Tackling single-use plastics

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1st August 2022

In this article, Travelife for Accommodation talks about how to reduce your organisation’s reliance on single-use plastics.

Plastic is one of the most important innovations in human history and when used sensibly, and disposed of properly, it offers many important benefits.  These include extending the shelf-life of food products, making essential household items more widely accessible through lowered costs and providing lifesaving medical technology.

Plastic is now an essential part of life but the problem is that we also produce a lot of plastic that isn’t necessary and that even necessary plastics are often not disposed of safely, leading to a global pollution crisis that has seen microplastic harm essential ecosystems, with new evidence suggesting that it is now in our food.

Consumer sentiment is strong on this issue with a growing global demand for businesses to lead the way in terms of reducing the use of plastic packaging and eliminating the use single-use plastic items such as straws and beverage containers.

Getting started

Single-use plastics are individual items made from plastic that can only be used once before being thrown away and these types of plastics are the ones causing the most harm.  We recommend that every organisation looking to take actions in this area starts with an assessment of the single-use plastic items used and we also think that this is a great idea for all of the waste that is created by your operation.  This assessment should involve the creation of a waste register that includes the following for each type of single-use plastic item in your operation:

A description of the item

e.g. Plastic water bottles

What the item is used for

e.g. Providing water during meetings

How and where you currently dispose of it at your premises after use

e.g. Put into recycling container in the staff kitchen

Who collects it from your business and how they dispose of it

E.g. Collected by local council for recycling

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Once that is done, review each item using the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ method where each item is considered in terms of whether you can remove it or reduce the use of it, if it can be repurposed for something else before it is disposed of and, as a last resort, if it can be recycled.  That means asking the following questions:

Do we really need this item?

Sometimes we keep things in our business simply because they have always been there!  So it is worth asking if a single-use plastic item is actually necessary because you may simply be able to stop ordering it. This is also something you can work with suppliers on in terms of asking them to stop providing items that are unnecessarily individually wrapped in plastic.

Can we replace it with a less harmful alternative?

There are many options here.  For example, why not return to using teaspoons instead of plastic stirrers for tea and coffee?  Can you have all employees use glasses or bring their own refillable bottles to work, instead of using plastic cups? Can you work with a supplier to ask them to use more sustainable packaging?

Can we use less of this item?

Often the use of a single-use plastic can be significantly reduced simply by changing the process by which people obtain the item.  For example, you might want to keep plastic water bottles onsite in case there is a disruption to your water supply or a disease outbreak where hygiene is a concern, but this would be considered emergency water that people have to ask for rather than it automatically being available to everybody. 

Can we repurpose these items after they are used?

This might require a bit of research but in many communities there are people who will be happy to reuse some of your single-use plastic items for art, science education or commerce.  You may even have some ideas about how you can repurpose them in your own operation.

Recycling should always be a last resort when all other options to remove or reduce a single-use plastic item have been exhausted.

Can we recycle the used items?

There might still be single-use plastic items that you are, at least for now, unable to avoid due to health and safety reasons, or because your customers simply expect them. In these cases, find out what can be recycled in your location, then do your best to ensure that you recycle whatever you can by training staff on how to recycle and ensuring you have plenty of clearly labelled recycling bins. There is still a high environmental cost associated with this, so recycling should always be a last resort when you simply can’t eliminate or replace a single-use plastic item.

Safely dispose of what cannot be recycled

Some plastics cannot be recycled so make sure you are disposing of all your waste in a way that minimises pollution and avoid these types of plastics that are particularly harmful:

PVC is widely known as the most toxic plastic for health and the environment.

Polystyrene (PS) cannot be recycled and additionally it breaks down into harmful microplastics very easily.

Multi-material products are often items that appear to be paper-based but are in fact lined with plastic such as paper cups and beverage cartons.

Cleaning wipes cannot be easily recycled and can clog sewerage systems.

Inspiration and ideas

Here are a few ideas Travelife recommend to hotels about how to remove and replace single-use plastics, but we believe they can provide inspiration for many other businesses:

Straws: Stop offering straws and other plastic items that come with drinks and snacks. Do have some paper, metal or wooden alternatives available for guests who ask for one.

Plastic water bottles: In your pre-arrival communications, suggest that guests bring their own refillable bottle and offer them on-site. Be sure there are plenty of water dispensers (ideally touch-free) available and that it is easy for your guests to get bottles refilled by staff.

Food containers: If you offer packaged food, including condiments, to guests or staff, use paper-based items that can be recycled or that will degrade quickly and safely when disposed of with general waste.

Amenities: Guests are increasingly dissatisfied with the use of single-use plastic bathroom minis, with many properties successfully introducing refillable dispensers as an alternative. This also offers a great chance to stand out as a hotel by presenting your guests with a locally made bar of soap, shampoo or conditioner wrapped in paper instead. You could also add signage to let guests know that single-use amenities are available on request, rather that offering them automatically.

Plastic bags: Replace laundry bags with reusable fabric alternatives and opt for recycled paper bags for retail items. In your pre-arrival communications, suggest that guests help you reduce plastic waste in your destination by bringing their own reusable shopping bags and let guests know where they can buy these locally.

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