Single-use plastic causes environmental impacts that are completely disproportionate to its benefits. For the sake of making a cold beverage a little easier to drink or saving yourself a little washing up, another lump of worthless plastic is added to the ecosystem that may take centuries to fully break down, doing a lot of damage in the process.
The international hotel industry uses 150 million tonnes of single-use plastic every year, making it a major contributor to a problem that kills one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. It's a problem that makes its way up the food chain to affect humans, too. Fortunately, there are some simple and cost-effective ways that every hotel can help.
1. Replace single-use plastic straws or just stop using straws entirely
The US alone is estimated to throw away about 500 million single-use plastic straws each day, with each taking up to 200 years to fully break down. In that time, they deteriorate into hazardous microplastics – tiny lumps of material that are disastrous for wildlife and, potentially, humans.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives. You can use straws made from various forms of biodegradable plastics, paper or plant matter like the stems of wheat or papaya leaves. While reusable straws made of glass, silicone, stainless steel or bamboo can help reduce costs by minimizing the need to continually buy fresh stock, manufacturing them does also come at a cost to the environment, so it’s better to eliminate straws altogether if possible.
Ready to take the step? You aren’t alone. The Hilton successfully removed plastic straws from many of their properties, quickly followed by Hyatt Hotels, Anantara and Four Seasons, among others.
2. Replace plastic water bottles with glass or metal or stop outsourcing your water bottle supply
While plastic water bottles are relatively easy to recycle, those that get thrown into the general trash take 70-450 years to fully break down. With two bottles of water in each of 100 rooms in a hotel, that’s potentially 73,000 pieces of plastic being thrown away every year, at the very least.
The simplest way to reduce this waste is to buy water in glass bottles instead of plastic. This slightly adds to the cost per unit, of course. However, you can reduce costs over time by installing a reverse osmosis water filtration system and getting reusable glass bottles. Hospitality brand 1Hotels went one step further by filtering all tap water, allowing guests to fill their glasses from their bathroom sink. You can take it even further by giving or selling branded metal bottles to guests, improving your marketing and showcasing your green credentials. Imagine all the walking ambassadors for your hotel!
3. Use biodegradable bathroom amenities or save money with reusable alternatives
It's certainly a bonus for guests if you provide little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, as well as a toothbrush set. However, the impact on the environment of millions of single-use toothbrushes and bottles is immense, especially when they can take up to 100 years to break down.
Fortunately, you don't need to fully remove these amenities to reduce plastic waste. There are plenty of biodegradable options available, including bamboo combs, toothbrushes and cotton buds. For shampoo, consider installing refillable dispensers in every room – it will reduce your costs in the long term since you can buy bathroom products in bulk instead of in individual branded bottles.
4. Replace single-use refreshing towels add to the customer experience without adding significant cost
The refreshing towel at check-in is one of those little delights that make a hotel stay stand out, but those cloths and especially the wrapper they come in are certainly not environmentally friendly as they take decades to deteriorate.
Fortunately, the solution is incredibly simple: just use normal towels that you can wash and reuse each time. It adds a touch of class to the guest experience for the cost of a good supply of small towels, a few drops of natural oils to add to the water you soak them in and a refrigerator near the reception desk to keep them ready to delight your guests.
5. Switch to biodegradable trash bags but check the label when you select them
There will always be waste, even with plastic waste reduced to the absolute minimum. Where there is waste, there are trash bags to store and transport it – and these are typically made of plastic because it's light and durable. However, they also take up to a millennium to fully degrade.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Just as there are drinking straws made from biodegradable plastics, there are also trash bags made from similar materials. They will break down more easily while remaining just as durable as regular bags. It's worth noting that different types of biodegradable plastics only degrade under certain conditions or must be processed through a commercial composting factory. It's worth checking the details to get the greenest possible option.
6. Buy ingredients from local markets to reduce plastic packaging
Buying ingredients for your restaurant from industrial suppliers and supermarkets allows you to purchase in bulk with consistent quality. However, when each item is wrapped in plastic, it creates a lot of waste.
In contrast, ingredients from local suppliers typically minimises packaging, while costing less and supporting local producers and the community economy. With a bit of faith and the injection of regular income you provide, such producers could grow to provide the bulk and consistency you need. There's a double benefit for you, since ’locally sourced ingredients’ always looks appealing on a menu.
7. Replace single-serving condiment packs with small reusable pots or bowls
While individual portions of breakfast condiments offer a convenient way to keep the queues shorter at the buffet, they also create unnecessary plastic waste, which could take 20-30 years to break down.
Reusable alternatives (like ceramic or metal pots) take more preparation and a bit of capital expenditure to get enough for each table in your breakfast restaurant, but they add value over time since you can buy the fillings in bulk. As an added bonus, they provide a more luxurious customer experience than the plastic versions.
8. Use compostable takeaway containers or at least more recyclable materials
When it comes to takeaway and casual dining, polystyrene has long been a popular and cheap option for cups and containers. Unfortunately, they also hang around in the environment for a long time - up to 50 years, in fact. To make things worse, it's one of the most difficult materials to recycle, with relatively few plants equipped to process it.
Using biodegradable alternatives is not only more eco-friendly, but will look great in your marketing. Envision eye-catching containers made from flattened and formed plant leaves or other creative options. With more big food retailers adopting biodegradable packaging, there are increasingly more budget-friendly options available.
9. Update to mobile keyless entry or downgrade to metal keys
Plastic key cards are, of course, reusable and are very convenient for your guests, but they will eventually be waste. When the Hilton switched over to using mobile keyless entry, they estimated that they saved 40 tons of plastic! With services like OpenKey available, you don't have to go to the expense of designing your own app to get it working in your hotel.
Of course, installing modern locks to use with the mobile app can be a big expense, especially for large hotels. If you want to save money while also saving the planet, you can opt for old-fashioned metal keys. While it lacks the high-tech feel of the keyless option, it still saves on plastic waste and creates a retro feel.
10. Recycle where plastic waste is unavoidable and teach your staff to help
While some hotel brands have pushed to create absolutely zero plastic waste, the capital expense of doing so may be overwhelming for smaller brands and independent hotels. However, that doesn't mean that you can't still contribute to the overall effort to make the hospitality industry as green as possible.
An efficient recycling program will ensure that plastics and other waste materials are correctly identified, sorted and collected to be delivered to the appropriate processing plants. You may need to train your employees to identify the different types of plastic so that they get sorted into the correct bins, but that's a comparatively small cost while still helping the planet and improving your property's green credentials.