An environmental catastrophe drifts gently between Hawaii and California. Known by lurid monikers – the Pacific Trash Vortex or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – this accumulation of marine plastic is not an island built of water bottles and fishing nets, but a vast area of individual pieces of debris, many too small to see, floating in the currents of the North Pacific gyre.

The Ocean Cleanup estimates the Pacific Trash Vortex to stretch over 1.6 million square kilometres, three times the size of France. And while the largest, this is not the only ocean plastic patch; they have formed in areas of circulating currents in oceans across the globe. Awareness of the issue was raised by the BBC’s documentary Blue Planet II, fronted by David Attenborough, and public concern has resulted in policy change. At the 2018 G7 meeting, the EU committed to a target of 100% use of reusable, recyclable or recoverable plastics by 2030.

The wastefulness of single-use plastics, particularly throwaway items such as drinking straws, has become a pressing issue. The capacity of these items to harm marine life was brought into painful relief by a viral video of a turtle with a plastic straw trapped in its nasal cavity. This is an area in which the hotel industry has been a significant culprit, with single-use plastics appearing as straws and stirrers in restaurants, miniature toiletries in bedrooms and plastic water bottles in meeting rooms, gyms and spas.

From awareness to action

Recently, numerous hotel groups have responded to the prevailing mood, recognising the industry’s contribution to this form of plastic pollution and taking steps accordingly. “It takes a variety of resources to operate hotels,” says Marié Fukudome, director of environmental affairs and corporate responsibility at Hyatt. “Inevitably, there are associated environmental impacts, so it is important that we implement responsible practices.”

At Hyatt, from September 2018, straws and picks will be available by request only. Marriott is swapping small bathroom toiletries with larger, recyclable bottles. Hilton has committed to removing plastic straws from its managed properties across the world by the end of 2018, and is taking steps to eliminate plastic water bottles, a process that has begun in hotels in China. AccorHotels announced the intention to ban plastic straws from their hotels in North and Central America from July 2019.

While these moves may seem reactionary, they reflect an ongoing movement in the hospitality industry to embrace environmental and social responsibility. Accor’s Planet 21 programme is currently prioritising the reduction of food waste, creating urban food gardens in its hotels, and minimising the carbon cost of new buildings. Hyatt’s 2020 Environmental Sustainability Vision sets targets of a 25% reduction of water use per guest night, and 30% in areas with pressure on water resources. “Reducing plastic straws builds on our environmental sustainability goals established in 2014 and represents a meaningful step in our global efforts to reduce their environmental impact,” Fukudome says. “It aligns with our goals to purchase responsibly as well as to increase waste diversion in part by reducing overall waste.”

In May this year, Hilton announced its 2030 Travel With Purpose goals, part of the wider corporate responsibility programme Travel With Purpose. They include commitments to cut carbon emissions by 61% (following the Paris Climate Agreement), reduce waste and water consumption by 50% and to invest in local suppliers and organisations. “We're really on a mission to redefine sustainable travel and tourism,” says Daniella Foster, Hilton’s senior director of corporate responsibility.

In terms of the elimination of singleuse plastics, Foster emphasises that their reduction is part of a conversation that has been ongoing for some time. In early February 2018, the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii discontinued the use of plastic straws, replacing them with compostable paper in a bid to protect the islands’ coastlines and marine life. Hawaii’s position in the Pacific means its beaches are frequently littered with marine debris; and in 2017, the resort’s more than one million visitors potentially added to this by using over 800,000 plastic straws. “There's also a responsibility to ensure the destinations that folks are travelling to remain a source of discovery and adventure for future generations to come,” Foster says.

The challenge of reducing single-use plastics and replacing them with more sustainable options has led to innovative solutions. Hotel ICON in Hong Kong offers guests pasta straws; at the Hyatt Regency Andares Guadalajara in Mexico, they are made from avocado seed. Earbuds provided at Hyatt fitness centres in North America are now recyclable rather than single use, resulting in nearly 65,000 recycled pairs. At the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa, water is sourced locally from Mount Dauban, filtered and presented in reusable glass bottles – reducing the use of plastic and the carbon cost of shipping water to the islands.

