Tourism and plastic pollution

Last Updated: April 17, 2019

Plastic reduction initiatives

If 2018 was the year of anything, it was the year of (the demise of) the Plastic Straw. With entire cities [1] ongoing legislation [2] from the EU and even McDonald’s [3] getting rid of the harmful drinking aid, a move towards a plastic-free future seems promising. However, the token gestures [4] of plastic straw bans or plastic bag charges must be developed into more sustainable and committed changes by those industries most responsible for wasteful plastic consumption. In few industries are the harmful effects of plastic felt more robustly than in tourism and hospitality.


Tourism and Plastic

Tourism contributes over 10% [5] of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – it secures one in ten jobs around the world and 80% [6] of global tourism takes place near the sea. To give a sense of the scale of plastic consumption around the world, the UN reported [7] that one million single use plastic bottles are purchased every minute, with only 20% [8] of single use plastic being recycled since 2015, when, in the years between 1950 - 2015 only 9% of plastic waste was recycled.

Plastic waste in the ocean has reached breaking point, with five ‘plastic islands’ [9] now recognised as being oceanic points at which, due to currents and tidal movement, the majority of plastic waste accumulates. There are two in the Pacific Ocean, known also as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ [10] two in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean.

The most popular [11] tourist destination in the world is the Mediterranean Sea, with over 220 million tourists visiting each year. In June 2018, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) reported that during the tourist season, these 220 million extra people cause a 40% increase [12] in plastic waste in only three months. Due to the semi-enclosed nature of the Mediterranean and its position as a depositary for many large rivers such as the Nile, the Ebro, the Rhone, the Po, and the Ceyhan and Seyhan rivers in Turkey, the Med becomes ‘plastic-trap’ – meaning it has one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution on the planter holding 7% of the worlds [13] microplastics, a shocking statistic when we understand that it holds only 1% of the worlds waters.

Other popular tourist destinations, many in the developing world, have been devastated by plastic consumption, with Thailand [14] and Indonesia [15] closing islands or resorts to clean up plastic waste and to allow their environments to recover from pollution.


Plastic Pollution & Climate Change: The Human Impact

We’ve all seen the famous image of a seahorse carrying a Q-tip [16] or a turtle with straw[17] in its nose, but what impact is plastic waste having on humans? With microplastics now making their way onto our dinner plates [18], global climate change affecting human displacement [19] due to extreme droughts and flooding and carbon emissions causing deadly air pollutants [20], poor human health is one of the most concerning consequences of pollution.

Many developing countries have to tackle plastic waste without the same infrastructure [21] that developed nations have to deal with plastic pollution, meaning this uncollected waste causes not only 70% of ocean plastic by weight but a number of life threatening illnesses and disease such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and stunting. Inadequate waste management in developing nations powers the production of black carbon (soot) which is caused by the open air burning of plastic waste, a common technique used to manage waste, especially plastic waste, in developing countries in Asia and Africa. Black carbon [22] is second to carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming and causes a number of negative health conditions such as cancer, heart and respiratory failure.

Aside from the direct effects of plastic on health, climate change has been linked [23] to the war in Syria, due to severe drought contributing to the decline in Syria’s economic position, as well as conflicts in Libya, Egypt, Syria and South Sudan [24].


Sustainable, Plastic Free Tourism: What Can I Do?

Whilst buying re-usable water bottles, using plastic free toiletries and taking your waste home are all positive steps in the right direction, sustainable plastic free tourism must go beyond surface level gestures. Many airlines and hotel [25] chains have placed a complete ban on single use plastic products and some international cruise companies have vowed to [26] abandon the use of plastic aboard their ships but is this enough to enable us to travel guilt free?

Speaking to UN Environment Agency, Xavier Font, Professor of Sustainability Marketing at the University of Surrey stated, “If a hotel group, for example, removes plastic straws, this is great to create staff and customer consciousness around this topic. But this cannot be the only thing that the company does. Otherwise, it becomes tokenistic, and any campaign that focuses on that is another form of greenwashing.”

By booking your trip through a sustainable tourism [27] company, you can aid protecting the environment and helping others whilst enjoying your time off. Sustainable tourism means visiting somewhere and making a positive impact on the environment in which you’re staying. Be it by creating sustainable opportunities and employment for the local community, protecting natural environments and wildlife or taking part in tourist experiences that conserve and safeguard the culture and heritage of your chosen destination, sustainable tourism allows those privileged enough to travel and see the world are doing so with the best intentions.

References

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