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Why does the hospitality sector cling to plastics?

Did you know that hotels around the world generate tonnes of 150 million tonnes of single-use plastic waste each year? I thought this figure seemed rather high until I travelled to the US recently and had to peel off layers of plastics throughout the day.

People who know me know I’m not a morning person. I like waking up without a fuss, quietly, without distractions from music, a blaring TV or anyone talking my ear off. I don’t usually have breakfast, save for a cup of coffee to get me going. I only have elaborate breakfasts when I’m on the road to sustain my energy levels during a conference or trade show.

I attended the E-scrap Conference in New Orleans last month – a great event where I met lots of interesting people. However, I do wonder whether A, as a European citizen I’m utterly spoiled or B, Americans are simply addicted to plastics. I’m used to drinking coffee from a proper cup, eating scrambled eggs on a proper plate using proper cutlery. This wasn’t the case at the Holiday Inn in the city’s busy business district.

I was given styrofoam cups and saucers and plastic spoons, knives, forks – all packaged in a thin plastic bag. If you want another spoon for your yogurt that means opening another plastic bag. Apart from feeling unwelcome, I felt guilty eating anything in the first place.

That’s the other effect: plastic isn’t warm and homely. It’s more of a quick fix; feeding lots of people with minimum effort at minimum cost. I almost laughed at the recycling logo proudly printed on the paper napkins. In the end, what difference does that make?

We’re talking about a steady waste stream of mixed throw-away plastics, contaminated by food, paper and random items discarded by passing hotel guests into the same bin.

Styrofoam, especially, has been a thorn in the side of recyclers. The material is technically recyclable but rarely is. Indeed, it’s estimated almost 2.5 million tonnes of EPS ends up in landfills worldwide every year. It hardly seems the material of choice to push onto your (mostly unsuspecting) guests.

I was relieved to see this convenience-first ideology hadn’t spread to the Hyatt Regency Hotel where the event was taking place. A cappuccino definitely tastes better in ceramic, doesn’t it?

The afternoon networking meal, however, consisted of a lunchbox containing a packet of crisps, a chicken sandwich wrapped in plastic film, a plastic-covered brownie and so on. It made me feel as if I was back at school, something I hadn’t expected at a large recycling show. 

The second day was much better, with the 900+ delegates having a hot lunch served at the table. The caramel-banana crème dessert, beautifully presented, was the unanimous favourite. See? The hospitality sector is at its best when it strives to bring people together in a quiet moment of joy and relaxation.

No cling wrap or plastic straws needed. That’s just the way I like it.

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