Resort Hotels' Extra Responsibility For Plastic Waste In The Sea

For areas like the Mediterranean basin, tourism is huge business. But it's also an inordinate source of plastic pollution.

Seaside pink
Seaside pink
Ingrid Brunner

MUNICH — We've all seen the pictures: plastic bottles, cotton swabs and plastic bags floating in the water; cigarette butts, tampons and fast food packaging lying on the sand. These kinds of disposable items make up the majority of the rubbish found on beaches, and it's not a pretty sight. Who wants to go for a swim with plastic bags floating all around, or lie out in the sun surrounded by rubbish?

"Outdoor enthusiasts and nature-loving holidaymakers want to see a plastic-free environment. Our guests are very sensitive to rubbish," says Eva Machill-Linnenberg from the German tour company Wikinger Reisen.

Sensitive may be putting it lightly. What she means is, customers don't return. They book their next vacation in a different, hopefully cleaner location.

Many hoteliers already clean the stretch of beach outside their building in the early morning, long before the first joggers emerge. But that isn't a long-term solution to an urgent ecological problem that has become a threat to the livelihoods of many in the industry. The German branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that plastic pollution costs the tourism industry in the Mediterranean around 268 million euros annually. As for the ill effects on sea creatures such as turtles and birds, the damage is incalculable.

So what can the tourism industry do to combat the problem of plastic waste? That is the question explored in a WWF Germany study published in November and financed by Wikinger Reisen. The study's title is Stop the flood of plastic: Effective measures to avoid single-use plastic and packaging in hotels.

Its main authors, Martina von Münchhausen and Bernhard Bauske, decided to focus their research on the Mediterranean, partly because every year countries with a Mediterranean coastline dump half a million tons of plastic into the sea. That's the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles every minute, according to the WWF.

The other reason for this focus is that every year 200 million people choose the Mediterranean as their holiday destination. Although the growing number of guests is good news for people in the tourism industry, it also means an increase in waste: On average, the amount of rubbish created in the Mediterranean rises by about one-third during the high season. In Mallorca, it is almost twice as high during the holiday season, and in some Greek islands it can reach three times the amount of waste generated during the winter months. A law largely forbidding single-use plastic is planned in Mallorca, but it isn't set to come into force until Jan. 1 of next year.

Holidaymakers — with their high expectations of comfort in the hotels and their consumer behavior patterns — are a part of the problem. But according to the study's authors, they could also be part of the answer. To find solutions to the issue of waste, Münchhausen and Bauske conducted interviews with hoteliers, experts from NGOs, local and regional authorities and waste disposal companies in Mallorca, Nice, Rimini, Zakynthos and Corfu.

Their question was: How can all areas of the hotel — the kitchen, guest rooms, bar, outdoor areas, pool and employee spaces — avoid single-use plastic? The answer can be summed up with three words: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Guests are also reluctant to give up the free bottled water in their rooms.

The study's authors proposed a variety of measures to ensure there is as little plastic as possible ending up in the ocean: a waste inventory, separating rubbish, recycling. The first step is to buy the right items: Instead of using disposable packaging, for example, hotels should have containers that can be returned and reused. That can sometimes pose a problem. When it comes to the breakfast buffet, lots of hotels are already using reusable containers. But according to the interviews, they come up against resistance when they try to introduce these to the guest rooms.

"In luxury hotels, many guests expect tiny bottles of expensive shower gel, shampoo or body lotion in the bathroom," says Wikinger Reisen's Machill-Linnenberg. Installing a large soap dispenser on the wall wouldn't create the same experience. Many guests are also reluctant to give up the free bottled water in their rooms.

Plastic water bottles by Intercontinental Hotels — Photo: Kawanet

Holiday companies are often forced to concede that battle, but not always. Wikinger Reisen asks guests to bring reusable bottles from home. On its South African holidays, the company now has water dispensers in the safari vehicles, saving 200,000 plastic bottles every year.

Reusable water bottles are still one of the most effective ways of reducing waste. "Many guests don't trust the drinking water in their holiday destinations," says Münchhausen. But in many places the tap water is drinkable. Where this isn't the case, hoteliers should provide water purification kits or filters, she says.

Still, not all are able to do so. It was also clear from the interviews that selling bottled water was an important source of income for many hotels.

Is it fair to put the burden of sustainable tourism on hoteliers alone? Is it not the responsibility of local authorities to find a way of dealing with the waste issue? "The hotels can't do this alone," admits Martina von Münchhausen. "But as long as we don't have a recycling economy, we must appeal to hotels to lead the way." And many are taking up the challenge. Where there isn't enough public provision, some hotels are joining forces to set up their own private waste management systems.

It also important to make guests aware of the issue. Holidaymakers can also contribute by bringing water bottles and reusable shopping bags with them, taking their rubbish back from the beach to the hotel, or — in areas where there isn't recycling infrastructure in place — taking their plastic waste back home with them.

"The value of a trip cannot be gauged by how many plastic-wrapped amenities the hotel offers, but by a waste-free landscape, clean beaches and healthy oceans," the study's authors write. Hopefully that will soon become the new standard for luxury.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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