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How to ditch single-use plastic when in transit

As Dubai Airports ban single-use plastic, we look at which other airports and airlines are doing the same – and ask how we can all ensure our time in transit is as plastic-free as possible, from start to finish.

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Over 90 million passengers a year pass through Dubai Airports, consuming tens of thousands of plastic items, from cutlery to single-use water bottles. This is a problem worldwide, with more than two million single-use plastic bags used by travellers at security at London City airport every year and almost four million single-use plastic water bottles sold at San Francisco Airport in 2018.

In fact, around a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every single minute – and most end up in landfill or the oceans.

In a move as ambitious as it is inspiring, Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central Airport banned all single-use plastic from 1 January 2020. The plastic ban is rolling out gradually, with cutlery, straws, food packaging and polythene bags at over 290 of the airport’s hospitality and concession partners the first to see the changes.

Costa Coffee has plans to introduce a coffee cup lid made from paper fibre and wood, as well as replacing plastic cutlery with biodegradable avocado seed alternatives, while McDonalds plans to replace over five million single-use items with recyclable materials, from food packaging to straws.

This pledge is another step on a long journey to becoming a more environmentally responsible airport,” says Eugene Barry, EVP Commercial at Dubai Airports. “Along with our partners, we are committed to not only removing single-use plastics but in their place providing appropriate and importantly sustainable alternatives.”

According to Soraya Beheshti, a UAE-based influencer who’s passionate about sustainability, this move comes on the back of many similar public and private measures being implemented across the UAE’s hospitality industry.

“Last year, Hilton UAE became plastic-free – and it’s not alone,” she says. “Freedom Pizza recently completely removed all single-use plastic straws and cutlery from their restaurants,” she says.

Paving the way for other airports

Other airports and airlines worldwide following suit include the Airports Authority of India, which recently announced 55 airports across the country single-use plastic free. San Francisco International Airport became the first airport in the USA to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in 2019, with Atlanta going a step further, passing a city council ban on all single-use plastics not only at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but across the city, by the end of 2020. In the UK, Glasgow Airport last year offered all 5,300 of its workers free, reusable water bottles.

On board flights, Scandinavian Airlines have replaced plastic meal packaging and cutlery with sustainable, plant-based alternatives, while Alaska Airlines’ “FillBeforeYouFly” initiative asks passengers to bring reusable water bottles to the airport, which they can fill at hydration stations before their flight.

“Airlines face challenges with plastic reduction that airports, accommodations and tour operators do not,” says Rob Perkins, writer at activist travel company Responsible Travel. “They are hindered not only by time constraints between landings and take-offs, but onboard space and weight limits. Yet Iberia claims its initiatives have led to a reduction of over 68 tonnes of plastic waste every year. Simply wrapping duvets and blankets in paper rather than plastic has saved an astonishing 34 tonnes of waste annually.”

Eliminating single-use plastic from your trip

So how can you ensure your trip is as single-use plastic-free as possible?

  • Pack liquids in a reusable plastic wash bag rather than using the plastic bags at airport security. These bags are both pretty and planet-saving.
  • Pack your own paper or metal straw and biodegradable cutlery (such as avocado seed cutlery) for your trip.
  • Avoid travel-size shampoo, conditioner and toiletries at the airport and purchase reusable travel bottles which you can fill with your favourite products at home (saving money too, bonus).
  • Pack a reusable coffee cup for your trip, so you don’t need to get your drink to-go in a disposable cup.
  • When possible, book hotels that pioneer plastic-waste reduction. Leading lights include Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives, which has installed water refill stations in 21 local schools, and Thailand’s Akaryn Hotel Group, which opened Asia’s first single-use-plastic-free hotel last year.

Beheshti recommends shopping local on your travels. “Try as much as possible to buy products at the source or at markets,” she suggests. “That way, you not only support local economies but also avoid heavily packaged supermarket products.”

For Perkins, there’s lots that passengers can do to help reduce plastic in transit.

“Passengers can do their bit to help by bringing their own reusable water bottles, straws and cutlery with them (not metal cutlery of course), as well as ensuring that they bring as little plastic packaging as possible on holiday,” he says. “Packing a couple of reusable canvas tote bags is a great idea, as is taking your own Tupperware – both can really come in handy when visiting local markets. Many countries struggle with recycling or disposing of plastic waste so the best option is to keep yours to an absolute minimum. That means unwrapping any airport purchases and disposing of the packaging before flying.

“Then, book with operators and accommodations that are open about the steps they are taking to reduce single-use plastics: using refillable toiletries in bedrooms, or making it easy for travellers to top up their own reusable water bottles.

“Lastly, next time you fly, note the amount of single-use plastics you come in contact with during your journey, from the lid of your takeaway coffee cup to the bag your complimentary headphones come in, and think if there are any other ways you could reduce your own consumption of it on the way back.”