The hospitality industry is at the forefront of tackling the excessive use of plastic and technology could pitch with a few alternatives
It is estimated that 91% of plastic waste hasn’t been recycled, 73% of beach litter is plastic, and nearly one million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute worldwide
Have you ever noticed how much single-use plastic is present during your average hotel stay? From cups and bottles to coffee lids, as wrapping in kitchens, room amenities, in business centres, for in-room dining, in conference spaces (water bottles, folders, swag bags, cups), in laundry services, bathroom amenities — yes, those mini shampoo/soap/body cleanser bottles/toothbrushes, bin liners, cling films. Not to forget the back of the house and supply chains. Whichever way you slice it, we live in a plastic world. To be fair, it’s not just in hotels, but in our daily lives too. Plastics have made life more convenient and more often than not, saved us costs. As the global humankind, a.k.a. the still very much industrial-mechanical species approach a century of plastic use, it is discovering the long-term costs. Even in 1950, the world produced 2 million tonnes of plastic per year, a figure that rose to 381 million tonnes in 2015. What’s worse, it is estimated that 91% of plastic waste hasn’t been recycled, 73% of beach litter is plastic, and nearly one million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute worldwide, according to National Geographic.
Plastic straws have given way to those produced using eco-friendly materials like bamboo and paper.
India’s per capita consumption of plastic at 11 kilograms per year is among the lowest in the world, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. Yet, the country generates a stupendous 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. There is no data on how much of that is recycled, but it’s safe to assume a significant amount ends up in rivers, oceans and landfills — polluting each of them. The consumption of plastic has reached a crisis point and the challenge to curb plastic use is coming from various directions. Creditably, the hospitality sector is doing its bit, though this is just the beginning and the challenges to finding viable alternates are enormous. Just removing plastic straws and bottles won’t cut it.
The big picture
So, the plastic straws are gone. While hotels have gone public over their elimination of the aforementioned straws, they are quietly realising there is much more to be done. An estimate puts the number of plastic items used at an average hotel at over 300, almost half of which are single-use plastics. “At IHCL, we believe the mission to end the plastic menace must include: ending single-use plastics, promoting recycling of plastics, corporate and government accountability, adapting to new technologies, promoting innovation to replace plastics, and changing human behaviour concerning plastic through engagements and various awareness sessions in our communities,” says Dr. P. V. Ramana Murthy, Executive Vice President and Global Head - Human Resources, the Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL). “There is no definite timeline but it is an achievable target to reach through a continual and consistent process.”
Most hotels are replacing plastic bottles with glass bottles to cut harmful single-used plastic usage.
Maverik Mukerji, General Manager Delegate, Bengaluru & Mysuru Hotels, Accor.
At Accor, Planet 21, the group’s sustainable development programme is working towards creating a better environment, betterment of the society, helping those in need, fostering a healthy lifestyle and much more, points out Maverik Mukerji, General Manager Delegate, Bengaluru & Mysuru Hotels, Accor and a champion of the programme in India. “We are emphasising on ensuring sustainable development at every step and we have six pillars that require customers, partners and employees to act together to improve and reinvent sustainability for the well-being of our world and the communities we live in.”
Vivek Bhalla, Regional Vice President, South West Asia, IHG
As a step towards reducing their waste footprint and environmental impact, IHG recently announced their commitment to switch to bulk-size bathroom amenities across their entire global estate, with the transition to be completed by 2021. “Last year, we also made a commitment to remove plastic straws from our global estate by the end of 2019. We aim to complete the switch to bulksize bathroom amenities across all our hotels by 2021,” says Vivek
Bhalla, Regional Vice President, South West Asia, IHG.
ITC Hotels was one of the first to introduce glass water bottles in 2012 in an attempt to minimise the use of plastic bottles. "Such endeavours will only be enhanced by our commitment to a sustainable future," according to Dipak Haksar, Chief Executive - ITC Hotels & Welcomhotel. In a move aimed at reducing plastic waste, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) released a circular on September 9, claiming hotels could replace plastic bottles with papersealed glass bottles for in-house guests as long as water safety standards are met and the bottles are not sold, according to a circular issued by the food regulator.
