It started with a turtle. Or, at least, a juvenile reptile became a symbol for change – a reminder that we should all be more aware of our environmental footprint. In August 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed herself removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose, and the world went mad. At the time of writing, the video has amassed over 38 million views on YouTube.

But this wasn’t your average piece of viral content that gains traction quickly and is forgotten as swiftly as its rise to fame. Figgener’s work resonated with a lot of people and companies noticed that connection. Four years later, after several major corporations (such as Starbucks and McDonald’s) eliminated plastic straws from their establishments, the war against unnecessary plastics is clearly here to stay.

It’s not only eateries that are part of this movement, the hotel industry is also demonstrating a commitment to more sustainable guest amenities. In July 2018, Marriott International, one of the world’s largest hotel chains, announced a worldwide plan to remove disposable plastic straws and stirrers from its over 6,500 properties.

“Removing plastic straws is one of the simplest ways our guests can contribute to plastic reduction when staying with us, something they are increasingly concerned about and are already doing in their own homes,” chief executive Arne Sorenson said upon the initiative’s launch. IHG followed suit in October 2018, saying this decision would eliminate 50 million single-use straws per year.

The next step

But banning plastic straws wasn’t ambitious enough, stresses Karin Sheppard, managing director, Europe at IHG. The next step was to see where else the group could provide more sustainable options. To further reduce the company’s footprint, it was announced in 2019 that its entire hotel portfolio would be switching from single bottles of shampoo and conditioner to bulk-sized, refillable bathroom products.

A month later, a similar announcement arrived from Marriott, which had already rolled out larger bathroom bottles at 1,000 properties in the US but was to make the switch with most of its other hotels by December 2020. The operator said it expected to save 500 million tiny bottles from landfills every year, leading to a 30% annual reduction in plastic from guest amenities.

“Our guests and stakeholders want to understand what we are doing as a company to address sustainability throughout our operations,” says Hemma Varma, senior manager, social impact and global responsibility, Europe, at Marriott International. “Sustainability has really moved up in public consciousness and people are not afraid to ask important questions such as ‘can I recycle my waste?’ or ‘where do you get your fish from?’”

Sheppard agrees that guest feedback was a large part of what drove this move at IHG too. The executive has seen a real demand for more environmental awareness from consumers in recent years as well. She believes the group’s sheer scale gives IHG a big opportunity to lead transformation in the industry.

“Our guests are really a force for positive change at the moment,” she reveals. “In our hotels, there is absolutely an expectation that we are mindful of the impact we have as a company on the environment and that we are pursuing sustainable solutions.

“It’s not about keeping at pace with what might come in as regulations, it’s actually about us being very focused on listening to our guests, which is always at the heart of how we develop our brands. We must make sure that we take that action early to ensure that we’re actually in tune with what their changing expectations are.”

Get on board

Such huge initiatives do not come without their challenges. Swapping out bathroom miniatures could have been a logistical nightmare, but both Sheppard and Varma say they are optimistic because so far everyone, from suppliers to hotel owners to guests, have been completely on board with the idea.

“The sheer complexity and volume of different items that make up a guest room is challenging, but we are working in a strategic way to make a difference,” Varma explains. “We partner with our suppliers on long-term solutions rather than making quick changes that might result in the resolution of one problem but then create another one somewhere else.

“Several Marriott brands are already using bulk amenities, such as Europe Moxy and Residence Inn, and feedback from both the hotels and the customers have been overwhelmingly positive,” she continues. “It took us a little bit of time to work through the logistics of removing tiny bottles on a global scale, but it was a great moment for all of us when the company made the announcement as we know the impact will be significant.”

“Several Marriott brands are already using bulk amenities, such as Europe Moxy and Residence Inn, and feedback from both the hotels and the customers have been overwhelmingly positive.”
Hemma Varma

IHG also learned from the brands that had already moved to bulk amenities before the announcement was made over the summer.