Implementing change is not simple

Nevertheless, the process of changing a material as familiar and convenient as plastic requires considerable thought. The global movement to eliminate plastic straws has been met with concern from people with disabilities: plastic straws allow many to drink independently and proposed alternatives, such as glass, wood and metal, are unsafe or inflexible and therefore unsuitable.

“The challenge is identifying where we are overusing plastic and determining how we can reduce the use of it without impacting our service to guests,” Fukudome says. In addition, replacing plastics may result in issues such as increased food waste or difficulty keeping items sanitary. “We are thinking through how you scale these things globally, through a global supply chain, in a way that makes sense,” Foster explains.

The scale of modern hotel groups – with hundreds of properties spread across continents, and many operated through a franchising model – also presents challenges. “Any time an organisation is decentralised and global, implementing change is not simple,” Fukudome concedes. However, there are ways to combat this and even turn the franchising system into a positive.

Rising to the challenges

At Hyatt, energy audits allow specific goals and projects for individual properties to be identified and set; IHG allows its properties to achieve levels of certification in sustainability as part of the group’s Green Engage system. Hilton requires all its properties to feed into the LightStay platform, a system measuring and tracking environmental impact and energy use. “Being sustainable is good business,” Foster says. “It's the right thing to do, but also it helps to ensure you're running your property as efficiently as you could be.”

A structure that allows individual property independence can also foster improvements. Hilton offers Travel With Purpose Action Grants, which support individual hotels in undertaking corporate responsibility projects closely tied to their local area. The Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa’s efforts in reducing plastics through local water sourcing, for instance, were supported by an Action Grant.

In addition, the creation of new brands within a hotel group allows environmental responsibility to be built in from the start. IHG’s EVEN brand, launched in 2012, focuses on wellness and provides guests with water bottles that can be refilled from stations throughout the hotel. Canopy by Hilton foregrounds sustainability, featuring mattresses made of recycled materials and local ingredients; in terms of reducing plastics, water refills are provided and breakfasts are delivered in recycled brown bags. “Being good environmental and social stewards is just ingrained in our Hilton culture of hospitality,” Foster says. “It's important to who we are and how we operate, so increasingly every new brand is going to have a component of that in it.”

An important part of sustainability strategy is engaging and communicating with guests, many of whom – especially younger generations – prioritise environmental issues. A 2018 survey conducted by Hilton showed that 44% of under-25s actively look up a hotel brand’s sustainability practice before booking. “There is a rising movement that I think is incredibly positive,” Foster says. Interestingly, Canopy by Hilton’s website does not focus guests’ attention on the brand’s reduction of plastics, though the issue is highlighted elsewhere in the company – in China, Attenborough’s documentary has been offered on in-room TVs.

“The move to reduce single-use plastics is aligned with our value as a company to care for our communities and our planet, and many of our guests share a similar value,” Fukudome says. She points to Hyatt’s Hyatt Thrive website as a source of information on the group’s policies, and highlights Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht’s involvement in the city-wide IamStrawless campaign. “As we’ve rolled out initiatives to reduce our environmental footprint, guests have responded positively.”

A positive future outlook

Both Fukudome and Foster stress that the work to reduce plastics and improve sustainability is ongoing. “We are thinking deeply about all of these things, and there will continue be some exciting innovations and updates that come out as we go into 2019,” Foster says. A future without the plastics we currently take for granted in the hospitality industry seems increasingly possible. The Double Tree by Hilton Amsterdam Central Station has created an entirely plastic-free room: curtains, carpets and even do-not-disturb signs have been replaced by naturally and locally sourced alternatives. While it is clear there is some way to go – the plastic-free room sees the television switched for a chess set, which may not be every guest’s idea of entertainment – the appetite for sustainability from industry leaders and guests suggests real change is on the horizon.