Removing single-use plastic straws to save the oceans has become a cause célèbre in the hotel industry. But although the environmental benefits may be limited, the move has helped chart the waters for the greatest shakeup of consumer policy in history.

By Michael Telling

Raise your glass for the last straw! By 2023, plastic single-use drinking straws will become a commodity of the past throughout the European Union, to be replaced by biodegradable alternatives. The initiative is part of a wider legislative push to rid our environment, and not least our oceans, of throwaway plastic.

Outright bans, restrictions and an entirely new approach to requiring the producer and distributor to foot the bill for societal waste management and environmental clean-up is about to shake the entire European consumer market, although some of the more wide-reaching producer responsibility schemes are to be phased in comfortably by 2030.

Set to become one of the first casualties of this European clean-up, the single-use plastic straw was arguably also one of the very causes of this legislative sea change.

The Cayuga Collection of luxury hideaways in Central America has replaced single-use plastic drinking straws with simple bamboo straws, which are washable and reusable.

Straw by Straw supplies the bamboo straws. Made of natural bamboo stalks, they are not only reusable but also compostable

TURTLE IN DISTRESS 

It all started in August 2015 when marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed a sea turtle with a plastic straw caught up its nostril off the coast of Costa Rica. Her YouTube video was a wakeup call to the world and has to date been viewed more than 33 million times.

The single-use plastic straw was something everyone could relate to. It has a very short usage time, usually just a few minutes, but takes centuries to biodegrade in nature. An arguably superfluous item, it can also easily be replaced by more sustainable alternatives.

Activist groups soon launched worldwide campaigns and celebrities joined their anti-plastic cause. Yet five years earlier, in 2010, hoteliers Andrea Bonilla and Hans Pfister had already decided to ban the straw at their eight Cayuga Collection hotels and resorts in Latin America. Their ambition has always been to offer luxury hotels in exotic destinations without compromising on sustainability.

“We are proud that we have been using bamboo straws for so many years. Good that many are following now. Need to do the same with all other single-use plastics,” Hans Pfister says to GUEST magazine.

Now, a decade after the Cayuga initiative, most hotels and hotel chains worldwide are following in their footsteps. A year ago, Thai Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spa replaced plastic straws at all their 48 hotels with local, sustainable alternatives. The Oetker Collection, representing 10 of the world’s leading hotels, ceased using single-use plastics at all their hotels by year-end 2018.

The Peninsula Hotels replaced plastic straws with biodegradable paper in November 2018, and Four Seasons also stopped using plastic straws last year. IHG and Marriott expect to have removed straws from all their hotels by year-end 2019. Hyatt Hotels only offer straws if guest specifically request them, and Hilton has just removed straws from all the 650 hotels under their management.

Here in Scandinavia, Scandic Hotels phased out the straw by mid-2018. Norwegian ferry line Hurtigruten replaced the plastic straws with metal straws in July 2018. Comfort Hotels in Scandinavia, which is part of Nordic Choice Hotels, launched an initiative to eliminate all throwaway plastic by 2020.

“All at Comfort Hotels know how important this initiative is and there is no doubt that the decision is respected, honoured and enforced throughout the organisation,” says Anna Spjuth, Senior Vice President of Comfort Hotels.

Guldsmeden Hotels, which apart from operating in Denmark also has hotels in Norway, Iceland, Germany, France and Indonesia, has never used plastic straws at their hotels.

“We use straws of biodegradable paper, and we have done so right from the beginning,” says Sandra Weinert, who owns the hotel chain with her husband, Marc.

WASTE-FREE FUTURE 

So, will ditching the plastic straw in the hotel industry make a decisive difference to the environment? Unfortunately not. The hotel industry is hardly a very significant consumer of single-use plastic. IHG’s decision to no longer use plastic straws will, for instance, reduce annual consumption by 50 million straws.

By comparison, the US consumer market discards 500 million straws – daily. It may seem like a token cause, but phasing out single-use plastic straws in the hotel industry has nonetheless helped shape the public imagination and inspired the industry to focus on the greater and more transformative tasks of shaping the future of sustainable hospitality.