at international level, given the global nature of the issue of marine pollution involving plastics. This is essential for the planet.”

The list of items on that list included single-use plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks) plates, straws, cotton bud sticks made of plastic, as well as oxo-degradable plastics, food containers and expanded polystyrene cups.

Err what are oxo-degradable plastics? Well, they are basically not biodegradable. They try to mimic that by quickly breaking it down into smaller pieces, but actually they just end up being microplastics left around indefinitely. 

OK when do the bans come into force? They’ve been in stages. For example, the single-use plastic ban in the UK is being introduced across different dates for England, Scotland, and Wales: In Scotland it has been in action since 2022. In England, it came into force in October 2023. And Wales banned most single-use plastics from autumn last year, but the following items won’t be banned until some point this year – carrier bags, polystyrene lids for cups and takeaway food containers, and oxo-degradable products…

And elsewhere? Last April Washington was the first to ban single-use packaging in hotel rooms in the US. So from 2027, for hotels larger than 50-keys and from 2028 for smaller hotels, there will be financial fines in place. In 2019 a similar law was also passed to ban the small shampoo bottles in hotels – that came into effect last year for hotels larger than 50 rooms and this year for those with fewer than 50 rooms. 

This year will see the same rules for New York (although it will be next year for the smaller hotels in New York).

Also president Biden has called for actions to “reduce and phase out” procurement of single-use plastic products with his Executive Order 14057. This aims to “reduce the procurement, sale and distribution of single-use plastic products and packaging with a goal of phasing out all single-use plastic products on Department-managed lands by 2032.” 

How does banning single-use plastics impact hotels? The average Co2 per night in a UK hotel is approximately 11.5kg according to DEFRA and reducing that can be done by looking at energy reduction, but also looking at waste. Think about a hotel room with water bottles, toiletry bottles, stirrers, earbuds, turndown gifts, packaged tea and coffee, laundry bags, slipper wraps. And that’s just the bedrooms. In the public spaces you might have water bottles, cups, straws, stirrers and then behind the scenes you are looking at packaging, cling film, water bottles, plastic cups, single-use wipes, plastic gloves and masks. It means hotels have to find other ways of presenting / packaging and ultimately look for different, responsible, suppliers.

Lots of impact reports across the sector suggest hotels are tackling the issue… Yes which is positive news and in a recent YouGov survey 76 per cent of diners prioritise certified plastic removal practices in the hospitality industry. Recognising this shift in consumer expectations, hotels are now actively seeking ways to reduce the reliance on single-use plastics, both operationally and in guest behaviour.

We asked B Corp climate-tech provider,  SKOOT’s, co-founder Mark Stringer about this. “Despite increasing regulations and environmental awareness, single-use plastics remain prevalent in many hotels, largely due to factors like cost-effectiveness and operational habits. This is in contrast to the growing consumer demand for sustainability.”

The ban on single-use plastic primarily focused on plastic used for food and drink consumption and while the regulations may have affected hotels with restaurants, the predominant source of single-use plastics in hotels remains toiletries (e.g. shampoo, body lotion, etc.) and laundry packaging.

Everflow’s director of waste services, Elliot Harrison-Holt explains: “Efforts have been made to uphold the waste hierarchy and minimise the consumption of such materials, such as transitioning to soap dispensers rather than single-use plastic. Despite these measures, completely eliminating all single-use plastic from toiletries may be challenging.”

And recycling is a no go? Harrison-Holt says that recycling these materials poses difficulties due to potential residue, although advancements in recycling equipment can effectively clean plastic during the sorting process. “Reducing consumption of laundry packaging is relatively easy, for instance, packing multiple items together significantly reduces consumption. Laundry packaging is often made from LDPE, which is widely recycled providing it can be segregated. “

Is there a problem with recycling and waste being shipped abroad to mega dumps, so we don’t have to deal with it, or is this an urban myth? While waste exportation is sometimes part of this process, exported waste must adhere to strict standards to ensure recycling at its destination. Harrison-Holt explains: “According to UK law, waste management companies are required to document where waste is sent for processing or final disposal. As such, reputable waste collectors should provide customers with the assurance that their waste is disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. A significant portion of exported plastic waste is directed to facilities with proper management capabilities. Some of this waste is used in products which are subsequently imported back into the UK, thereby contributing to a circular economy.”

How will the bans be enforced? In the UK, Local Authorities will have the power to carry out inspections and ensure the new rules of the plastic ban are being followed. Any business breaching the ban can be fined.

What can hotels do instead of using these products? Just look around there are plenty of options to procure reusable or compostable and biodegradable solutions. 

Where can hotels get help with this issue? The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance has plenty of resources on its website to help hotels manage and navigate towards sustainable suppliers, and there are companies such as SKOOT, which offers to manage waste and emissions reporting, as well as working with hotels to add an “eco-contribution” of around £2 to every booking per room per night that then funds carbon reduction products such as the NGO Plastic Bank (which targets ocean plastic pollution). SKOOT says that each booking can remove two bottles worth of ocean-bound plastic which translates to 12kg per certified carbon reduction project. 

SKOOT’s co-founder,  Mark Stringer says: “This approach enables hotels to reinvest in other sustainability solutions or plastic alternatives, advancing them further on their journey to reduce emissions and plastic use.”

Any more information? This week the government released a report entitled The price of plastic: ending the toll of plastic waste. The report looks at how the legitimate export of UK waste to OECD countries plays an integral role in UK waste management. Everflow’s Harrison-Holt says that the report is significant because it emphasises “the government’s intent to enhance the monitoring and enforcement of waste exports, leveraging new digital waste tracking methods to combat illegal activities.”

The government also plans to introduce extended producer responsibility this year, making producers financially accountable for their packaging waste.

With thanks to Everflow and SKOOT for their contributions.

We also recently reported on Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL), India’s largest hospitality company, which has said it is committed to reducing single-use plastic across its portfolio. The group is behind India’s first ever ‘zero single-use plastic hotel’, the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans. Read more here.

Indian Hotels Company to “phase out” single-use plastic

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash