Just when it seemed as if single-use plastics were slowly becoming a thing of the past, COVID-19 hit the industry. The second half of 2019 had seen more and more industry leaders making public pledges to abandon a product group that had become the infamous representative of an old and immoral, linear economy.
A few months later, the former sustainability arch-enemy is experiencing a massive comeback as a hygiene hero. COVID-19 and the fear of future pandemics are radically challenging recent approaches to product circularity/re-use by imposing enhanced hygienic standards. Keeping a strong position against single-use items might impose dramatic acquisition costs and operational distress on businesses slowly recovering from their liquidity breakdown.
Whilst pondering the reputational risk of violating hygiene law on the one side and diminished sustainability efforts on the other, the former is likely to turn up trumps.
The battle for sterility might be won by detergents containing ingredients unlikely to biodegrade in wastewater. Laundry services might cause more emissions due to an average increase of the washing temperature.
Where lies the sweet spot between hygiene rule compliance and sustainability? Must there be a trade-off? Are there Best Practices to share?
Whilst we are seeing an increase in some types of SUP due to COVID-19 (hopefully temporarily), we are also suggesting to accommodation providers that this is a great time to break some old habits, particularly around hotel room amenities.
Removing unnecessary but habitual items as shoe shines, shower caps and nail files mean fewer items to harbor germs. It is still very common to find 15+ types of SUP amenities in hotel bathrooms. If such items are left behind unopened when a guest leaves, housekeeping has two choices, spend time cleaning and sanitizing them properly adhering to dwell times, or disposing of them to be on the safe side, creating waste and wasting money.
Not only do we believe that guests will now be more open to accepting changes that remove risks, but we also believe there will be less resistance from hotels to making bold changes to brand standards.
This is also a time to work together with hygiene companies to create robust procedures for reusable items to tackle good hygiene and waste reduction together.
I believe our industry over-uses the terms: hospitality and hygiene without focusing on the proper expertise and knowledge and by trying to answer the question of how they work in sync, I want to start by introducing their common meanings:
Noun: hygiene is conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness.
Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. According to one particular definition, “sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
These definitions got me thinking: how do we actually define hygiene in our industry? During and post-COVID, the big brands and hospitality associations raced to announce Hotel Cleaning Standards focused on enhanced hotel cleaning practices, social interactions, and workplace protocols that are prone to meet the new health and safety challenges and are expecting norms, behaviors, and standards to change.
When we talk about Sustainability in our industry, we talk about plastic, plastic straws, amenities, and giving away leftover food. However, in today's world, we are starting to see that sustainability goes beyond any definition. What about the reduction of carbon footprint when the world is forced to work from home? What about the increased level of social and local interaction, because we have less time to waste by the coffee machine? What about families who are now able to spend more time with their children while keeping their jobs? And what about the local sourcing of materials?
Hygiene and cleaning standards have not just become the highest priority for all. It's the psychological part that plays a greater role in this global scenario: seeing and believing that something is being cleaned. Auspicious designs, additional oxygen push into working spaces, replacing chemicals with natural equivalent are all topics we have been listening to for a while but heard only today as we entered this period when we have been forced to realize and act.
I absolutely believe that hygiene and sustainability can co-exist. To pack the entire world into plastic, was really a questionable move, but in panic, people just grab and pack what they know best within their comfort zones. The only way to move ahead would be to learn from the New Now and the new alternatives as well as from our mistakes all the while making a solid change for the future, forced to do. Then, we are left to hope that people start to understand the real meaning of the word sustainability, and stretch it further than "just" or "only" the environment.
