Tackling the Plastic Problem in Tourism

The Problem

Inside and outside of the tourism industry, single-use plastic has been a regular talk of the town over the past few years, and even more so with the discovery of the Giant Plastic Patch in the Pacific Ocean, microplastics being found in fish, and plastic straws found stuck in the noses of turtles. As we enter the month of July, which has been coined as Plastic Free July across the globe, now is a great time to get a handle on the enormity of the pervasiveness of plastic in our tourism businesses, destinations, and lives.

So, just how much plastic do Canadians consume each year? In our businesses and homes, we use and throw away over 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every single year (for context, that equates to more than 125 BILLION 20 oz plastic bottles every year, more than 3,000 bottles per Canadian resident). Only 9% of this is sent for recycling, while the rest ends up in landfill, waste to energy facilities or at worst, the environment.

This plastic comes in many forms, much of it as single-use items including polystyrene, plastic bags, plastic bottles (both beverage and other products), food packaging, and product packaging. The often forgotten plastics that most consumers don’t see are the plastic embedded in supply chains, from the packaging of products to consumables used behind the scene in businesses, including in the tourism and hospitality industry. 

Plastic takes from 20 to 500 years to decompose in a landfill, but one of the biggest challenges is that the degradation of plastic can lead to the generation of microplastics, which make their way into waterways, the ocean, and our environment. Further to this, plastics are found in so many modern-day products that managing their disposal has been a challenge for consumers, businesses and governments.

This is important from two perspectives, the businesses who share this beautiful country with visitors and the travellers who explore the world inside and beyond our borders. Both of these groups can play a role in making strides to do better with plastic use and plastic waste. 

The Plan Forward

Many of the actions taken to reduce plastic waste and single-use plastics focus on the retail consumer level. This is a powerful move, but there is a huge opportunity for bigger outcomes in the coming years. What does this plan forward look like?

In Your Tourism Business or Organization:

There is a huge opportunity here to cut costs and plastic waste, simply by looking at your supply chain:

  • Where is there single-use plastic in what your business buys and what your business sells? Pull your vendor and purchasing list and do a self-assessment of how much you’re spending on single-use plastic items. 
  • What items can be swapped for durables? Simply replacing a single-use plastic item with another single-use item isn’t always the best solution. For example, switching from plastic cups to paper cups (which are recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable), is better, but switching to glass and ceramics is best. 
  • What can be refilled? Many hoteliers are shifting from individual amenities to attractive bulk options, and many tourism businesses are offering water refill stations or refillable bottles in lieu of plastic bottles. 
  • Look at your upstream supply chain. What plastic ends up in the trash can from your suppliers, such as packaging? Communicate about your goals and see if your suppliers are willing to work with you on reducing unnecessary plastic waste, and incorporate this goal into your purchasing plans to encourage suppliers to level up with you.
  • Obtain quotes for alternatives to single-use plastics and calculate how long the payback period would be for single-use plastic alternatives compared to repeatedly buying single-use items for the next year (and then paying to have them hauled away from your garbage or recycling bins).

You could also take your plastic assessment to the next level. GreenStep offers both a Single-Use Plastic Free Assessment and an optional Single Use Plastic Free Certification for tourism businesses that want some outside support and added credibility as Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim did in 2022.

When Travelling:

When travelling, choose wisely and do your bit to reduce plastic waste:

  • Where possible avoid plastic bottled water and bring reusable water bottles and to-go coffee cups. 
  • If picking up food from a restaurant, ask if they have a plastic-free container option, and say no to plastic straws.
  • Consider a travel kit that includes a reusable straw and cutlery that you can have on hand to help avoid the plastic options from the places you visit.
  • Say no to plastic cups or vessels on flights – use your refillable bottle.
  • Seek out accommodations, sights and restaurants that are looking to reduce their single-use plastic and improve their sustainability performance 
The Progress

At the retail level, there has been big progress made to reduce single-use plastic use in Canada, with Canada banning the manufacture of and importation of single-use plastics by the end of 2023. This will mean we should see no more plastic bags at the checkout, plastic cutlery from take-out restaurants, and plastic straws in drinks and to-go containers.

Consumers are also demanding change, with Amazon reporting significant increases in searches for plastic-free products, the 2021 Global Buying Green Report showed 54% of consumers look for sustainable packaging during purchasing and 83% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.

However, while more plastic is being diverted into the recycling stream each year, unfortunately, it is still not keeping up with the increase in plastic produced. Consider what your tourism business or organization can do to reduce single-use plastics, and make an action plan for 2023. 

As always, we’re here to help. Let’s have a conversation and work together for a more sustainable future.

This article was written by Matt Weller and originally appeared on the GreenStep Sustainable Tourism blog.

GreenStep Solutions helps tourism businesses and destinations across Canada and globally to measure, improve, and certify their sustainability performance.