Environmental news and tourism implications.

Posted on

Three environmental development of operational if not strategic importance to tourism:

1. In September 2022 a Bill to ban a range of single use plastics in Wales, including some items previously banned in England, was laid before the Welsh Government.  On 6 December the Senedd approved the Bill, effective from “Autumn 2023”.  The outline can be found:  here.   On 14 January Defra announced, via its response to an earlier consultation and the mechanism of the recent Environmental Bill, its intent to ban the use of a further range of single use plastic items in England from 1 October 2023.  The outline for this can be found: here

Although not identical in the use of definitions or in its precise application, the two now cover much, if all the same main items, with exactly the same intent to reduce the unnecessary use of environmentally damaging single use plastic including: plates, bowls trays, cups, some types of cup lids (polystyrene in Wales at least), cutlery.  All of which are widely used, especially in food and beverage, hospitality, leisure, tourism and events and the visitor economy in general.  The ban doesn’t preclude the use of such single use item themselves; it just proscribes that in future they can’t be made primarily of plastic or polystyrene type materials.

Consequently, we can reasonably expect to see far more use of replacements, predominately wood and wood fibre-based card products. Some of the latter are necessarily coasted with liquid proof plastics, like the now ubiquitous cardboard coffee cup and still can’t be easily or economically recycled;  a subject and a problem worthy of an essay in their own right. There will of course be instances of a return to, for example “proper” crockery and cutlery but it is unlikely to be practical, nor without significant staffing and other costs, in most typical scenarios. 

The implementation in both Nations has been delayed to allow the dissemination of more detail and for a significant range and number of retail businesses and the wholesale supply train to adjust.  Nonetheless, destination mangers might wish to be aware of the impending changes and communicate them to what is likely to be a potentially large range and large number of businesses.  At this point it probably needs to be no more than: it is happening post peak season, formal guidance has (as far as I am aware) not yet to be issued, when it is we will ensure it is passed on.  

From a destination management prospective it is worth noting that the ban on single use plastic items, however worthy an objective, does not in itself significantly reduce public littering and the unpredictable peaks, troughs and ever-growing pressures on the public waste stream. In essence while it does reduce the opportunities for plastics to enter the natural environment, it largely acts to substitutes one non-biodegrade form of litter and waste with a more biodegrade form of litter and waste that then still has to be litter picked and /or collected from public bins and then disposed of.  By default, much of it from the public domain at public expense, rather from the private businesses that generate it, at their own expense.

2. A week later Defra then announced the outline of the long awaited and already long delayed deposit return scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for which Westminster retains some significant responsibility.  HMG are duty bound to consult and obtain agreement from those two Home Nations, neither of which have to replicate or adopt the Defra solution. Whereas it is an entirely devolved issue in Scotland. 

The main, immediate issues to note are that the implementation date has slipped again, this time from 2024 to October 2025, a good seven years after the scheme was first promised. Perhaps more importantly, glass bottles have now been explicitly excluded from any version to be adopted by the current administration in England and therefore may or may not now excluded in Wales and Northern Ireland. The combination of placing an artificial value on an essentially individually valueless items (plastic, steel, aluminium or glass drinks containers) and the proximity of England to Wales along, a long heavily inhabited administrative boarder, may be problematic, if for example, Wales were to choose to include glass and England doesn’t?  That said Scotland is pressing ahead with plans to implement a 20p deposit on all drink’s containers, including glass, from August 2023.  In the Scotland’s case the  issue artificial value on all existing containers and, once running, all containers from outside the geographic area is dealt with by a requirement for manufactures and producers to label or barcode those products included within the scheme. That presumably still leaves some interesting logistic issues particularly for a town like Berwick on Tweed.  They have also excluded on-sale containers in bars, restaurants and other licenced premises, a solution that seems highly likely to be replicated in those schemes yet to be introduced elsewhere.