Hygiene is self-speaking at the top of the agenda in these times. The target – and many hotels started to follow it – was so far to find the best possible balance between fulfilling all legal obligation (like international Health & Safety or Food Safety Standards) and avoiding the potential negative impacts for employees, guests, and the environment without increasing the respective operational cost.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic affected this trend tremendously. Is this really necessary or overdoing? I asked a real lifetime expert, Maria Valerga, who is working in the field of Hygiene & Sustainability in hotel operation for more than 20 years. Here is her interesting answer: “Faced with the COVID-19 threat, there is tremendous pressure to use toxic disinfectants, despite the availability of safer products, and there is a massive return to single-use materials (e.g. disposable masks, gloves, aprons, etc). This cannot be avoided completely, but many hotels approach this aspect by over-exaggerating the reactive response – not by mistake, but mainly by not knowing the best practice approaches and because the issued hygiene protocols do not provide the residents of each state with information on safer practices and products for preventing exposure to COVID-19 without toxic chemicals and the overuse of single-use protecting materials. WHO, CDC, ECDC organizations clearly announced that soap and water can destroy the coronavirus. Is it really necessary to use so much disinfection and especially Chlorine, a substance that is harmful to the respiratory system of the staff and guests making them even more vulnerable to the virus?
Also, Chlorine destroys and discolours surfaces. In the case of COVID-19 we have measures of protection—both practices and products—that can protect us without using toxic products that increase risk factors. Simple methods like hot steam cleaning or natural-based substances with active ingredients like Ethanol, Isopropanol, Hydrogen Peroxide for cleaning surfaces being touched very often. What we need to understand is that every hotel area and surface needs a special cleaning agent, method and program in order to safeguard the real hygiene standards based on the following four pillars that actually address the safety requirements of today without jeopardizing the people and the planet´s health:
- Products (Cleaning agents and disinfections) selection: Compatibility with the required European Legislation (e.g. REACH, BPR EU 528/2012, EN15000 ), eco-label, ready to use product or concentrated through automatic dosage system, type of packaging, etc.
- Product´s use: The proper product/hotel area based on surfaces, ventilation, frequency in use, etc., quantity, with what equipment (reusable, recyclable, microfibers, steam machines, etc.), need for water and energy use, protective measures, etc.
- Storage: Where and how to secure safe conditions for the establishment and the people and minimizing the possibility of wasting them
- Waste management: Handling of the empty packaging/recycling, chemical residuals
The combination of the above pillars with practical guidelines, staff respective training, and control can contribute towards a safe and sustainable cleaning and hygiene in the hotel sector that serves all three needs: The health of employees, guests, and this planet."
Miami, Florida is an interesting place to be based as the U.S. lodging industry starts to reopen. The reality of the STR lodging report on May 16th, 2020 that overall hotel REVPAR (revenue per average room) in the U.S. was down -73.6% in April 2020 as compared with April 2019 is staggering. Hotel RevPAR for the same period in Greater Miami was down -87.8%. In the past ten weeks I have been listening to our Miami partners and hotel leaders around the U.S. Their biggest concern and greatest focus in reopening hotels at all levels are to Gain Customer Confidence with sanitation and disease prevention operating practices.
U.S. hotel companies have been rolling out responses to this challenge. Marriott International, representing 7300 hotels and 1.3 million hotel rooms worldwide, has formed a Global Cleanliness Council committed to hospitality grade disinfectants, the highest grade recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO. Hilton International has put into operation the Clean Stay Campaign across the company, partnering with Lysol. Wyndham Hotels and Resorts has aligned with ECOLAB for its Count On Us program of elevated health and safety protocols. There is a lot at stake in bringing the customer back into hotels and these companies represent the global trend in implementing sanitation practices that will stay in place for as long as it is deemed practical.
