Circular Economy Tourism and Hospitality Sector

Circular economy and the Irish hospitality sector

Posted on 25th August 2020

The circular economy can deliver substantial benefits to organisations and our society by reducing pressure on the environment, improving the security of supply chains, increasing competitiveness and boosting economic growth. The current Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying restrictions have made organisations re-evaluate how they do business. One of the sectors with a large scope for adaptation to the circular economy model is the tourism and hospitality industry.   

The tourism industry is one of Ireland’s most important sectors and it is vital to the Irish economy. It is estimated to be worth €9.3 billion in 2019 and it supports approximately 260,000 jobs throughout Ireland. As this sector continues to grow its impact on the environment also grows. The incorporation of sustainable and circular economy principles will be vital for the sustainable growth and recovery following Covid-19. 

The hospitality sector is known for its high consumption of resources and its use of single-use plastics. To combat this unsustainable consumption, a number of businesses are pioneering innovative ways to reduce waste, save energy and incorporate circular economy models within their operations.  Failte Ireland has created a number of initiatives and booklets to try and make the industry more aware of its environmental impact but more needs to be done to make the Irish tourism sector more sustainable.

Consumers in general are demanding more eco friendly options from their providers and the hospitality industry is responding to that demand. Within the Irish tourism sector there are some great examples of companies who are leading the way in sustainable and circular economy practices.  The EPA provides a great resource with the Green Hospitality Programme which has assisted their members in reducing their energy consumption by 20% through simple, no cost and low cost solutions.

In 2013 Hotel Doolin won the Green Hospitality Programmes highest award of Platinum. It uses an air to water heating system, they harvest their own rain water, they grow their own vegetables and herbs onsite, no single use plastics, work with suppliers to reduce packaging, 70% of its food is from local suppliers, they have their own composting systems and they have a staff training policy on sustainability.  Many hospitality organisations, like Hotel Doolin, use their participation in this programme as part of their marketing strategy as they see the value that their consumers place on sustainable consumption. 

 The tourism sector supports a wide variety of suppliers throughout Ireland. It is important that hotels and restaurants and others within the industry select suppliers who produce their products in a sustainable manner. An example of an Irish supplier to the hospitality industry is 3SIXTY. This Mayo based company uses Circular Economy principles to make their textile products, from plastic bottles in combination with sustainably sourced  cotton, for the hospital industry. Irish owned Musgraves MarketPlace, is working to reduce food waste in their organisation. It supplies three quarters of the hotels and more than half the pubs and restaurants in Ireland. In an effort to reduce food waste they have partnered with the social enterprise FoodCloud and in 2019 it donated more than 550,000 meals, which is more than 250 tonnes of food.

Due to Covid-19 the global tourism sector is set to face a decline in international tourists in 2020 of 58-78%. To counter the spread of the pandemic while attracting consumers, health measures have been put in place but without always taking into account the environmental impact of the additional waste generated, water consumed and chemicals used. In order to continue the efforts to reduce the use of single-use products, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation gives Recommendations for the Tourism sector to continue taking Action on Plastic Pollution during Covid-19 in its last publication.

Internationally there are many great case studies of hospitality businesses taking a lead on sustainable tourism, such as the award winning Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers in Denmark. It is a great example of an urban hotel embracing sustainability initiatives and being an excellent example for other hotels to follow. This hotel has looked at all aspects of its business to see how it can be more sustainable and implement circular economy principles.  The energy for the hotel is generated from renewable sources and it uses 65% less energy compared to other similar hotels. Each of the rooms have been decorated with recycled furniture from the Danish design company Paustian. It also takes responsibility for its supply chain management by requiring all of the suppliers to sign a Supplier Code of Conduct. This ensures that all of their food and beverages are sourced sustainably. They also give preference to organic products and seasonal ingredients. All of their food waste is ground and sucked into a 1000 litres tank in the basement. This tank is then later emptied and freighted to a bio-gas plant. The remains from this process are used to fertilize farmland.

Smaller changes can have a big impact when done over a chain of hotels. In 2019 the InterContinental Hotels Group, one of the world’s leading hotel companies with 5,600 hotels, announced that they will no longer be using single use toiletries in their hotel rooms. Instead they will be using bulk refills throughout their hotels. That means that nearly 200 million bathroom miniatures in 843,000 bathrooms will no longer be in circulation. This will see a significant reduction in single use plastics and now all toiletries will be refilled as needed.

In the UK, London alone has approximately 40,000 hospitality and food service companies. Only a small majority will actively be using sustainable and circular economy principles in their business. In order to combat the huge waste encountered in these businesses, organisations like the London Waste and Recycling Board are trying to raise awareness of the resources and changes required to run a circular restaurant. They recently hosted a webinar on Circular Restaurants: Food that doesn’t cost the earth, which highlights the duty of restaurants and chefs to build a sustainable food system.  Objectives the Rediscovery Centre is currently adopting within its own café. 

In Ireland most organisations have tried to adapt to a new normal during Covid-19 and some have used this time to add more sustainable features to their businesses. Like many visitor centres, the Rediscovery Centre, the National Centre for the Circular Economy, is developing new ways to satisfy their consumers requirements for tours, workshops and hospitality during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their operations already include circular economy principles but Covid-19 has made fulfilling services more complex. Their Boiler Café, for example, still does not use any single use plastics and has adopted contactless coffee practice to the public by taking their keep cups on a tray, refilling them (without contact) and giving them back to the consumer on the  tray. Ed Coleman, Centre Director, reflected that “It has been an unprecedented and difficult year for Ireland’s hospitality sector but many visitor centres and attractions have shown resilience by reinventing both the service they provide and the way they operate. Adapting practices to include the circular economy is one action that the hospitality sector can take to help recover from the current industry crisis. It can have a positive benefit to their wellbeing, the economy and the environment.”

There are many informative resources that can be found online. Some noteworthy ones are the EU-funded CIRTOINNO programme that published an interesting handbook for a circular transition in the tourism and hospitality sectors in the South Baltic Region. It is a good resource for hospitality companies to view when looking for inspiration to make their operations more circular and sustainable.  The United Nations World Tourism Organization, under their One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme, which launched a report for a Responsible Recovery of the Tourism Sector with the circular economy as one of the main solutions for building a robust tourism sector around the world. In 2018, they also organised a webinar on the circular economy – exploring an innovative approach for the tourism sector, that can be watched here. The CE360 Alliance has also published a report on Circular Economy in travel and tourism as a way for the sector to recover from the current crisis. 

While Covid-19 has undoubtedly negatively affected the Irish tourist and hospitality industry, there are opportunities to rebuild and recover in a more sustainable and circular way. Investing in circular resources and services means investing in a sustainable rebuilding of the economy. As one of  Ireland’s most important sectors, the recovery of the hospitality sector using the circular economy must be considered.