To be unkind or is it just being frank, some of the attendant comments made by the Westminster Government suggest that, despite several consolations and 5 years’ worth of preparation, the multifaceted complexities of introducing an effective and efficient deposit return scheme are coming home to roost and that they need a further two to three years to develop a practical and (hopefully) workable solution.  A genuinely unkind comment, of the type being made by many environmental interest groups, would be that: HMG are quite literally kicking the can down the road, leaving it to the next Parliament to sort out, the literal, mess surrounding the growing use of single use drinks containers.

The additional delay could well still result in the deposit return scheme being significantly amended, further refined or indeed delayed again (outside Scotland) but the key observation remains that at some point it is coming. Just not as soon as we had anticipated or as soon as many destinations would have wished to see as an effective means of physically reducing a major source of litter and a major ever-increasing strain on the local waste stream. Unlike the ban on certain single use items, about to come into effect later this year, a well-designed deposit return scheme will act to significantly reduce littering and the strain on the public waste stream.  For that reason alone, such schemes represent a significant operational, if not strategic development for tourism development, quality of consumer experience and destination management in the UK.  The fact that they will also help reduce the opportunity for harmful plastic to entering the land and, especially, the riverine and maritime environment is a major bonus.

My immediate personal assessment, is that the decision to leave glass bottle out of any English scheme is almost certainly a major mistake or more accurately an unintended flaw or loophole, likely to result in the use of more glass containers, more glass litter and more glass in the general public waste stream. All of which would in my view negates at least two of the primary purposes and much of benefit of the having the scheme in the first place. 

Giving almost two year’s notice of intent, may well allow container manufactures, drinks producers, the wholes and retail chains time to adjust to an as yet very vague scheme but it also inadvertently allows more than ample time for them, if they so wish to switch back towards the use of glass containers.  That may not be logistically or economically feasible in all cases but it certainly could be in others, for example, beer or soft drinks in tins requiring a deposit v beer or soft drinks in bottles that won’t.   This Government has declared its intent, now only time will tell if I am right or wrong. 

3.   Not necessarily new news but rather the latest addition to a torrent of news items, reports, Select Committee inquires, Ofwat regulatory and Environment Agency (EA) enforcement regarding the current and recent historic state of the UK’s waste water and sewage systems.   Taken together they paint a picture of system that is failing and is now and routinely has polluted the UK’s rivers, waters lakes and coastline and which has been doing so largely under the public and regulatory radar, probably since the privatisation of what was admittedly then an already failing publicly owned system. Without trying to over simplify the situation, it would appear that after a burst of investment to secure adequate standards, mainly at relatively few, high profile, failing designated coastal bathing waters, investment profile has gradually fallen away and has been inadequate to maintain or comply with existing legally binding standards.  Many of the privately owned water companies stand accused of favouring profit, shareholder dividends and, in some instance, senior employee’s bonuses over and above legal and moral environmental obligations and their obligations to consumers, essentially by default almost everyone.

Whatever the truth of it, there is now little doubt that there has been an over reliance on self-regulation, monitoring and reporting which has, it seems, been regularly and deliberately abused by many, if not all water companies. In some instance to a criminal degree, as witnessed by recent and ongoing enforcement and regulatory actions. EA has gone as far as to ask for future powers to prosecute, fine and if necessary jail senior executive found to guilty of continuing to do what they have been proven to have done in the recent past. That in itself speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, Ofwat, the industry’s primary regulator, stand accused of favouring the interests of the companies over that of ordinary customers and of the general public’s interest. Put simply, how else under their watch was it allowed to get so bad for so long? The EA stands accused of, on the one hand  failing to adequately monitor, police and enforce existing regulation and on the other, of not having the desire or resource to do so.  Both equate to much the same thing, the only real difference being where the real fault, if any, lies.  In parallel there are also similar reports on the failure to educate, monitor and enforce compliance within agriculture, another primary source of riverine, lake and coastal waters pollution. Many of the issues that apply to EA and the water companies are broadly replicated within EA’s relationship with agriculture. 