Why not increase sustainability practices while facing these challenges? Let's look at the Big Three: Water, Waste, and Energy. Washing hands and everything else in sight continually uses up more fresh (and potable) water. Can we put into practice countermeasures for greywater filtration for irrigation and cleaning? While meeting sanitation guidelines, can hotels install equipment and technologies along with maintenance protocols that accelerate the reduction of the use of potable water? HVAC systems will need updated technologies in air-handling that filters with multiple self-decontamination applications while reducing the costs of both heating and air conditioning. Increase the use of renewable energy sourced from local utilities in addition to on-property solar and wind efforts and reduce carbon emissions. Waste management practices are a significant way to contribute to sustainability by supply chain and food waste management. Roof gardens and increased tree and foliage cover provide outdoor shade covering and building insulation, in addition to opportunities for beekeeping with butterfly and migrating bird sanctuaries.
The need for social distance in public food and beverage spaces creates challenges but also opportunities. With the spring and summer seasons upon us, restaurants and bars can take advantage of open-air venues that are more adaptable to social distancing regulations. Outdoor seating will also reduce lighting and air conditioning costs. We may be using more freshwater as we emit contaminating cleaning products into the air and water, but the challenge to increase levels of sustainability management in hotel operations offers interesting options that perhaps have not previously been operationalized.
We continue facing the issue where the environmental value of a product's entire life cycle is not internalized into its cost and is not reflected in the legal regulation. This incentivizes the popularity of cheaper single-use products, whether absolutely necessary for safety or not. Recommendations of WHO, for example, clearly recommend the need for single-use protection equipment, such as gloves, in relation to certain types of contact with potentially infected persons, such as during surgery or a medical examination.
At the same time, it indicates that “inappropriate glove use […] represents a waste of resources and does not contribute to a reduction of cross-transmission.” As for disinfecting, there is a large choice of products certified by the EPA that contain substances with higher virus neutralization effects such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or alcohol.
However, the use of recommended products would not make the difference to 80% of global wastewater that is discharged into water bodies without treatment. There are many further examples of hygiene practices questioning a trade-off between safety and environmental sustainability. However, the regulatory role of a government is crucial in finding a balance for the sake of sustainable safety practices. Incorporating environmental value into the cost of using and disposing of products could direct towards more cautious practices in using such products only where it is strictly necessary for the purpose of safety, and incentivize innovative product design that harmonizes environmental and wellbeing requirements.
Hotels across the world are all implementing new hygiene standards ready to welcome back guests and employees following the Covid-19 pandemic, including Deutsche Hospitality, Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, NH Hotel Group, Marriott International and Radisson Hotels.
While the health and well-being of guests and staff is obviously a top priority, along with business stability, it is crucial that hotels also think sustainably when developing these new procedures. Strong foundations have been put in place in recent years to reduce single-use plastics across the industry, and we also don't want to see an increase in harmful chemicals and detergents entering the waterways.
We are already seeing from hotel brands though that sustainability and hygiene do not have to be a trade-off. In new hygiene protocols, digitalisation is playing a major role with things like paperless check-out. There is also a move to decrease a number of non-essential items usually found in rooms such as pens and other stationery, toothbrushes and magazines. While other brands are showing that plastic isn't always the answer, with TV remote controls and glasses being packed away in paper bags after disinfecting.
Hotels are also taking this opportunity to explore innovative approaches to cleaning which offer more environmental solutions. For example, electrostatic disinfection is considered an eco-friendly method because it uses up to 65% less chemicals per square foot, and UV light is a chemical-free option for disinfecting.
We should also remember that most single-use plastics are not used front of house. Hotel chain ITC Hotels, which pledged to end the use of single-use plastics, mapped all their usage. While this did include some guest items such as toiletries, the majority related to packaging on bulk items ordered for the kitchen, cleaning or maintenance supplies. As an example, more eco-friendly wooden hangers arrived in plastic wrapping. Therefore, conversations can continue with suppliers on improving sustainable procurement without any compromise to guest hygiene.