What the hotels are doing
In 2018, IHCL pledged to phase out single-use plastic from all its hotels. “In the first phase, many of our hotels reduced the usage of plastic by replacing wrapped dry amenities in rooms, such as toothbrush, shaving kit etc. with eco-friendly substitutes,” points out Ramana Murthy. “We also looked at eliminating single-use plastic straws from our hotels and replaced it with paper and bamboo straws and successfully eliminated 2 million single-use plastic straws across IHCL, including at TajSATS.”
Bhalla says that at IHG, “we have been looking at the guest journey to identify and work on the areas of hotel operations where waste (including plastic) is most generated. Our priority at this time is to reduce the small in-room amenities and replace with bulk size. As our new brand standard is adopted between now and 2021, we expect to see a significant reduction in plastic waste at our hotels.”
ibis Navi Mumbai has launched a 'Save Water' initiative to cut down on water wastage at the hotel.
Accor is already in the process of switching over to glass bottles in the rooms as well as for MICE activities across its 50+ properties in India. “With the help of our partners, we are also testing bottling plants at some properties. At this stage, we have set-ups in Bangalore (Novotel & ibis Bengaluru Outer Ring Road) and at ibis Gurgaon Golf Course Road, which have a capacity of producing between 1,000-2,000 bottles a day.
At Pullman New Delhi Aerocity, we have started the use of wooden cutlery, wooden spoons and forks, instead of single-use plastic. The 200ml plastic bottles have been replaced by glass bottles in our rooms and meeting rooms for guests to consume pure water. All our hotels have eliminated the use of plastic straws, and stirrers and have been replaced by paper straws. Our teams are now working towards reducing plastic packaging, reducing food wastage and switching towards the usage of recyclable solutions. Our objective is to reduce food wastage by 30% by 2020 across all our hotels,” says Mukerji.
ITC Hotels’ commitment to ‘Responsible Luxury’ is drawn from its parent company, ITC Limited’s triple-bottom-line (Economic, Social and Environmental) approach to business. The group sources more than 40% of its edibles locally, positively impacting social (gainful employment for local producers) and environmental (minimising carbon footprint, also reducing plastic consumption) parameters. Its ‘ŚūnyaAqua’ (zero-mile water) initiative requires water to be filled in glass bottles within the hotel premises, using internationally acknowledged purification techniques, thereby minimising carbon footprint and reducing plastic waste. ITC Hotels is endeavouring to be single-use plastic-free by December 2019. Concerted efforts have been made to ensure continuous process improvements through purchase and inventory management, optimal food production, stringent storage protocols, among many others.
Marriott International has pledged to remove plastic straws and stirrers globally by July and is in the process of replacing tiny toiletry bottles with larger ones that hold more products and last longer. Most other major global hospitality chains, especially those catering to the higher price brackets, are taking similar initiatives.
Is tech providing alternates?
Alternates are emerging, but there is a challenge to balancing customer satisfaction as well as changing the supply chain, which has both perception and cost implications. “In a phased manner, we are adopting various alternatives to plastic such as replacing straws with paper straws, plastic food containers with paper containers, and steel hangars and clips in the guest rooms with compostable garbage bags,” points out Bhalla.
“Our hotels are also reviewing options to replace plastic water bottles (used in guest rooms) with glass bottles, keeping in mind hygiene and safety aspects.” Options like Bagasse products — made from the residue pulp of sugarcane, bamboo and paper, or stainless steel cutlery are a few alternative options, points out Mukerji. “It is not easy to switch to substitute products as it involves a lot of changes at every step — from procurement to operations.”
ITC Hotels have begun building radiation free hotels in the luxury segment using the innovative 'Radiation Harmoniser' technology.
ITC Hotels has begun building ‘radiation-free’ hotels. All of ITC's luxury hotels have successfully implemented Radiation Harmoniser for healthy spaces. ITC Maurya is the first hotel in India to provide superior 'Indoor Air Quality', which is at par with WHO standards. This will be extended to other cities as well. A dynamic plaque displaying real-time air quality, both inside and outside the hotel, has been installed in the lobby.
IHCL has launched its first zero one-time use plastic resort, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans with sustainable practices inherent in its design and services, points out Ramana Murthy. “In addition, our key hotels in Andaman, New Delhi, Maldives, Colombo, Bentota and Bangalore have invested in bottling plants to phase out PET bottles from our rooms and restaurants.”
