ingle-use plastics have become one of the worst synthetic materials to impact the world. In almost every shop there is a piece of plastic that will inevitably end up in the ocean or landfill. An estimate of 513 million tons of plastic wind up in the ocean each year. In 2019, the effect of single-use plastics dominated headlines when a young whale died of ‘gastric shock’ after ingesting 40kg of plastic bags and washing up on the coast of the Philippines. On a micro scale, as much as 15% of the sand on Hawaiian beaches are grains of microplastics.
The plastic crisis continues to grow, marine life is suffering, and the Pacific trash vortex, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, continues to accumulate litter across its two trash ‘islands’. Of all the plastic polluting the oceans, 80% originates from just 20 countries, with the top five polluters being China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Most of these countries are common tourist locations with garbage collection systems that are underdeveloped or non-existent. According to OnePlanetNetwork ‘During peak tourist season, marine litter in the Mediterranean region was found to increase by up to 40%.’ We can safely assume that the same is true for other regions popular with tourists.
When we travel across the globe, we inevitably contribute to plastic pollution. Each flight we take, we have meals and drinks in single-use plastic containers. Blankets and pillows given to passengers will usually be washed and reused, but the plastic bags they are wrapped in, when we find them on our seats, are more than likely single-use plastic. The smaller, complimentary items on flights, such as earplugs, circulation socks, sleep masks and tiny toiletries, that a lot of people leave behind, inevitably end up in landfill. Smaller single-use plastic items that we leave in our seats, packaging we hardly notice and food containers we can’t avoid are adding to the piles of plastic flooding the oceans.
Travelling contributes to plastic pollution in many ways – not just on the flight but at our destination. When we land in places that are off the beaten track or where water systems are not ideal, it is common to purchase bottles of water in single-use plastic without having a way to recycle them. Other big polluters in tourism are the tiny toiletries found in our accommodations. The excitement of goodies left in hotel rooms might add to the experience of the stay, but it increases the plastic waste of the tourist season. Even if only a drop of the liquid is used, once they are opened, the tiny bottles are destined for landfill.
While we travel, plastic may seem unavoidable, just as it does in everyday life, but airports, airlines and train stations are beginning to draw attention to single-use plastic waste and encourage travellers to opt for alternatives.
Across the world, airports and train stations have implemented water refill stations to encourage the use of reusable water bottles. Many airports have also begun to move away from single-use plastics entirely. Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central Airport banned all single-use plastics from 1st January 2020. They are gradually implementing the ban, beginning with food packaging and polythene bags. In 2019 San Francisco International Airport became the first airport in the USA to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles.
During flights, Scandinavian Airlines use plant-based alternatives to plastic meal-packaging. In 2019, Qantas flew ‘the world’s first zero-waste-to-landfill flight’ where all plastic items were either removed or replaced with biodegradable alternatives. United Airlines also completed eco-flights using fully recyclable or compostable materials in economy seating, including a test run of hot-beverage cups made of recyclable paper. Instead of using single-use coffee cups, Air New Zealand is trialling edible versions made from biscotti (the most delicious alternative to plastic).
Many hotel chains have also begun phasing out single-use plastics, most notably Marriott. Across the world, Marriot hotels are gradually replacing the tiny plastic toiletry bottles with refillable pumps. Hilton hotels have removed plastic straws, and, in one of their London hotels, they have introduced a ‘vegan suite’, that offers everything from a plant-based key card to eco-stationery.
Although many companies throughout the tourism industry are moving towards alternatives to single-use plastics, it is not the entire travel industry. As tourism moves to become more plastic-free there are many things we can do to reduce our demand for plastic when travelling.
When we try to limit our plastic consumption in our travels, we should remember ‘The Five R’s of Sustainability’:
Simply work to reduce the amount of waste you create. Choose the plastic-free options when you can, such as using shampoo and soap bars instead of liquid bottles (meaning you can avoid those tiny plastic bags to put your liquids in at the airport). To avoid using plastic water bottles while travelling, many reusable water bottles with filtration systems are available online.
Travel with your reusable bottles, coffee cups and plastic boxes for takeaway food. Tote bags are another great way to avoid plastic bags while abroad and at home. Use what you have instead of adding to plastic waste. If you have to use them, the tiny toiletries you are given on planes and in hotels can easily be reused for the next adventure.
If you are offered a plastic bag when you don’t need one, politely let the vendor know and carry what you can or use your tote bag.
If you can’t avoid the plastic, try and recycle it. But remember that finding a place to recycle, or figuring out how, can be difficult while you’re travelling.
If you can’t avoid it or recycle it, find a way to repurpose it instead of discarding it. Use it for something new and give it a life that won’t be underwater.