The tide is turning in the hotel industry. Sustainability, once a niche interest, is now surging towards mainstream adoption, driven by a confluence of factors: growing environmental awareness, evolving consumer preferences and regulatory pressure. Within this movement, eliminating single-use plastics stands as a crucial battleground, and few properties show the way quite like Jaya House River Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Jaya House’s single-use plastic-free journey

Amidst the vibrant tapestry of Siem Reap, Jaya House River Park isn’t just a haven for travellers: it’s a testament to environmental commitment. Led by its managing director, Christian de Boer, the hotel operates entirely single-use plastic-free. This wasn’t a whimsical decision: it stemmed from a deep understanding of the devastating impact plastic waste has on the environment and local communities. The Siem Reap River bears the brunt of plastic pollution, and de Boer felt compelled to act.

The journey to becoming single-use plastic-free may seem challenging, but de Boer points out that it’s not as difficult as many think. Concerns arose from delivery personnel accustomed to plastic packaging, and sourcing suitable alternatives initially posed logistical challenges.

“I remember setting up a whole day to educate and to train, or to explain to, all of our delivery people. I thought – it’s going to take at least a day to convince them to not bring us things in plastic. But in reality, it only took 10 minutes,” says de Boer.

He emphasises the idea of walking the talk and leading by example, which is showcased through the hotel’s tree-planting initiative. The hotel has planted 2163 trees since opening in 2016 and he highlights how he is trying to eliminate the sometimes negative thoughts towards trees in Cambodia.

“In Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a long time and sometimes still by the slightly older generation – they see trees as a sign of poverty. Mainly because their parents used to live in a forest, and they were poor. So, if you want to be rich, or at least pretend you’re rich, then you have concrete. (…) I want to showcase that it’s actually the other way around, and I want to make trees cool and trendy.”

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As a foreigner in Cambodia, he says: “I don’t believe I have the right to tell people you should do this and you should do that. But I do have the right to simply lead by example and that’s really what we do.”

Navigating the sustainability landscape

Jaya House’s pioneering approach highlights the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the wider hotel industry. De Boer acknowledges that while consumer demand for sustainable practices is undeniably growing, regulations often lag behind.

“I honestly believe the consumer is completely ready for all of this. In fact, I by now think people choose us because of it. I think people are a little bit jaded, though, by a lot of the empty promises that some of the other hotel groups have,” he goes on.

He advocates for a two-pronged approach. Firstly, stricter regulations are crucial to level the playing field and hold large hotel chains accountable for their plastic footprint. Secondly, individual hotels must leverage consumer demand as a driving force. Transparency about sustainability efforts can attract environmentally conscious travellers seeking authentic experiences.

“I think rules and regulations and laws need to come into force. I find it rather frustrating when I travel, I always stay one night in a hotel that still uses plastic and some of those are the biggest chains in the globe that have very active marketing campaigns and very active PR departments that state how good they are. But in reality, it’s still plastic everywhere.

“I think that the UK tour operator, which needs to adhere to the UK law with regards to plastic, should also be held accountable for all of the plastic that they use as a company abroad in countries like, for instance, Cambodia. So, a British tour operator headquartered in the UK, is responsible, indirectly, for the plastic that they use or have used here in Cambodia and similar countries.”

Technology: a catalyst, not a cure

The conversation inevitably moves towards technology’s role in sustainability. While de Boer acknowledges its potential to amplify awareness, he emphasises that genuine commitment is the cornerstone of change. Technology becomes a powerful tool when wielded by individuals and organisations genuinely invested in sustainable practices.

“It needs conviction and willpower. And from the individual person. Now, we as consumers, we have a role to play. We need to demand the change and as a result, that change will eventually happen.

“Technology only facilitates that consumer demand. Yes, absolutely. Social media, the likes of Google and other things are critical. But from a hotel point of view, there’s not much technology. It’s – you either order plastic water bottles, or you order an alternative.”

Journey towards a plastic-free hospitality future

Looking ahead, de Boer envisions an industry where single-use plastics are relics of the past. He calls for industry-wide collaboration, urging the development of clear, overarching guidelines that set plastic-free operations as the standard.

Major hotel chains, with their global reach and resources, have a crucial role to play. Leading by example and adopting sustainable practices across their portfolios could trigger a paradigm shift in the industry, but de Boer questions whether these large chains will continue to be all talk.

“They place it under – we have it as our guests demand plastic or guests demand hygiene or all kinds of other stuff. I beg to differ. That is absolutely not true. If that will be true. I will be empty. And we’re full tonight,” he highlights.

“I think we need to make single-use plastic-free the norm – it’s that simple. And it’s not all doom and gloom, because more and more hotels are making the effort but some of the larger hotel groups, they’re just lagging behind.”

Jaya House River Park stands as a beacon of hope, demonstrating that single-use plastic-free hotels are not just feasible, but desirable. Their story serves as a rallying cry, urging the industry to embrace genuine sustainability. For travellers seeking responsible options, Jaya House offers a haven. For the rest of the industry, it’s a blueprint for a future where hospitality thrives in harmony with the environment.