Take a considered approach, says Nikki White, director of destinations and sustainability at Abta

There has been something of a plastic revolution over the last 12 months. Awareness about how much plastic we use in our everyday lives has soared – initiated by TV programmes such as Blue Planet 2 and Sky’s Ocean Rescue.

It means that people are more likely to notice when something is made of or wrapped in plastic, and they are looking at ways to reduce the amount of plastic they themselves use – from refill coffee cups and water bottles, to bags for life instead of plastic throwaways.

Consumers are also looking to businesses to take action. Abta members have reported a noticeable rise in customer feedback about the use of plastics, and a recent survey of 3,000 Thomas Cook customers found that 90% consider plastic use an issue, with 72% saying awareness of their own plastic use has risen in the past year.

Plastic waste can damage the tourist experience. Of the top ten waste items found on beaches worldwide, almost all are made from or contain plastic: cigarette butts, beverage bottles and caps, food wrappers, bags, lids, straws and stirrers and foam take-away containers.

Plastic is also on the legislative agenda, with the provisional agreement of a European Single-use Plastic Directive, banning single-use items including plastic cotton buds, straws, cutlery, plates and drink stirrers. It also sets reduction targets for drinks cups and food containers, while 90% of plastic drinks bottles will have to be collected for recycling by 2025.

Many travel companies are already taking action on plastics. Abta’s Make Holidays Greener campaign – which ran from June to September last year and focused on plastics – estimates that 49 tonnes of plastic waste has either been avoided or removed from the environment. Activities include ending the use of plastic straws, offering safe, treated water as an alternative to bottled water and committing to eliminate all avoidable single-use plastics.

Hotels have an important role to play and Travelife hotels are leading the way through a range of initiatives including providing guests with a cloth bag for their stay, installing water coolers in all guest and staff areas, using durable plastic cups and ending the use of bin liners in all bins but those in the bathroom.

While businesses are clearly putting plans in place, we also know from our conversations with members that they want to make sure they are taking a strategic approach to tackling the use of plastics and are avoiding any unintended consequences of a new approach.

Any strategy needs to look at ways to reduce the amount of plastic in the first place as well as move to reusing items rather than throwing them away after a single use. Considerations need to be given to health and safety matters, as well as the environmental impacts across the whole life cycle: manufacturing, transport, use and disposal.

Recycling is also a potential solution, but it needs to be considered in the context of the waste management services available in destination and people’s behaviour. Many recyclable items don’t get recycled because the item ends up in the wrong bin or it is dropped as litter, or because the infrastructure isn’t there.  Some companies are working to influence both.  Similarly, businesses may look to replace single-use plastic items with single-use items made from another material, but careful consideration of the impacts of that material, how it is made, used, transported and disposed of is required.

To support members Abta is publishing specific guidance on plastics. Existing support and advice across a range of sustainability issues, including plastics and waste management, is already available and can be found in the Abta Member Zone, or by contacting sustainabletourism@abta.co.uk.

More: Abta Make Holidays Greener campaign to concentrate on plastics

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