The plastic problem: phasing out single-use toiletries in hotels

Alexander Love 13th March 2020 (Last Updated March 11th, 2020 16:41)

Tiny bottles of toiletries are a staple part of the traditional hotel experience, but following heavy criticism over single-use plastic, hoteliers are slowly beginning to phase out these individual amenities in favour of bulk items. But how big is the single-use problem in hotels, and how can hotels maintain a luxury aesthetic with sustainable items?

The plastic problem: phasing out single-use toiletries in hotels
Last year, Marriott announced its decision to phase out single-use plastic toiletry bottles in all of its hotels. Credit: Angelo D'Amico

Single-use plastic has become a toxic issue for many brands globally after numerous news stories and documentaries about the material’s effects on the natural world.

Businesses have been forced to take action amid mounting pressure from increasingly eco-conscious consumers to avoid bad publicity, such as being ‘plastic shamed’ on social media.

For the hotel industry, phasing out single-use plastics represents a significant shift as small plastic bottles of toiletries are what many guests have come to expect to be waiting for them in their hotel rooms.

“The rise of the ethical consumer coinciding with the rapid growth in the amount of environmental groups protesting against the utilisation of single-use plastics has quickly given it a toxic image. Social media has accelerated this perception due to often viral content that illustrates the effect plastic has on the ocean ecosystems,” says Ralph Hollister, GlobalData travel and tourism analyst.

“Hotels are now using the eradication of single-use plastics as a differentiator in an already hyper-competitive environment. The Akaryn Hotel Group aims to become the first single-use, plastic-free hotel company in Asia by 2020. However, it is imperative that plastic substitutes do not detract from the guest experience, especially in luxury hotels where premiumisation is a necessity.”

There is also the suggestion that this is another instance of the growing generational divide between the more environmentally savvy Millennials and older generations, which are perceived as not believing that single-use plastic is as important an issue.

“Hotels which have a more senior customer base can still utilise single-use plastics without it having an impact on revenues. However, it is imperative for hotels targeting younger consumers in the Millennial segment to illustrate their commitment to sustainability. This is due to consumer pressure being driven by younger generations, pushing companies to incorporate plastic use reduction in their CSR strategies,” adds Ralph Hollister. “According to GlobalData’s Q3 2019 Consumer Survey, 49% of Millennials actively choose products that are environmentally friendly, compared to just 34% of the Silent Generation.”

A clampdown from the big hotel chains

In April 2019, Marriott announced that it was ending the use of single-use plastics for toiletries in all of its hotels before the end of the year. This was after the success of a scheme in five of its hotel brands that started using larger, refillable bottles with pump dispensers in 2018. Four other Marriott brands had also been using these larger bottles beforehand.

Marriott estimates that banning such items in its properties will stop 500 million small single-use plastic bottles from being thrown away every year. This amounts to saving 1.7 million pounds of single-use plastic per annum.

Another of the big chains, Hyatt, has announced a scheme to eliminate single-use plastics from its hotels, although this won’t happen before mid-2021.

A Hyatt spokesperson says this was part of the organisation “taking conscious steps to be more environmentally mindful”.

“Plastic pollution is a global issue, and we hope our efforts will motivate guests, customers and colleagues to think more critically about plastic consumption,” the Hyatt spokesperson adds.

Hyatt said that it wouldn’t be feasible to implement the ban across all its properties any earlier than 2021 due to the large number of hotels it operates. Although some locations will be able to achieve this ahead of schedule.

“There are more than 875 Hyatt-branded hotels operating worldwide in different cities and market types. While some hotels can quickly change operational practices, others may require additional time to secure the necessary resources and plan for any needed capital expenditures. The timeline of June 2021 helps ensure thoughtful planning and implementation that will set us up for long-term success,” the Hyatt spokesperson says. “Traditional small bottles of shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and lotion will be replaced by large-format bathroom amenities.”

Meanwhile, Hilton is also acting on single-use toiletries. Although it has not set a formal target date for this, it expects the majority of its rooms to be free from single-use plastics by the year-end.

“Hilton is continuing to transition from single-use toiletries, and we expect to have full-size bath amenity dispensers in the vast majority of our more than 954,000 rooms by the end of the year. We already have some brands that exclusively use full-size amenities, including all Hampton by Hilton properties in our Europe, Middle East and Africa region,” a Hilton spokesperson states.

Despite some hotel chains taking steps to rid their properties of single-use plastics, it may not be long before all operators are forced to act due to new laws being introduced in certain parts of the world.

New York Senator Todd Kaminsky has proposed a state ban on single-use plastics in hotel toiletries. He estimates that if the bill is passed, it would save 27.4 million single-use plastic bottles from being binned a year. The bill is backed by both the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association and the Hotel Association of New York City.

Under the bill, any hotels found in breach of the ban will receive a letter that gives them 30 days to comply. If any other breaches are found, the hotel could then be fined $250 after a hearing, with the penalty increasing to $500 for any subsequent violations. Any money raised through these civil fines would go into the Environmental Protection Fund.

In addition, the US state of California – long considered to be one of the most serious in America about tackling environmental issues – has already passed a law that will ban single-use plastic bottles in hotel rooms in the state from 2023 for properties with more than 50 rooms. Hotels with fewer than 50 rooms will have an extra year to ensure they meet the requirements.

Looking to Asia

Plastic pollution is a particularly big problem in parts of South East Asia. In fact, it has been estimated that more than half of all land-based plastic that ends up in the oceans comes from the five countries of China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

This problem has been heightened over a number of years by Western countries sending their landfill waste to some of these nations for disposal.

There is also a perception that addressing plastic pollution is not as big an issue for South East Asian nations.

However, a pioneer of tackling plastic waste in hotels is Anchalika Kijkanakorn, founder and managing director of Akaryn Hotel Group. The group operates luxury resorts in Thailand, with plans to expand into Indonesia and Vietnam.

“From the beginning 15-18 years ago, I banned the little shampoo and shower bottles from my hotels as wasteful. I never liked the idea of throw away culture. From there, we just need to make sure that we stop our staff from using plastic bin lining, and encourage our suppliers to do adopt no single-use plastic policy,” says Anchalika Kijkanakorn.

She says one of the biggest challenges has been getting suppliers to stop using plastic when they deliver items. “We still have not won this battle, but we need to start somewhere,” she adds.

According to Ms Kilimanjaro, the group has multiple solutions at its hotels that avoid plastic. These have proven popular with guests and don’t compromise the luxury aesthetic.

“We provide our guests with reusable stainless-steel bottles to use during their stay – in our car transfer – so that we don’t have to provide them with plastic bottled water. If they want to take these stainless-steel bottle home as souvenirs, we donate the money to Pure Blue Foundation for environment,” she says.

“We offer mosquito spray in glass bottles and if guests buy them, they can have free refill during their stay with us at our hotel shop. We offer our guests cloth bags to go out in town with and encourage them to say no to plastic bags. We stopped using plastic straws. We came up with strawless cocktails on the menu. The list goes on. It can be fun for everyone.”

Anchalika Kijkanakorn explains that these solutions have unexpectedly created another revenue stream and prove that single-use plastics can be eliminated while maintaining both the luxury and personalised experience for guests.

“We even sell our guest amenities – shampoo, shower gel, body lotions which are 100% organic essential oil, paraben-free, no animal testing, and no preservatives – in bulk where guests can bring their own empty bottle to fill in our shop or we can provide a reusable glass bottle for them to take home. I didn’t think anyone will buy but we sell these daily to guests from all over the world,” she adds.