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More on the war on plastic

The Meetings Industry Association (mia) kicked off its #20PerCentLess campaign with a roundtable discussion about the use of plastic in the industry – and here we bring you a fuller version of that debate.

Held at London’s 15 Hatfields, which has claims to be central London’s most sustainable venue, the panellists included the great and good of the industry (and, er, me), with the aim of the debate to focus on the issues and opportunities facing the sector and setting the agenda for the campaign.

Mia chair Kay England kicked things off by saying that the general aim of the campaign is to make a difference. “We’re not trying to be perfect, but gather best practices and pull put some trends we can work with and start thinking about solutions,” she said.

When it came to what has kickstarted the current war on plastic, Hugh Walker of Eden Caterers was unequivocal. “Blue Planet,” he said. “Blue Planet put it on the agenda. That just escalated it and we have to take action. I think everybody’s on the case to improve. I recently did a cycle tour around the UK and I was speaking to cafes every day and they were all aware of it and working on it, it’s no surprise to them.”

Warren Campbell, GM at 15 Hatfields said: “If you’re given it you’re going to take it. But with a small penalty you can educate people. If you don’t want people to buy a plastic bottle, put a fountain in. Infrastructure and education creates change.”

Ivor Turner, GM at The Lensbury, said his venue had taken all plastic bottle out of vending machines – and sales had dropped by 50 per cent.

“We had to put a sign up to say why we did it,” he said. “People aren’t as green as they make out to be. I thought they would be switched onto it, but they’re not. People have habits and having the tin didn’t register. As soon as we put the reason up the sales went back up.”

He added that he’d been on a campaign to get rid of plastic for two years.

“It’s taken two years to get the business to do an audit,” he said. “Then it’s trying to convince the directors of the business – and to be fair, they haven’t stopped me. It’s not client-driven!

“It’s the people now need to be thinking about what they’re doing for the future. What we need to do is create a legacy. But there are other products that in 50 years time people will be going – why the hell? We’re a throwaway society, which is costing the planet. Plastic is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Public awareness is at an all time high,” said the Zoological Society of London’s Rachel Shairp, who is also a leader of the #OneLess movement, which is aiming to reduce the number of single-use plastic water bottles entering the ocean from the city of London. “We know if we don’t do anything that in 2050 the ratio of fish to plastic in the ocean will be 1 to 1. That’s driving a lot of the action we’re seeing across society.

“I think we need ambition and we need it fast. It’s not a problem that’s going away. 2050 isn’t far away at all. It’s been good to see a groundswell of support but these are systemic issue we’re dealing with that are complex. It’s got to see the scale of ambition.

James Smith of Inntel said that clients were committed to the cause, but only if it came at the right price and in the right venue.

“The passion at the moment is such that clients are up for it and want to do anything to help – as long as they’re in the right venue and it’s costing the right amount,” he said “The venue is the most important thing, and if you’ve got one option you’re reliant on that venue helping you, and that comes with its own hurdles. Everyone’s on board with it, everyone likes the idea of it – but the black and white of it is very different.”

For Jon Proctor of Green Tourism, the issue of greenwashing – of wanting to be seen to be green – was a factor.

“Everyone wants to say what they’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s great how single-use plastic has captured the imagination but the key thing is having good metrics and good measurable items.

“We’re not in this industry because we like hotels. This is a great way of teaching a lot of people. If we get this message right we can effect big changes. If we do that well and take the stories, then we can be like lots of little fish that scare off the big sharks.”

Turner pointed out the cost issues involved. “Probably our biggest stoppers are accountants,” he said. “They’re the people we’ve got to convince we’re going to do this.”

Clean the world’s Pierre Daigneault said it was important to lead by example. “Taking a stand and saying “this is the way we’re doing it now”, you become very strong,” he said. “You have to drive the market and say ‘That’s the way it is’. Then the market will follow.”

Mia chief executive Jane Longhurst said it was going to be hugely challenging  – and that the industry had been here before.

“We got handed the green card 10 years ago, then we entered a recession and it stopped, 100 per cent,” she said. “We’re coming up to a massive period of challenge. How do we keep the momentum going against that tide of challenge?”

Proctor pointed out that there were other elephants in the room – and that the campaign could be aiming to do more. “Toiletries in hotel rooms are considered standard,” he said. “We’ve got to change the vision of what quality is to change the vision for the future.

“Let’s aim big. 20 per cent gives the impression that it’s acceptable. We want to eliminate single use plastic.”

Shairp said the best thing was to be reducing what you’re using. “Swapping a plastic straw for a paper straw isn’t reduction,” she said. “Reducing and re-using is the way forward.”

“When I’m talking to companies about getting rid of bottled water there’s a real lack of knowledge about what the right path to take it. Developing guidelines is going to be the real challenge. It does cost more. I think that’s where this conversation is going to get really interesting.”

Longhurst finished by saying she liked the idea of the campaign’s goal being far greater, but would have to take that back to the board.

Quite where the campaign goes from here remains to be seen, but the ideas and commitment on display at the roundtable suggest that there is real willing to effect positive change.