Hospitality industry checking out from some single-use plastics

Plastic packaging is being squeezed out of the procurement protocols at two Hong Kong-based hotel chains.

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September 24, 2020

The travel and leisure industry has been a foremost financial victim of COVID-19 and related restrictions. While revenue in the hotel and lodging sector has slackened, it has not caused some hoteliers from jettisoning sustainability initiatives that were underway before COVID-19.

Much of the attention has focused on plastic, according to participants in the G.R.E.E.N. Hospitality 2020 Conference, which was held online for members of Hong Kong’s travel and leisure sector.

“We’ve pledged to eliminate single-use plastics,” stated Iris Lam, director of food and beverage-design and sustainable development at Hong Kong-based Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, which operates 33 properties in more than 15 countries.

Lam calculated the hotel group has already achieved 64 percent elimination of targeted items. Some items, including plastic straws and cocktail stirrers, could be replaced with ready alternatives. Others, like plastic garbage bags and gloves, will require more “commitment” to replace, said Lam.

Carmen Ng, director of sustainability at the Hong Kong-based Langham Hospitality Group, says that hotel group started down a similar path 10 years ago. The Langham operates more than 30 hotel on four different continents. At its Eaton House hotel in Hong Kong, the company initiated a refillable glass water bottle system for guests.

Regarding which materials are being deemed more recyclable or environmentally friendly than plastic, glass and aluminum for beverages and paper for takeout bags were mentioned.

“I’ve deduced the best resources are natural, renewable items” such as bamboo, said Lam. Her hotel group looks for “home-compostable-grade” items, although she noted that a recycling or composting destiny does not await items in cities or countries that do “not necessarily have the right infrastructure for either.”

Lam said there is no shortage of considerations arising when trying to substitute for plastic. “We’ve gone through that process; we realized we need to have a strong responsible procurement framework,” she commented.

The company seeks out Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper products, and tries to determine whether local aseptic packaging that can sometimes be recycled is more responsible compared with glass bottles “shipped from another continent.”

Doug Woodring of the Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance said the hospitality industry is engaged in the same thought process as people in other industries and many members of the public. While substituting materials can provide some benefits, “There is a huge under-capacity globally for recycling and waste management” services that overarches the problem, he commented.

Lam and Ng said they have had little to no negative feedback from hotel guests when some single-use items are replaced or eliminated. Said Woodring,” A lot of this is about being bold; there is a fear factor of what the customer is going to say.” He said the hotel companies are doing the right thing by leveraging their marketing power and buying capacity to create change. Otherwise, “The excuse always will be, ‘This new solution is too expensive.’”

Plastic is likely to remain the focus of scrutiny, said Christelle Not, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University. She said plastic packaging used in food and beverage applications represents a large portion—“at least half”—of plastic litter found on the world’s beaches, based on cleanup event audits.

Although it wasn’t in common use until after World War II, plastic “has become extremely present in our daily lives,” said Not. When discarded, “It can be difficult to manage plastic properly,” and if it becomes litter, “it’s resistant [to decomposition], which is one of the reasons we use it,” she stated.