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What are the alternatives to single-use plastic room amenities?

August 26, 2021

This fascinating article about hotel trends over the last century picks up on guest room amenities becoming popular from around the 1960´s onwards.  Personally, my memories of holidays in Europe and the UK go back to around 1986 when I was 12, I don’t ever recall bathroom amenities being part of the offer.  I only really started to notice them in hotel chains or business hotels around the start of the new millenium, your experience of course may be very different to mine. 

A few years later though and they seem to be everywhere (perhaps with the exception of camping and caravan sites) to the point where they have become an expectation and even a marketing proposition

The issue is that many of these guest room amenities are made from or packaged in single-use plastic, and billions of half full bottles of toiletries are thrown away every year, not only wasting the packaging but wasting the product inside too. 

When IHG and Marriott announced they were switching from single-use miniature toiletries to refillable alternatives, avoiding around 700 million single-use plastic bottles every year, you begin to see the scale of impact these changes can have on reducing unnecessary waste.    These statistics only refer to toiletry bottles, imagine what could be achieved if amenities like cotton rounds wrapped in plastic, plastic combs, plastic shower caps, mini nail files and mini sewing kits were also avoided.  As travellers, whether it’s a long-haul package holiday, a staycation or a business trip, we shouldn’t need to rely on accommodation providers for items that we can easily carry in our hand luggage. 

The problem is that many accommodation providers are concerned about the impact upon the guest experience if amenities are removed.  This is a very common concern, but luckily there are also a huge range of alternative solutions .  It’s not a one size fits all approach, you can mix and match suggestions you here, one solution may work well in a standard room whilst another works better in a luxury suite or a family room. 

Let’s dive in and start with the biggest challenge of all – not being willing to try. 

Almost every response I have had from accommodation providers over 10 years of working in waste reduction starts with the words, “but guests would complain”.  The reason I don’t accept this is it shows that the management automatically assumes that guests will be unhappy without even testing the hypothesis.  

In fact, as part of a project we’re working on with our sister company Travel Without Plastic together with its partner organisation Futouris in the Balearic Islands, we found that over 90% of guests interviewed would be happy for hotels to remove single-use slippers and miniature bathroom amenities completely. 

Whilst amenities have become a habit over the decades, it is important to remember that expectations and trends do change, particularly as the global community becomes more aware of problems caused by unnecessary consumption and plastic waste. 

Our biggest piece of advice is to trial changes and involve your guests to get their feedback. If you want to make significant changes like eliminating items altogether, do some outreach with your guests to find out items are easily dispensable. 

Position communications around waste reduction. For example, you could be really honest and say

“We are aware that many of the room amenities we provide are contributing to a growing waste problem in (destination).  To be part of the solution we would like to reduce or even eliminate a number of products from the guest room and would love to hear your opinion on this”. 

Invite guests to complete a short survey to tell you which amenities they would be happy to see eliminated, made available on request, made as refillable etc.  You might be surprised.

There are many benefits to having less amenities in guest rooms, for example:

  • Fewer items to harbour germs
  • Easier to keep the room clean and sanitised
  • Less time-consuming for housekeeping staff
  • Significantly reduces waste
  • Reduces associated costs

If guest outreach is not feasible for you right now, there are still a number of changes you can make without impacting the guest experience:

1

TAKE AN INVENTORY

Take an inventory of guest amenities and look at consumption.

Are there any products that you really don’t order very often such as shower caps, nail files etc?  If so, the likelihood is that you can eliminate these completely without replacing them and guests will not even notice.

2

DEPLETE STOCK BUT ON REQUEST

If you have a stock of plastic amenities, offer them on request until the stock is exhausted. This also creates a time window to measure the guest response, if people don’t request amenities there will be no need to replace them (even with non-plastic alternatives) when the stock is finished.

