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Is hygiene a barrier to reducing plastic in hotels?

For the last 30+ years, tour operators have, and continue to prioritise health, safety and quality in the hotels that they sell. However, as they increasingly require accommodations to meet sustainability standards as well, hoteliers find themselves trying to comply with a seemingly conflicting set of criteria.

Some hotels genuinely cite that health, safety and quality expectations of tour operators stop them from implementing perfectly viable sustainable options. Perhaps one of the most obvious signs of this is in hotel restaurants.

Let's start with breakfast

In particular, butter jams, honey and chocolate spread. These can be provided in a number of different ways; individually wrapped portions, cubes or curls, small plastic or glass pots, edible wafer pots or via larger jars or vats.

We spoke to an average sized All-Inclusive hotel in Europe recently who told us that their guests consume around 120,000 plastic pots and wrapped butter portions every single year!

1 hotel = 120,000 items of single-use waste per year because we like to eat toast for breakfast!

When we ask hotels about their choices, we are very often told that providing butter and jam in 'bulk sizes' is prohibited for hygiene reasons, but it is unclear where this 'prohibition' originates. Is it from local authorities, quality standards or the hotel's own policy? It's something we never really get to the bottom of.

Food safety experts tend to agree that butter and jam are not prone to suffering bacteria growth due to the extremely high fat/salt ratio to water in butter and the high sugar ratio in jam. Of course, providing them in open jars or vats on the buffet means that physical contamination (hair and dirt from guests/staff), and bacterial contamination (guests/staff sneezing over them) is possible, but the same can happen to all of the other foods on display, so why do so many hotels apply this 'single-use hygiene policy' for butter and jams? In all my seven years of dealing with illness claims whilst working at Thomas Cook, I never once came across butter or jam being the reason for sickness.

Observe a hotel buffet if you get the chance. Watch how guests repeatedly cross contaminate the buffet themselves.

  • Picking up meat with the fish tongs or vice versa,

  • Dropping flakes of tuna or pieces of ham into the vegetables or salads,

  • Manhandling bread with potentially dirty hands

  • Picking a few cherry tomatoes from the salad bar with their fingers to eat on the go,

  • Spreading chocolate, icing or cream from one dessert to another by using the same tongs to pick them up

Doesn't this mean that hotels should really be providing single-use packaged portions of everything then? Why do we not bat an eyelid at any of the above (and there are many more) but we believe that for the buffet to be truly hygienic, the butter must be wrapped and the jam must be in a pot. Have we some how been conditioned to believe it's all about hygiene when actually there could be a number of other factors to consider?

There are a small number of hoteliers who don't see hygiene as the primary reason for using individually packaged portions, they have other reasons, usually one or more of the following:

  1. Preventing food waste

  2. Keeping the buffet clean and tidy

  3. Convenience

1) Preventing food waste

In our Let's Reduce Single-Use Guide, we are very clear that we would never ask a hotel to implement a change that would genuinely cause another significant waste stream or serious issue. Careful consideration needs to be applied to ensure that the solution to one problem doesn't cause another, but does single-use packaging really prevent food waste?

Recent research carried out by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) found that plastic packaging does not necessarily prevent food waste in the supply chain, so could the same logic be applied to hotels?

Most hotels don't actually track food waste properly but if they did, they would see that buffet management is by far one of the biggest contributors to food waste.

Many guests relax their diets whilst on holiday and are eager to try new food and local dishes, often to excess. Plates are piled so high it seems impossible that anything else will fit on them, but still guests keep going! The frustration of seeing so much uneaten food being discarded because of over-indulgent holiday behaviour must be overwhelming, not to mention the financial impact to the hotel and the environmental impact of wasted production and consequential deterioration.

Have you ever seen a plate piled so high with butter and jam portions? Maybe by comparison, they don't contribute so much to food waste after all.

Even when jam is plastic free it might not necessarily be waste free. Glass jars which look pretty, meet hygiene standards, ensure a tidy buffet and offer convenience to staff and guests, often contain too much jam for one person. The result is not just food waste but the potential of the glass jars not being recycled either unless the hotel cleans them and separates them from the metal lid and puts them into the glass collection bin, assuming that there is one.

