During a press trip to the Maldives a few years ago, while everyone else was in the spa, I paid a fisherman to take me to see where his family lived on a nearby island. On our way there, I asked him what he did with his rubbish. Instead of just telling me what happened to it, he took me to see for myself.
My trip to Rubbish Island, as I think of it, will stay in my memory for ever.
Because the Maldives is made up of hundreds of islands, all miles from mainland, the country can’t bury its rubbish in giant landfills like we do. Some of it is separated out and taken abroad for recycling. The rest is taken to rubbish islands where, eventually, it is burnt.
But before that happens, it is piled up in great big mountains of trash, over which trucks and graders endlessly attempt to stop it going into the sea.
Only they can’t stop it. It’s windy. There are waves. And thousands of birds, wheeling and screeching above it, fighting over scraps.
The result is that, all around, the sea is thick with rubbish: plastic bags, and earbuds, and packaging and bottles, bobbing and floating in a disgusting soup of filth. Filth that is mostly created by tourists, who want water shipped in plastic bottles from Fiji, and little plastic shampoo bottles they can nick, and plastic amenity kits they’ll probably never use.
Yesterday I stayed in a hotel whose general manager couldn’t stop telling me about how brilliant they were at sourcing sustainable ingredients. Which, to be fair, they were. What they weren’t good at, though, was trying to make their hotel plastic free. The car that took me to the hotel had two plastic bottles of water in the back. In my bathroom, there were plastic earbuds in little plastic bags, cotton-wool in plastic bags, tissues in plastic bags, drinking glasses with little plastic lids, shampoo in plastic bottles, soap wrapped in plastic. There was plastic covering food in my minibar, my Nespresso machine, the slippers by my bed.
That night when I met the poor GM, I handed him a list of the 16 items made of plastic or contained within plastic in my room. Amazingly, he said, no one had complained before. But agreed that the next generation – who are his future clients – undoubtedly will.
If we are going to start to really make an attempt – however belated – to clean up our planet, maybe it’s time that all of us in the industry started to put the pressure on hotels, so they can start to buy suitable alternatives.
It might not be all that tricky. Most hoteliers like to feel they’re trailblazers. There are lots of green alternatives out there. And if the GMs explained to their guests why they’d gone plastic free, I can’t imagine anyone would complain.
Surely no one wants to snorkel with earbuds?