Plastic in Tourism

Plastic in Tourism

“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.

PATA is a proud signatory of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI) led by the UN Environment Programme and the World Tourism Organization, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Tourism, as one of the hardest hit economic sectors by the COVID-19 crisis, must strengthen resilience. . This crisis has highlighted both the fragility of the natural environment and the need to protect it, as well as the intersections of tourism economics, society and the environment like nothing before in history. As the crisis has awakened a sense of unity and interconnectedness among tourism stakeholders, it represents an opportunity to accelerate sustainable consumption and production patterns and build back better tourism.

The objectives of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative support the shift towards a circularity of plastics. GTPI seeks to reduce marine litter and plastic pollution, preserve the attractiveness of destinations and trigger multi-stakeholder precompetitive collaboration on topics such as waste management at destination level, which in turn can have a positive effect on health and therefore support a responsible recovery.

PATA SSR spoke to Virginia Fernández-Trapa, Programme Officer at the Sustainable Development of Tourism Department of UNWTO and Coordinator of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative to understand why it is now more important than ever to proactively tackle the plastics issue in tourism, what are the aims of the GTPI and how will GTPI support the tourism industry to succeed.

Q: Hello Virginia, thank you very much for joining PATA in this interview. To get started, would you please introduce a bit about yourself and the work you are focusing on please?

Virginia: Good morning. First of all, I’d like to thank PATA for the invitation to discuss today. It’s very exciting to participate in this series of interviews. My name is Virginia Fernandez-Trapa and I am the Programme Officer at the Sustainable Development of Tourism Department in the World Tourism Organization. I am also the Coordinator of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative. We will be learning about this Initiative today.

Q: We all know that the COVID-19 crisis has hit global tourism very severely. So, why is it important to care about plastic reduction in the tourism industry for the recovery during and after the COVID-19 crisis?

Virginia: The tourism sector witnessed continuous growth in the past decade, creating significant benefits in terms of socio-economic development and employment, which are now at stake. At the same time, such growth represented important challenges related to the carrying capacity of destinations, consumption of natural resources and impacts on climate change. Addressing all these issues must be at the heart of a responsible recovery of the tourism sector, as the resilience of tourism will depend on the sector’s ability to balance the needs of people, planet and prosperity.

We have seen that the tourism sector’s initial response to the pandemic is placing a strong focus on public health and hygiene, which is crucial to restart operations with confidence and trust, as well as an investment in preparedness in relation to future crises. It is also essential that hygiene protocols integrate sustainability principles as much as possible to prevent changes in processes which could have harmful effects on the environment without measurable gains with regards to health.

We also see that in many occasions, new measures have not been considered in the context of their environmental impact, such as additional waste generated, water consumed, and chemicals used. And due to incorrect disposal and waste management, some plastic products such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizer bottles are already being found in the natural environments of major tourism destinations. We should be aware that a healthy environment is directly connected with the competitiveness of the tourism sector and the basis upon which tourism activity needs to be rebuilt. Therefore, the reduction of plastics plays an important role for the responsible recovery of tourism and supports the transition to a more sustainable tourism model.

Q: During this challenging time, it’s likely that many destinations and tourism businesses will deprioritize environmental concerns. What needs to be communicated and coordinated among various supply chain actors to reinforce the plastic reduction practices in the tourism industry?

Virginia: The pandemic has indeed made it more complex to use plastics sustainably in many destinations and tourism businesses. At the same time, the crisis has raised awareness of the importance of local supply chains and the need to rethink how goods and services are produced and consumed. These are both key elements of a circular economy. Addressing plastic waste and pollution can be a catalyser of circularity in tourism. Therefore, despite the challenges, it represents an opportunity to embrace a sustainable pathway for growth.

What we advocate for is not a “plastic free movement” but rather a shift towards a circularity of plastics in tourism, where plastic never becomes waste. It is a systemic approach to plastic pollution where we eliminate (all problematic and unnecessary plastic items), innovate (to ensure that all other plastics are reusable, recyclable or compostable) and circulate (to keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment).

Supporting the integration of circular economy processes in tourism can promote innovation, the creation of new sustainable business models, provide added values for customers and local economic development. In fact, circular principles support credible alternative solutions to single-use products. For example, reusability can, in many cases, increase the traceability and control of hygiene and sanitation by tourism companies while ensuring that tourism operates within the local recycling capacities of destinations.

The problem of plastic pollution in tourism is too big for any single organisation to fix on its own. To match the scale of the problem, changes need to take place across the whole tourism value chain, therefore everyone has a role to play.

Q3: Not all tourism businesses and properties will have the capacity and resources to meet the cleaning and disinfection standards so that the use of plastic seems to be a safer and more economically viable option to many. Then how can they bridge this gap and move forward a circular solution for plastics? And how can GTPI support tourism businesses?

Virginia: It is important to understand that single use plastic items and packaging are not sanitization measures in themselves. The virus can survive on these surfaces and therefore, these plastic surfaces can become touch points where indirect contagion could occur, as they could have been contaminated during their production, transport or handling. With this in mind, continuing to carefully remove unnecessary plastic packaging and items during COVID-19 recovery can contribute to reduce those touch points. For example, making only the necessary plastic items accessible and available to the guests (or available upon request) will reduce touch points and avoid unnecessary cleaning and disinfection operational procedures while limiting plastic waste creation.  

We have to be mindful that single use plastic items and packaging should be sanitized before they are used by guests. In this sense, with the integration of cleaning and sanitization protocols within operations being absolutely necessary, opting for reusable plastic products appears as a logical investment for stakeholders. In fact, reuse models allow stakeholders to directly ensure the application of sound hygiene and sanitization procedures and gain greater control over such processes and even provide better service quality to their clients.

The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative aims to provide a common vision for the tourism sector to address the root causes of plastic pollution. It enables businesses and governments to take concerted action, leading by example in the shift towards a circularity in the use of plastics. By committing to the GTPI, companies, governments and other relevant actors of the tourism sector are stepping forward as global leaders working on solutions that address the root causes of plastic waste and pollution. Signatories commit to specific targets and specify dates for them to be achieved. They need to report annually on how the targets were achieved and are expected to lead by example and create awareness.

The Initiative aims at supporting companies, destinations, associations and NGOs through:

  • Sharing information about actions and solutions being implemented across the sector to address the plastic pollution challenge;
  • Fostering sustainable procurement practices and collaboration with suppliers;
  • Promoting collaboration at destination level to improve waste management practices;
  • Consolidating and disseminating the progress reported by all signatories to enhance transparency;
  • Showcasing the leadership of the sector.

We look forward to welcoming the members of PATA as signatories of the GTPI.

Q: In one sentence, how would you envision the future of tourism after COVID-19?

Virginia: Addressing plastic waste is an entry point for circularity in tourism. I envision a tourism sector where companies and destinations embrace circularity to become more competitive, sustainable and resilient.

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