Responsible tourism & plastics

How are responsible travel companies changing their plastic habits?
Wet wipes, face wipes, baby wipes – call them what you will. They are wicked wipes when it comes to the environment, and we are more prone to buying them when travelling. Most contain plastic fibres and many people flush them. Once in the ocean, they are fatal to marine wildlife.

How are responsible travel companies changing their plastic habits?

How are responsible travel companies changing their plastic habits? This is tricky, as each destination has a different plastic issue, or indeed many issues. However, the main question we are asking our tour operators is, first and foremost – what are your worst offenders in terms of single use plastic? Or ‘What’s SUP?’ We have succeeded in getting some dedicated anti-SUP partners on board, and we are hoping that they will inspire others. These tour operators have endeavoured to remove the single use sinners mentioned below from across the board. Whether it at the deli where their holiday makers buy goodies, or in their accommodations. The list is by no means an exhaustive but just some of the items we would not expect to be visible on a single use plastic free holiday:
Plastic bags Plastic wrappers Plastic cutlery Plastic water bottles, when safe to do so Plastic cups, plates and containers Disposable plastic chopsticks Plastic wrapped or disposable plastic items in hotels, including slippers, toiletries, shower caps, plastic toothbrushes and combs Plastic condiment, tea or coffee containers

Other plastic criminals

In a 2016 Mintel survey in the UK, only 6 percent of women said that they cared about the sustainability of their period products but, by January of 2018, that number had soared to 48 percent.
When you start looking at the plastic problem, your eyes start opening to all of the chemical criminals doing the dirty to the environment. Some have easy solutions, others not so easy.

Tampons & their applicators

Plastic wrappings and applicators contribute massively to single use plastic waste; even cardboard applicators often have a plastic coating. There are still few other options out there for women, but we do recommend silicone menstrual cups, such as Mooncup, which are eco friendly and highly successful for a lot of women. They’ll save you lots of money, too. Do also check out this reusable tampon applicator start up project, which was inspired by this sea change in attitudes to personal products. In the meantime, there are plenty of organic tampons on the market with no applicators and reduced, recyclable packaging. Many of these can be ordered online in bulk.
Hats off to India where single use plastic bans have been put in place in both Delhi and also the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, India’s biggest city. This includes single-use plastic bags, flex boards, banners, and disposable containers and utensils.


Although now banned in many countries, they have not been eliminated worldwide, so do be aware of them when making toiletry purchases abroad. These tiny plastic balls, or 'microbeads', found in household beauty and cleaning products, make their way from company factories to seabed ecosystems worldwide. The knock-on effect of these beads is fatal as they are ingested by fish, harm flora and fauna, act as magnets for harmful chemicals and enter the human food chain as a result.

Calling all airports and airlines

For anyone becoming allergic to single use plastics, the sight of airport security staff handing out plastic for your toiletries is depressing. It is amazing how many of us resort at the last minute to a freezer bag from home, which then tears after one use and gets thrown out. Some airports get fussy about the size, so be prepared and get your own sturdy reusable one in advance. Here are the guidelines from the UK government on hand luggage: ‘Your 100ml containers must be in a single, transparent, resealable plastic bag, which holds no more than a litre and measures approximately 20cm x 20cm.’

I have a right to drinking water free of charge – or do I?

Water is a human right. So declared the UN in July 2010, stating that ‘safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.’ Try telling that to the airport customer service desk as you traipse around looking for a fountain to fill up your water bottle after you have downed all the contents before going through security. Of course, this UN Declaration concerns the right of human beings to have access to clean drinking water around the world, particularly in countries where contamination is an issue.

Our right to request free drinking water on our travels is a grey water area, and it changes according to the country you are in. Under British law, you have the right to ask for free tap water in licensed premises but only if you are a paying customer. The same applies to schools and workplaces, unless you are in Northern Ireland where Ulster continues to ‘say no’ to free water. Unlicensed premises are under no obligation to provide free drinking water, so this would include airports (unless you work there, of course).

This is changing, however, with more and more transport hubs around the world being put under pressure to provide water fountains, and the largest of UK’s international airports do now have fountains after you pass through security. Keep Britain Tidy is a big player in this movement, in order to reduce the consumption of bottled water.
Water at airports
One website of note is Water at Airports set up by an individual who was , rightly, frustrated at having to buy expensive water after going through security as well as being aware of the vast amounts of plastic waste. The website invites people to comment and add experiences on the site, so let’s support it and spread the word.
Even among those who own a reusable bottle, half still buy bottled water, because they forget to take their reusable bottle out. Filling up our bottles on-the-go is also a concern, with 69% of people feeling uncomfortable asking in a shop or café without buying something else.
– Keep Britain Tidy

Are airlines coming on board?

Airlines are under no legal obligation to provide tap water although it does fall under their ‘duty of care’, so you may need to present some medication that you urgently need to take with water to convince those hard line budget airlines to give you some water. Which will be presented in a single use plastic cup, no doubt. However no one should be denied water when in need.

Generally airlines have a long way to go when it comes to reducing single use plastic, although Ryanair has pledged to become ‘plastic free’ by 2023. It will be very impressive if they switch to biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery and paper packaging onboard, and in their offices, as promised.

LIFE + Zero Cabin Waste

The EU-funded Life + Zero Cabin Waste campaign was launched in 2016. It aims to tackle the issue of airlines’ waste, the majority of which is compacted, incinerated or sent to landfill. All the more reason to bring your own picnic set on board. Good luck with that, given that a lot of cutlery won’t be allowed through security. However, we fully appreciate that this is complex territory as you are dealing with different countries’ regulations, and so new Zero Cabin Waste guidelines are being tried out by Iberia airline in Madrid to see if they can come up with a framework that works for all airlines.

Marina G. Aedo, Environmental Affairs at Iberia, working on LIFE Zero Cabin Waste project:

“We have carried out different trial flights where we have tested different characteristics of our project to make sure we are going along the right path. Our goal is to reduce the generation of waste by 5 percent and to recycle 4.500 tons of waste per year. The Spanish Congress has approved a legislation modification whereby the commercialisation, exportation and importation of single use plastics utensils will be banned. By the end of 2019, we expect to carry out a replication phase of our project in London Heathrow. Many EU airports such as Frankfurt are developing sustainable projects to reduce the generation of waste in their facilities. However, in order to increase the percentage of recycled cabin waste, it is not always the airport’s participation that is needed, but that of the agent in charge of the waste management.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Plastic bottles - India: Christian Haugen] [Plastic bottle on beach: Michael Coghlan] [Tampons & their applicators: SuSanA Secretariat ] [Airport toiletries: Drew Tarvin] [Water fountain: Quin Stevenson]