And finally, at a time when hotels will be under pressure to manage costs as they re-open, we shouldn't forget that there are measurable benefits to operating more sustainably. Earlier this year, we published the Business Case for Sustainable Hotels which demonstrates the financial, reputational and regulatory benefits of sustainability. The report shows how initial investment can be recovered quickly in the subsequent efficiencies and cost savings. There are also other learnings relevant for post-Covid operations, for example switching to renewable energy sources to manage emissions amid increased laundry services and temperatures. So, as hotels are looking at their businesses and making plans for the future, now is a better time than ever for us all to think about sustainability.
Hygiene seems to me a bit like an iceberg. Only a small part of the package is visible to the eye. These days we see hospitality brands: 1). Overdoing it on the visible elements of hygiene. Busy cleaning personnel, signs, and cardboards to increase the experience of hygiene for the guest. 2). Competing for their guests' trust and confidence to be onto the invisible elements of hygiene as well. Marriott reminding guests of their long history of hygiene perfection, IHG issuing a “Clean Promise”, Accor developing their own hygiene label.
Now, overstretching on the “hygienic experience” is just the same as confidence-eroding greenwashing. However, confidence is becoming the ultimate currency for guests to return to hotels. The path to confidence-building ultimately requires careful consideration of different factors, including sustainability. Panic moves to re-introduce single-use items will do nothing good and erode trust. Hygiene, as an Austrian expert told me, is all about crystal-clear standards and processes as well as well-trained personnel.
From a procurement perspective there are many options to combine hygiene and sustainability. Examples are zero waste solid soap dispensers, chemical-free cleaning devices, eatable single-use gastronomic items, and many more. Reliable, loyal, and happy personnel will be more important than ever. It is thus time to move away from seeing humans as resources to acknowledging their potentials. Communication-wise now would be a good moment to switch from classical “veiling” campaigning to “revealing” communication. Guests are ready to go beyond shiny hotel lobbies.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic means that companies may have to reprioritise their focus for the short-medium term, as the effects of the pandemic unfold and pressures shift. With safety, security and hygiene rightly becoming of utmost importance, it doesn't necessarily mean that environmental sustainability stops being a priority.
For the hospitality industry, new and enhanced hygiene and cleaning measures are being adopted and these, as we have seen across all industries, can lead to varying impacts on sustainability, with clear challenges to navigate and opportunities to take. For example, at IHG, we've found that this opportunity to relook at processes can offer some wins for the environment – such as moving to paperless billing and fewer printed items in the hotel, reducing waste and natural resource impact. However, to help us navigate this fast-changing world of new-normals, there are key principles that should guide us all in this area:
1. We're interconnected, and that means collaboration is key
Covid-19 is something that is affecting businesses and communities all around the world. The scale of this pandemic has highlighted just how interconnected industries, businesses, and economies are. As focus shifts to enhanced hygiene measures, this connected ecosystem means that sustainability strategies and goals must adapt and look to find new solutions that can provide increased hygiene in a more sustainable way across the board. From governments, manufacturing, supply and business, this will take cross-sector collaboration to innovate and move at pace to balance hygiene and sustainability factors.
2. Don't lose sight of the long-term
Enhanced cleaning measures are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, and will inevitably change how the hospitality industry operates from here on in. At IHG, frequent consultation with our Corporate Responsibility team as part of the process of establishing new hygiene measures are acting as a sounding board – ensuring we have an eye to the future to recognise necessary short-term choices and understand how we take action to look for more sustainable solutions moving forward.
3. Understanding that progress is progress in the face of complexity
The safety and security of our guests and colleagues is non-negotiable, and we know this could lead to short-term trade-offs for sustainability efforts. This requires an understanding that any trade-offs should be just that, short-term, and should be balanced with longer-term plans to implement more sustainable alternatives. In any case, it's clear that there is a need for flexibility, understanding and compromise as the hospitality industry, like many others, navigates through one of the biggest challenges it has ever had to face.
With the new demand on the safety of guests and staff, it's no secret that Hotels will need to make drastic changes to the way they deliver services and offer amenities. Hotels will need to develop COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that address those changes. There are many recommendations about what hotels can do to combat the COVID-19 threat, but hotels should not follow guidelines blindly.