For hotels that are really serious about addressing food waste, we highly recommend this detailed free resource, just be sure to provide your individual portions in reusable dishes and glasses with reusable cutlery.

2) Keeping the buffet clean and tidy

Could this be the main driver for individual butter and jam portions?

No-one wants to eat food from a messy buffet. I have occasionally observed messy jam counters, mostly in the larger hotels with significant guest flow through the restaurant. The common denominator tends to be that there aren't enough serving utensils, or guests don't wait for others to finish using them, so dip their strawberry jam spoon into the marmalade 'contaminating' it.

After a while, jams can become mixed to the point that it is off-putting to other guests and everything needs to be removed, disposed of and replaced. This can obviously cause perfectly good food to be wasted but certainly not in the same quantities as previously referenced. Paying regular attention to the buffet and keeping a generous supply of utensils available can help to avoid this.

Butter presented in a large vat may also find itself at the whim of the jam spoons if the proper serving utensils are not provided, and some guests will spread butter directly onto bread they have toasted, leaving behind a sprinkling of breadcrumbs which can make the vat look untidy, but using smaller vats may help to minimise waste.

It's a similar scenario with ice-cream.

We've all faced it - 4 serving scoops and one water bath to clean them all in (and some guests don't even do that)!

You do the best you can in the milky water, only to find that you too leave the remnants of chocolate or strawberry ice-cream in the vanilla tub! The time comes when the ice-cream needs to be removed and replaced.

The solution to these scenarios in many cases continues to be single-use packaging, but this does exactly what we're trying to avoid - solves one problem only to create another. Keeping the buffet tidy but generating thousands and thousands of single-use plastic items as a result, most of which are highly unlikely to be recycled because they themselves are 'contaminated' with food. Could the circle be any more vicious?

3) Convenience

Maybe single-use is all about making life easy. Cutting butter into 'cubes or curls' is time consuming, keeping large jam jars clean and topped up is perhaps a hassle, whereas decanting a packet of individually wrapped butters or jam pots into a bowl is quick and easy. Any that are not used can go straight back into storage for the following day, no mess, no cleaning, no topping up.

Providing hundreds of small ceramic bowls for guests to put their jam and butter into on the buffet requires an initial financial investment. There is also an investment of time, these must be carefully cleared from the table to avoid breakages, be placed into dishwasher racks, be drained, dried and stacked overnight and be placed onto the buffet again the next morning. In comparison, plastic jam pots and butter wrappers can be cleared straight into the waste bin, job done!

Convenience can sometimes go a few steps too far.

In 2017 I stayed in a number of hotels in the USA and the Cayman Islands to find that everything at breakfast, even the plates and cutlery were single-use because the hotels did not have sufficient space / staff to run a breakfast buffet and kitchen and it was convenient for guests.

Nothing was cooked or prepared on site with the exception of pancake batter! Everything else was delivered in plastic, including individually wrapped bananas and apples, and individually peeled boiled eggs wrapped in clingfilm!

Personally, I believe that single-use butters and other breakfast condiments continue to be used due to a combination of 1), 2) & 3) but maybe it sounds more convincing if the word hygiene used.

Whilst we fully appreciate that hygiene is of the utmost importance, we do struggle to see how it can be the main reason for creating so much waste, particularly when considering the presentation of all other food items on the buffet.

We would truly love to hear your experience and opinions on this particular topic.

  • If you do operate in a country where hygiene standards obligate you to provide single-use butter, jam, honey and chocolate spread please let us know.

  • If it's a company policy we'd love to know if you think there might be scope to change, one step at a time, and

  • If you do have real concerns over hygiene please tell us, we'd like to look into all of the possible solutions.

We appreciate that circumstances are always different and there is no 'one size fits all' answer.

As more and more countries talk about total bans on single-use plastic, it pays to be ahead the legislative curve. Starting to implement changes now will help you to see what works in your hotel and will give you time to adjust if necessary.

For further information on how to reduce single-use and save costs, join us on a FREE 30 minute consultation and tell us which type of plastic you'd love to reduce or eliminate from your hotel.

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