Cutting plastic bottle use in adventure travel

Earth Day 2018 is on Sunday April 22, and the theme for this year is ending plastic pollution. One of the biggest sources of plastic waste from the general public is single-use plastic bottles, and tourists are a big source of this waste. Even those of us who rarely use disposable drinks bottles when at home often use several a day when travelling. Western tourists travelling to developing countries where they do not trust the local drinking water are regular high users, often buying single-use bottles for all the water they use. The travel trade is trying to reduce this use, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) committed to curbing the use of single-use plastic bottles as one of its strategic initiatives in 2018. To get a picture of the current situation among ATTA members, ATTA teamed up with Travelers Against Plastic (TAP) to create and distribute a survey to the ATTA and TAP’s database of adventure tourism businesses. The results show that despite high levels of awareness and concern, most adventure travel firms still use plastic water bottles on many of their trips. 

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More than 500 people (most of them tour operators) sending guests all around the world participated in the survey. The vast majority of them (92 percent) are extremely concerned with the environmental impacts of single-use plastic bottles, and 80 percent believe they have a strong understanding of the plastic waste issue. Further, 58 percent have a published sustainability code of ethics. Despite this, 60 percent of survey respondents reported their businesses use single-use plastic water bottles on all or some trips, averaging two bottles per guest per day. 

Where travel companies provide bottled water to their guests, this is at a substantial cost. Respondents estimated their expenditure on single-use plastic water bottles to be $2.33 on average per guest per day. Considering only the 239 survey respondents who stated they use plastic water bottles in their business operations, it is estimated that they collectively exhaust 6.8 million single-use plastic water bottles annually, and spend $7.9 million per year. 

So what can be done to reduce this bottle use to protect the environment? The report from ATTA estimates that the nearly $8 million spent on single-use plastic bottles by survey respondents could buy nearly 3 million reusable aluminium water bottles, or 250,000 filtering water bottles. Many companies are either providing reusable bottles, or are asking their customers to bring one with them, and then providing filtered water for them to fill their bottles with. Thus on a recent overland trip I did in East Africa, my tour company Exodus always had filtered water available on the overland truck to fill bottles from, and when booking a walking holiday this year to La Palma the company says that filtered drinking water will also be provided throughout. 

Asked by the survey what they are doing to reduce single-use plastic water bottles, companies said they were advising or requesting clients to bring reusable water bottles on their trips (28 percent), providing water to refill bottles (26 percent), giving reusable bottles to clients (18 percent), and educating clients pre-trip on the plastics issue (16 percent). But not all guests are confident about the quality of filtered water, some destinations don’t lend themselves to safe or clean drinking water, and there is a significant cost in providing alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles. 

ATTA intends to produce a plan, based on the survey, to launch initiatives to help support the travel trade in curbing the use of single-use plastic water bottles. But travellers can also take their own steps: take a water bottle with you for where filtered or boiled water is available, or buy bottles which incorporate a filter to make water safe to drink. The number one challenge that ATTA respondents report is that the guest’s attitudes and behaviors are hindering the mission to combat single-use plastic water bottles use. The responsible travel trade is doing what it can: it is now up to consumers to play their part. 

Download the survey report: Plastics QuickPoll (registration required). 

CABI’s Leisure Tourism internet resource contains over 4200 open-access news articles and research updates. Subscribers can access a database of the global travel and tourism research, plus thousands of Full Text research articles and book chapters. Our Environmental Impact website covers man’s impact on the environment, with pollution one of the key subject areas covered.

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