At Hotel Resilient, we help Hotels to educate themselves about how COVID-19 could spread around their hotel, how they can prevent that from happening, and how they can respond swiftly and effectively to an infection on-site. An informed hotel can then make better decisions about how to adjust their services and business practices to maintain safety during COVID-19. For instance, hotels do not need to use single plastic packaging in restaurants if they can ensure safe dishes and cutlery through enhanced cleaning protocols.
To help flush out COVID-19 from the air, hoteliers can increase natural ventilation over mechanical ventilation. At Hotel Resilient, our COVID-READY Standards focus on safety, but we also provide extensive material for hoteliers to learn how COVID-19 risk reduction strategies work. We believe that a fully informed hotelier can better tailor their COVID-19 SOPs to their unique business practices, including those addressing sustainability.
I remember the first time I came across the word “oxymoron" in an article by Weick and Westley.
“Organizing and learning are essentially antithetical processes, which means the phrase 'organizational learning' qualifies as an oxymoron. To learn is to disorganize and increase variety. To organize is to forget and reduce variety..” (Weick and Westley, 1999, p. 190).
Are 'circular hygiene measures against COVID-19' also an oxymoron? I don't think so. The so-called R9-strategy on circularity can still be applied, even in this time where additional hygiene measures are needed for safety and hoteliers want to make sure their guests trust the hygiene measure.
To regain this trust perhaps more than before 'single-use items' will be used, but the choice which item to use can still be designed with these - in a decrease of preference - principles of the circularity:
- Smart design and use;
- Reuse products and parts:
- Recycle and recover.
Hoteliers do not need to order a large volume of plastic cups, but can go for biodegradable coffee cups: so to use the most circular alternative without jeopardizing the safety of your guest.
It remains essential to make sure that hoteliers - in cooperation with all stakeholders, e.g. suppliers and staff members - have insights in all impacts on the triple bottom line (including safety!) when choosing 'circular hygiene measures' that help them prevent infections with COVID-19!
Stay safe and continue to strive for the highest -feasible- form of circularity
The topic of cleanliness in hospitality has been researched from various angles in the past. A study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Health (Choi, J. (2019). Is Cleanliness Really a Reason for Consumers to Revisit a Hotel? Vol. 85 Nr. 5, 16-21) supported the general understanding that cleanliness and sanitary conditions in hotels are linked to health risks and thus critical to guests' attitudes and behavioral intentions. Some studies conducted over the past two decades support the views that cleanliness is one of the many important attributes for hotel selection.
Hygiene has been identified as a key risk in previous studies (e.g. Bharwani S., & Mathews, D. (2012) Risk identification and analysis in the hospitality industry: Practitioners' perspective from India. Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes, 4(5), 410-427). It is thus without a doubt that cleanliness and sanitary issues, during and after a pandemic are high on the agenda of hoteliers and guests alike.
So the debate is not about hygiene and cleanliness issues, this has always been and continues to be a must in our industry. The issue is about packaging waste from hygiene and cleaning products including plastics bags, bottles, bottle caps, plastics boxes, gloves etc.). Surely the design aspect needs consideration and here the suppliers are asked to innovate, adopting a more circular approach. The disposal of those products must be in compliance with local and national legislations. Additionally, research conducted on the topic of hygiene and cleaning product waste suggest that a separate recycling category for that kind of waste need to be established. Regulatory bodies, local politics, recycling centers and the industry are required to plan the long-term investing in hygiene and cleaning products packaging waste management. Because while we struggle for the short-term reopening of our hotels, demands on cleanliness and sanitary standards are here to stay.