3

SWITCH TO REFILLS

Switch to refillable shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and handwash gel, use these guiding principles to ensure that refills are hygienic:

  • Look for quality refillable systems that are easy to clean and sanitize
  • Choose designs that ensure bottles are tamperproof
  • Choose bottles that are dishwasher safe, this means they can be regularly removed and disinfected by going through a full dishwasher cycle
  • Sanitize systems daily and disinfect between guests
  • Ensure refill protocols are conducted by trained staff
  • Implement a system that allows you to record how batches of products are distributed
  • Choose suppliers that enable you to return the large bottles for refill so that they stay in a circular loop. If this is not possible, ensure that larger bottles are separated for recycling.

4

SWITCH TO DOMESTIC SIZE BOTTLES

Switch to domestic size bottles with pump dispensers (reducing the overall volume of plastic waste created) that are attached with tamperproof brackets.

Choose bottles made with a high percentage of recycled plastic and ensure bottles are separated for recycling when they are finished.  Avoid bottles made from bio-based materials unless you have a specific waste infrastructure in place for them to be processed properly.

5

SWITCH TO PLASTIC FREE ALTERNATIVES

You might also think about switching to plastic free alternatives and making these freely available, available on request or even available for sale.  Innovation in this area has seen an increasing range of options available for accommodation businesses:

Solid Bar Guest Room Amenities

Solid shampoo, conditioner, soap and even moisturizers are now available in travel sizes from a number of suppliers. 

For the best possible guest experience, we recommend investing in soap dishes or cork resting mats in order to preserve bars for as long as possible.  Encourage your guests to take these home with them to continue their plastic free journey after they leave. 

Offer domestic size bars for sale as an additional income stream.  Offer a shampoo or soap bar menu for guests to choose which options suit them best. 

We are increasingly adding to our solid bar range so check back in regularly to find out about new products.

Cube Style Guest Room Amenities

Having had great success in the B2C market, Beauty Kubes have created a travel size range for accommodation providers.  They simply dissolve in the hand to make a paste and come with a handy “how to” instruction card so that your guests get the best experience. 

Tin Style Guest Room Amenities

Travel size aluminium pots are another option, whilst aluminium is energy intensive to create it is widely and infinitely recyclable.  If you choose to use tins, we recommend that you encourage guests to leave empty tins behind so that you can responsibly dispose of them yourself.  Otherwise encourage guests to recycle the tin when empty or use it for other purposes.

Let your guests know what is happening

Almost everything can be overcome with good communications.  Guests will always appreciate it if you prepare them for any changes. 

You can do this by including information across a range of platforms, using your social media, newsletters, information on reservation confirmation emails, updating details on third party OTA sites etc.  For example:

“We are aware of the growing issues associated with plastic pollution and are making a number of changes so that we can play a conscious role in being part of the solution”. 

Follow this with information about the changes and make it sound positive.  For example:

“We’ve replaced miniature amenities with high quality refillable amenities that are kinder to your skin and better for the planet”

or

“to avoid contributing to the millions of tiny plastic bottles used every year in accommodations, from (insert date) we’re no longer going to provide miniature amenities in guest rooms.  We will have a range of plastic free amenities available on request and will also stock a range of full size amenities for sale in case you might have forgotten something.”   

Maybe you can even offer a pre-order service to save guests having to carry toiletries in their luggage and you can leave them in their room ahead of their arrival.

We appreciate that some of these suggestions might sound challenging, particularly if your business has followed the same standards or habits for many years.  However, now more than ever thanks to the pandemic, it appears that there will be more acceptance, or certainly less resistance to radical changes. 

In our opinion, this is absolutely the best time to trial changes and to revisit brand standards.  Don’t be put off if you encounter challenges at the first hurdle, work through a range of options to find what is right for your business.  The tourism industry created its own expectations around amenities in the first place, we now have the opportunity to establish a new normal where less is more.

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Jo Hendrickx
Jo Hendrickx
Jo is a sustainability professional living in Gran Canaria with over 20 years of experience in the global tourism industry. She has worked extensively with hotels and accommodation providers around the world since 2001 helping managers to navigate the health, safety, quality and sustainability expectations of tour operators. Increasingly concerned with the impacts of unnecessary plastics, Jo was motivated to create Travel Without Plastic to support those hotels that want to make a difference.
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