People are protesting in the streets, politicians are hastily enacting new laws, the world is talking about climate change. In the tourism sector too, the commitment to greater sustainability is not an optional extra, we see it as our responsibility: when holidaymakers travel huge distances by plane or ship, are supplied with food and drink, have their laundry done or go on excursions, they consume a lot of energy and other resources. Still, the positive effects of tourism in many holiday destinations are often underestimated.

The world produces about 300 million tonnes of plastic a year. Sometimes the benefits of this material can help to reduce our carbon footprint: it is durable, light and flexible. But all too quickly those good properties can have the opposite effect: plastic does not decompose – and if the waste is carelessly discarded it can end up in our rivers and oceans.

One major theme in public debate is the plastic waste that is swept down rivers into oceans – and reappears right along our food chain in the form of microparticles. That is partly because recycling and waste disposal are still inefficient in many countries, and many people are careless about throwing away their rubbish. But international tourism is not simply part of the problem; it can also be damaged by the impact – for example, when polluted beaches spoil the holiday experience. Besides, more and more travellers want sustainability, and that steps up the pressure on tour operators. That is why TUI decided years ago to cut back the use of many items, especially disposable plastic, throughout the Group. Melvin Mak, Manager Sustainability TUI Benelux, explains how it works and reports on the first success stories.

Mr. Mak, when did the topic of plastic waste for TUI take off?

For years, we have been reducing the amount of waste that our businesses and holidaymakers are causing. That obviously includes plastics. Over the last couple of years, however, the worldwide challenge of plastic pollution has become a top of mind thing. The world realizes much more that the quality of our oceans is crucial for the quality of our planet, and our own health, too. We see brilliant initiatives around the world, but today still only 15 per cent of the plastics are recycled, and around eight million tonnes are released into the oceans each year. 

How are you responding?

In the Cruise, Hotels and Airlines business, we began either doing away entirely with plastic products, replacing them with other ma­terials, or at least cutting them right back. In Europe we are a step ahead of the legislation. A new EU directive, due to take effect in 2021, bans the use of many disposable items. But we launched Group-wide programmes designed to achieve this back in 2018, and at the end of September 2019 we signed the International Tourism Plastic Pledge, a voluntary initiative that a number of companies in the sector are already backing.

Let’s talk facts. Your customers spend most of their holidays in hotels or on cruise liners.

In 2019 alone, 10.3 million TUI customers stayed in hotels certified as sustainable according to recognised external standards. 80 per cent of the TUI hotels we own have sustainability certificates. This effort includes how we manage plastic. The guidelines we have drawn up for our hotels are unique in the sector in that they give recommendations for single-use plastic alternatives for every area of a hotel – from the guest room via the kitchen to the restaurants. Now the UN Environment Programme is using our guidelines for training purposes.

Our fleet at TUI Cruises is now the most up-to-date and environmentally-efficient fleet in the world. To handle plastic on our ships we have “Wasteless”, a rigorous reduction scheme. By 2020 we intend to do away with most single-use plastic items or to replace them with environment-friendly alternatives. To this end we considered which products can be used both on land and on board, especially in the cabins and in catering, but also in logistics.  

»We’ve been reducing the waste we and our customers produce for years. But in the last two years the issue has really gathered momentum.«

Melvin Mak, Manager Sustainability, TUI Benelux

The tourism sector must exercise responsibility – and take preventive action: most mass-produced items can be replaced by biodegradable alternatives or cut right out.

Can you give us some examples?

In 2016 our bars and restaurants started only handing out straws on request. Now we’ve replaced them with straws made of natural materials. Across the fleet we cut out 1.5 million stirrers a year by using wooden ones instead, about 5 million cocktail sticks, 380,000 mini-bottles for toiletries and 51,100 bags to hang newspapers requested by our customers on their cabin doors. TUI Cruises is also supporting an innovative project in Indonesia. People there are being swamped – there’s no better word for it – by plastic waste from the sea. The project is designed not only to encourage people to think about their own use of plastic but also to develop local waste reduction and recycling schemes.

Are there any reasons for not cutting back on plastic?

In lots of places it’s really difficult to do on grounds of hygiene or safety. In the kitchen, for example, food often stays fresh much longer when we cover it in cling film. We shouldn’t forget, after all, that we don’t want to waste food – that is another of our sustainability goals. So we need to come up with better alternatives like bioplastics, reusable systems, more efficient packaging, or dispensers and refillable containers. On our aircraft too we have to think carefully: plastic is often lighter than the alternatives – and weight is a big issue, because every additional kilogram increases the fuel burn. But that has not stopped us from working on better solutions. Here again, we did away with straws and plastic stirrers, and when we hand out blankets we don’t wrap them in plastic any more but in a paper sleeve.

Nearly 300,000 tonnes of waste are estimated to be swimming in our oceans. Inadequate structures for waste disposal and recycling in many places are one reason.

TUI operates in 115 destinations. Are there differences?

In the UK, Germany and the Nordic countries, there is a high awareness. Recycling has been standard practice there for decades. In many destinations, on the other hand, there is no functioning system for separating and recycling waste. But increasingly our customers expect a reasonable approach to the environment there too. Over half our holidaymakers want us to invest in environmental or social initiatives. 

Are you trying to change the situation in these countries for the better?

Tourism is often a key source of revenue, so it brings greater prosperity and further development. Holidaymakers also have an influence, simply because they demand certain things – from not using plastic and wanting to eat local products to separating and recycling waste. That is why TUI often works with the communities where our hotels are located. We organise workshops about recycling, set a good example – and in this way we help to improve the infrastructure and, as a result, to make holidays increasingly more sustainable. In Curaçao, for instance, the TUI Care Foundation has set up an environment education programme for 120 trainee teachers. It will be their job to show primary school children how to improve waste reduction and recycling.

Finally, Mr Mak: What does that mean in numbers?

To date, we have already waived 140 million pieces of plastic from our operations and we want this number to be at least 250 million by the end of 2020. We constantly search for opportunities to eliminate plastics throughout our customer journey and in our business operations. Our own offices are taking up initiatives as well. Even though these are often smaller scale than in hotels or airlines, in our Dutch and Belgian office for example we were able to eliminate over 800,000 pieces over the last year. I’m confident that we will see many plastic reduction initiatives over the years to come and become plastic-free step by step.


»In our markets, cutting back plastic and avoiding waste play a firm part in our business decisions.«

Elie Bruyninckx, Member of the Group Executive Committee, CEO Western Region