Our devastating dealing with nature and natural ecosystems led to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have scientific proof that the destruction of tropical ecosystems will increase the frequency at which such pandemics will occur, speed up climate change, and exacerbate the global refugee crisis. Scientists are convinced that the present pandemic represents only the tip of the iceberg. We will see more dangerous and more severe outbreaks of diseases if we do not start to minimize our negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Hence, we need to “build back better”. This holds true for hygiene rules for the tourism sector as for all other aspects of hospitality. Instead of prying out all we achieved in sustainability we should rather look for eco-friendly alternatives that will allow us to comply with the sanitary standards while not compromising sustainability accomplishments. To give just one example: disinfectants containing ethanol based on organic certified plant production and not petrochemicals are already available. Solutions are already out there, we just need to look for and find them.
Unfortunately, I feel plastics may be the obvious short-term solution. However, I see this also as a great opportunity for innovation and disruptive thinking - after all, the goal is not to use plastic or harm nature but to keep guests safe. Therefore, I call for innovative entrepreneurs to explore sustainable ways of reaching the same goal. The prize for successful innovation is an attentive market of hoteliers.
Sustainability has long since arrived in the hotel industry and has become indispensable for long-term, successful corporate management. Ecologically justifiable management was possible for a hotelier until a few months ago. However the implementation of this has now become a major, unexpected challenge: protecting guests and employees, taking precautionary measures, and still making profits despite all the circumstances.
Every hotelier is faced with new tasks and works hard to implement measures to protect against infection. Combining hygiene requirements and environmental protection in the hotel in the best possible way is a real balancing act, but it is possible. Safety and sustainability can actually be combined, for example by using biodegradable protective masks and gloves. This is just one example of many that we offer our hoteliers.
I am convinced that, despite the new challenges, the hotel industry will come out of this situation more strongly. I believe that sustainability will play an even greater role for hotels in the future to ensure future-proof management and life on earth as a whole.
I think two things could be key in maintaining the pressure on the removal of the single-use plastic in hotels post COVID-19:
- Suppliers of hygiene products - hoteliers need to put pressure on them to provide ALL of their products in 100% RPET bottles, i.e. bottles made of recycled plastics and plastics than the go back into the recycling stream. And the only way of doing this is by having a close relationship with our suppliers, i.e. being in control of our supply chain, which is a trend that is increasing now through this crisis too. Ideally working with local suppliers for this where possible
- After the last major crisis hit the tourism industry post 9/11 we saw a massive increase in single-use bathroom amenities in hotels due to new security checks at the airport. Maybe the hospitality industry needs to be brave and bold now, removing these as a complimentary offer and instead ask guests whether they would need them at check-in, and provide reusable bottles at extra costs?
The reduction of single-use plastics has been widely embraced recently, but it was as a result of consumer demand. It isn't something many hoteliers, that I am familiar with, wanted to do, even though the cost of purchase and waste hauling fees were reduced. In my consultative experience, they find it more convenient to replenish plastic, rather than moving glass and china back and forth to dishwashing and storage locations. Some hoteliers are now adding individually wrapped utensils where they have never used them before, just to be on the safe side.
I believe it will be a trade-off in the short term, unfortunately, because of fear. This basic human emotion on the part of individuals, the liability concerns of hoteliers, and the marketing of clean hotels to get travelers back will prevail. The best we can hope for is robust recycling measures. In my community, sustainability has taken a back seat, and it's all hands on deck for sanitation and hygiene to boost guest confidence. Nothing else, aside from guest service, seems to matter right now.
Hopefully, if the virus does not surge this fall and winter, we can reinvigorate sustainability efforts.
How to make it work:
1. Explore and take action on what you can do in sustainability. Some plastic items that can be reduced/swapped/eliminated, energy efficiency and carbon reduction, etc. by implementing actions plans and seeking partnerships, vendors, funding etc.
2. Sanitize hotel.
3. Open hotel safely, according to new definitions of “safely”.
4. Assess the situation in a sustainability committee or structure that is both mandated top-down and passionately represented bottom-up, looking at the current spectrum of risks and opportunities.
5. Rinse and repeat.