Expected reduction in plastic waste from guest amenities by Marriott, saving 500 million tiny bottles from landfills every year.
Marriott International

“Our Six Senses brand [that IHG acquired earlier this year in a $300 million deal] is very progressive in terms of sustainability, and they had already made a pledge to be plastic-free by 2022, so a wealth of initiatives were well under way and bulk amenities was the norm there,” reveals Sheppard. “Voco, Avid and another three brands were already globally committed to bulk-sized amenities. As a global business, we have acquired a lot of experience in how we make sure that our promises actually get delivered into every hotel that belongs to the chain,” reveals Sheppard.

But it would be churlish not to point out that for many people, bathroom miniatures are one of the little pleasures of a hotel stay. How did these companies convince the guests who expect a little bit of luxury that they can take home in their wash bags?

Not just for hippies

Both Varma and Sheppard believe that we’ve seen a real shift in guest attitudes. Environmental concerns are no longer the preserve of hippies and activists – the average hotel guest (and even the most affluent one) really does care about reducing their footprint. The demonisation of single-use plastic has become almost aspirational in recent years. In 2019, the retailer John Lewis revealed a significant spike in sales of eco-friendly cutlery, straws and water bottles.

“Luxury guests are probably as environmentally aware, if not more environmentally aware, than the average customer. There we have had a very positive response,” Sheppard reveals.

Besides, Varma argues, if you get the product right, it won’t matter if it’s in a bulk bottle or bathroom miniature. What’s luxurious about small and disposable anyway?

“Sustainability and luxury are not mutually exclusive,” she says. “There are many exciting new luxury products out there that are produced sustainably. It’s also about the design, and the look and feel of the product that’s important.”

Sheppard agrees, adding, “It is really important to have the right quality product by brand. If you’re staying in an InterContinental, you have an expectation around the quality and the experience. That will absolutely be replicated in the type of amenity that we would choose.

“Not long ago we opened a fantastic luxury resort in Australia, the InterContinental Hayman Island. We opened with bulk amenities, and they were delicious.”

She reveals that the resort also provides guests with a high-quality water bottle at the start of their stay. There are refill stations, with a choice of still or sparkling water, all over the property.

Moving to bulk amenities is a big shift for the industry and executing this change is no mean feat. But it is just one the elements of corporate responsibility – real change will be about far more than protecting baby turtles from harm. The sector also needs to consider other sustainability challenges such as food waste, water reduction and a focus on recyclable materials.

“It’s not just about playing our part as a company, but also to help the industry become more and more progressive in our joint forces. All the leading hotel companies must take action together on waste, whether it’s plastic, water or carbon. We believe that taking a responsible stance on how we expand and grow as a company is at the core of true hospitality,” concludes Sheppard.

Hyatt commits to bulk amenities

In November 2019, Hyatt Hotels became the latest operator to announce a series of initiatives to reduce waste globally, including introducing large-format bathroom amenities and reducing single-use water bottles across its portfolio by June 2021. Further commitments included increasing the number of water stations in key public spaces at hotels for guests who wish to refill reusable water bottles, and serving water in carafes or other containers for meetings and events as standard.

“At Hyatt, our purpose – we care for people so they can be their best – guides all business decisions, including our global sustainability framework, which focuses on using resources responsibly and helping address today’s most pressing environmental issues,” said president and CEO Mark Hoplamazian upon the programmes’ launch. “Plastic pollution is a global issue, and we hope our efforts will motivate guests, customers and indeed, ourselves to think more critically about our use of plastic.”

Transitioning to large-format bathroom amenities and reducing single-use water bottles builds on Hyatt’s broader commitment to reduce disposables and select environmentally preferable options whenever possible, with the exception of when single-use bottles are needed for water quality reasons.

Other recent global initiatives have included removing plastic straws and drink picks, and making alternative options available only by request at Hyatt hotels, increasing the use of compostable, recyclable or recycled content packaging for to-go food containers.