One senior EA officer recently confided that they personally, seriously doubted the ability of any English River to ever routinely meet the bathing waters standard, despite those standards being half as stringent as those used for coastal waters (the latter bit being real news to me).  The first two UK riverine bathing waters, likely to be the first of many more hoping to follow, are already well on their way towards being declassified and “permanently signed” with advice against bathing. (4 fails in row and you’re out).  The inclusion of rivers and growing public interest in riverine bathing waters and water quality in rivers marks a “watershed” in the long running UK water quality debate. Recognising that it is now a major strategic and policy level issue and a major new potential reputation minefield for tourism is now vital.  Hoping that the problem might either go away or improve largely on its own without proactive tourism industry intervention, as we arguable did in the early decades after coastal bathing water were adopted, is simply no longer a safe or acceptable option.

Having spent the much of my first decade in tourism defending what I now recognise as being the indefensible poor standards of many coastal bathing waters during the 1990s, I now have no appetite for spending my last decade in tourism trying to defend what I already recognise to be utterly indefensible standards in rivers and much of the coast not yet covered by designated bathing waters (small point areas often in much larger bodies of water).  To find that there is strong evidence that I and many others were deliberately deceived about the amount of effort many water companies were putting in to maintaining and improving water qualities standards is frankly painful.  Especially when many of us then unwittingly went on to publicly defend those same companies and their sterling efforts to make every possible improvement. 

It is indisputable is that riverine standards and those of significant stretches of coastal waters, primarily outside the point designated bathing waters are inadequate. That is in large part due to failures of the UK’s private water companies to invest, alongside some significant poor practice within agriculture.  The latter might be quickly resolved in part, if the EA were adequately funded and sufficiently focused on the agricultural education and enforcement task, among a host of other competing environmental priorities that they are expected to deal with. 

The water companies’ issues can only be resolved if they now investing in their assets, some of which have clearly been neglected for some considerable time and preferably doing so at the expense of their own profits and not at an additional cost to customers.  That is down to Ofwat and Government to resolve.  Having effectively ignored their known problems for so long and now having frankly been belatedly found out, the water companies now have a mountain entirely of their own making to climb. Better enforcement in itself can’t immediately fix what is effectively broken, unless of course anyone is saying that the illegal discharges are actual driven purely by profit and not to problems of physical capacity within the system, as the water industry currently claim. There is no obvious cheap or quick fix given the number of assets that it transpires are involved and the scale, cost and time needed to make the improvements likely to be required.  

If your destination includes a problem designated bathing water then the issues that you will be only too well aware of are likely to grind on for years to come.  If you have non-designated coastal waters, rivers or lakes, often used for leisure purposes, then watch this space.  Bathing, leisure and associated water quality issues are almost certainly going to get more publicity while getting far worse, for some considerable time to come, before they get gradually better. So long a time that I can confidently predict that it won’t be my problem to explain residual issues or celebrate the eventual success of all the improvements yet to come. I can say that with confidence because Government have already  quietly move the target compliance dates for river water standards to the right, well beyond the likely retirement date of the majority of people currently working in tourism management.

If you have water on your patch then I would advise that if you haven’t already done one recently, a brief audit to assess whether those waters (public and private) are being used for leisure at any scale and especially for anything vaguely associated with emersion like bathing or wild swimming may be needed.  That is information may well already be held for water safety reasons but it may not be something that either local government or private sector-based destination management proactively engages with?  If nothing else such waters are increasingly becoming both a marketing opportunity and a potential PR pitfall which should give genuine reason to keep them on the tourism radar.

As I sign off the BBC news is carrying more news and comment on the breakdown of plastics in the marine environment and the resulting presence of microplastics in fish and seafoods in the human food chain.    If that does make the point that there is a genuine, direct and strategically important link between a range of dull old environmental issues and the future of exciting and vibrant hospitality, leisure and tourism, nothing else will.


Please do share your thoughts and comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s