Single-use plastics (SUPs) as per the U.N.E.P definition, are also referred to as disposable plastics and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. They are commonly used for plastic packaging and examples include grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery, cotton buds, cigarette butts, balloon/lollipop sticks, etc.

SUPs are not good to use as they are mostly poorly discarded and end up polluting the environment. The longevity of degradation can take as long as 450 years. As they decompose, they break down into smaller forms known as micro-plastics. They usually end up not only in water locations such as oceans or rivers but also on land e.g. farms. They might end up being ingested by animals or affect plant optimal growth. Another negative effect is that they lower the aesthetic value of a place when left unattended. Bad smell accompanies this effect, especially around illegal waste landfills.

Despite knowing that SUPs are detrimental to the environment and our health, they are still being produced and being used. So what are the challenges faced in reducing the use of single-use plastics?

I.             Alternatives may not be readily available.

As single-use plastics have been around for a long time, consumers tend to stick to what they have grown used to. If the alternatives of single-use plastics like cotton bags or polypropylene bags are out of immediate reach, consumers will choose the plastic option.

II.            The cost of alternative packaging

If the alternatives are more expensive, this may deter some consumers from purchasing them and opt for the single-use plastics. Alternative packaging, like cartons or other eco-friendly materials used often come at a higher price. It can be also questioned whether all alternative packaging is really better for the environment. Both producers and consumers are price sensitive so higher costs may prevent them from purchasing.

III.           Lack of awareness on the effects of SUPs and the alternatives

The awareness message of alternatives for single-use plastics has still not reached a majority of the public. They may be aware of only some types of plastics. Also, since the COVID-19 pandemic, a wrong perception of safety by using more packaging can be observed.

IV.          Some single-use plastics are convenient

A good example would be plastic food wrappers. They help a great deal to keep food fresh and free from contamination. As they serve this need well, they are still in use. In certain areas in Kenya, for example, plastic bags have been replaced by plastic nets for fresh food and vegetables, which can be harmful to many animals, especially marine life, and is used widely and often without awareness.

V.            Lack of policy

Some governments are yet to formulate and implement policies regarding the use and/or disposal of single-use plastics. Often, policies also lack in preventing the import of plastics for commercial reasons. As much as there has been uptake of the ban on the use of plastic carrier bags, some remain negligent and there is little enforcement done.

VI.          Limited communication on the stand against SUPs

Whether it be hotels, hotel operators, suppliers, destination management or tourists, the less the public know about SUPs, the more they’ll keep using them. The commitment to avoiding SUPs and using alternatives should be continuously communicated to help the public adjust to your preference. This involves staff training. The staff should be well informed on the effects of SUPs and the importance of using alternatives. For example, if a restaurant decides to go plastic-free, this should be communicated to the clients and alternatives (e.g. no straw policy or alternatives to plastic straws) offered. If the staff is well trained, they can answer questions and complaints by the guests but also engage with the concept and often develop a sense of pride in their work.

Activities to help in adopting responsible behavior

  1. Promote and take the Plastic free challenge

This is a campaign run online that challenges individuals or groups to commit to adopting a plastic-free lifestyle and occasionally post photos on how they achieve that.

2. Access to relevant information

Free access is provided to a wealth of information on how to reduce, reuse, recycle plastic on the Internet. Take the time and investigate what solution works for you. Do a plastic audit yourself and check how you can change your consumption patterns. In your business, check out the many resources available on the Internet. Get started.

WWF Stop the flood of plastic

Rethinking single-use plastics in the tourism industry

Single-use plastics: a roadmap for sustainability

3. Support plastic-free initiatives

This approach can vary. It could be a collection of signatures to pass a policy or a signing a petition that involves reducing plastic waste. Another example is participating in clean-up events. The Global Tourism Plastic Initiative unites the tourism sector towards a commitment to take action to move from single-use to reuse models or reusable alternatives among other actions. The Kenya Plastic Pact works at creating a circular economy for plastic through dialogue, collaboration, and innovation.

4. Monitoring systems

Any tourism facility can implement monitoring systems. This can involve pinpointing the locations and/times where there is use or likelihood of using SUPs. Another way can be calculating the amount of plastic waste in a period of time and working towards reducing that amount.

5. Liaising with responsible suppliers

This means reaching out to suppliers that offer products and services that are environmentally friendly. It could also involve targeting customers that are environmentally conscious. For example, if you want to build an eco-lodge, check out the Alternative Supplier Directory from the Kenya Green Building Society.

6. Adopting circular thinking

This is the Reuse-Recycle-Reduce approach. Reusing means finding another purpose for the item other than what you originally used it for. For example, one could use it for an art and craft activity. Recycling means that the item is properly disposed of and taken to a recycling facility to be made into something else. This introduces waste separation which makes the waste collection process easier and more effective. Reducing means avoiding the purchase of the item when you can. Bulk purchasing can be an example. It would reduce the number of packaging used.