Changes and challenges
No change is easy, especially when the hotel group runs globalsized operations. “Change management and communications are issues of operations,” points out Mukerji. “Hotels are big machines and changing the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) is hard. Any small change in the routine takes a lot of effort due to the scale involved, as the previous ‘way of doing it always worked’. It involves the right internal communication, training and resource materials to help guide that change.”
One of the key challenges IHG faces in reducing plastic consumption is to find suitable and readily available alternatives that don’t lead to unintended environmental consequences, admits Bhalla. "Globally, for select brands and hotels we have been working with one of our suppliers, who uses technology to convert plastic water bottles into fillings for duvets and pillows," he says. “We also recently joined the Ellen McArthur Foundation CE100 Network that brings together leading businesses to look at circular economy solutions to enable us to find innovative solutions to waste.”
IHCL has, meanwhile, partnered with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) for sustainability initiatives including seafood supply chain and single-use plastic elimination, and with the Tamil Nadu Ministry of Environment to support their project-in-making and purchase of cloth bags (alternatives for the plastic bag). “Also, we are working with various small-scale vendors to develop alternative solutions in an environmentally and economical way,” says Ramana Murthy.
“Challenges come with good decisions and these could be in the form of operational, technological or even behavioural challenges.” As Mukerji puts it, there are larger (and several) questions. “The major challenge we see is the accurate information regarding the alternative resources: where is it from? How is it made? What is it made from? Who makes it? How far does it travel? How is it packaged? How is it used? How is it maintained, how much does it cost to maintain, and what is needed to maintain it? How is it recycled? How is it disposed of? What does it break down into? What does that do? Where will it go? All these details are not readily available and working out the positive combination of all the parameters is difficult.” No easy answers are available, or at least none that can provide viable solutions in the short term.
SOME DATA TO CONSIDER
- More than 480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016.
- About one trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually across the globe. That’s nearly 2 million every minute.
- More than half a billion plastic straws are used every day around the world.
- Over half of the world’s plastic thrown out in 2015 was plastic packaging. That’s over 141 million metric tons.
- Over half of the world’s plastic thrown out in 2015 was plastic packaging. That’s over 141 million metric tons.
- The world uses 500 billion plastic cups every year.
- 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year. These are coated with plastic to laminate the inside and use plastic lids.
- The world produces more than 14 million US tons of polystyrene (plastic foam) each year.
- Around the world, people litter more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts every year.
Goals and cost implications
The earth produces almost 400 million tonnes of plastic every year, a lot of it contributed by huge hotels.
Like every other sector, a major reason for the adaption of plastic in hospitality stems from its functional features — it is convenient, cheap, light in weight and durable. The most significant benefit of reducing plastic use is effective waste management and the subsequent positive environmental impact, points out Bhalla. “In the long run, it also helps in managing operational costs. The alternatives to plastic can have upfront higher cost implications, and depending on the solution we hope that there can be long-term cost savings.”
In the short term, the primary target is to eliminate plastic water bottles from our hotels, says Mukerji. In the mid to long term, it is to eliminate single-use plastics from our hotels by 2021 as more alternatives are developed and designed. “Usage of plastic is unnecessary in many ways and switching to environmentally viable solutions helps the hotel, guests and our ecosystem. It reduces staff time and overall costs. Take an example where we are not buying plastic linens for almost 10,000 rooms, not buying so many plastic bottles and using products available naturally to us. There will be initial costs involved, but in the long run, it will benefit the hotels as well as our ecosystem.”
Some hotels are doing a great job, but most of the players in the industry haven’t yet caught on, especially if it touches on areas where customers have no view, Benjamin Lephilibert, founder and managing director of Bangkok-based Light-Blue Environmental Consulting told Skift earlier this year. According to Skift Research’s U.S. Experiential Traveler Survey 2019, a slim majority of the respondents, 53% in fact, said they were willing to pay higher rates to use a travel service provider that demonstrated environmental responsibility. Twenty nine per cent were neutral and 18% disagreed. Something hotel management will be looking at closely. If giving up plastic — read convenience and cost benefits does not lead to better bottom lines or image perception, it will be a hard sell.
Also, just about no one is setting timelines, in India or globally. But then, that is impossible till the tasks have been detailed and processes decided. The hospitality sector has a major task ahead of it in its goal of reducing plastic use and waste.