There’s a terrible irony in plastic.

When the likes of John Wesley Hyatt and Leo Baekeland created the first celluloid and Bakelite products, their invention held the promise of helping to save the planet.

That may sound ludicrous today, in an age where plastic waste contaminates the most far-flung corners of the globe. But turn back the clock a century or so, and the environmental toll of an increasingly affluent world was enormous.

The shell of the Hawksbill turtle was used for hair combs, and thousands of pounds of elephant ivory were consumed each year, simply for making the billiard balls that clacked on baize tables from Sri Lanka to upstate New York. Plastic promised to save the natural world from our ever-growing consumption.

Discarded bottles, wrappers and straws wash covering a beach – by Ethan Daniels, Alamy / via National Geographic

But, as we have discovered to our cost, the tide has turned too far. Particles of plastic pollute nearly every corner of the planet. Scientists have labelled plastic pollution in the sea ‘an ocean Armageddon’, amid fears that, by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain by weight more plastic than fish.

As governments and corporations take a cold, hard look at their addiction to plastic, many lodges, hotels and eco-tourism operators in Africa are likewise investing enormous energy and expense into reducing their use of single-use plastics.

The low-hanging fruit on this front is the proliferation of single-use water bottles. More than 480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016, and Euromonitor International forecasts that this figure will leap by another 100 billion bottles by 2021.

Plastic polluting the ocean by Rich Carey / via NRDC
Plastic polluting the ocean – by Rich Carey / via NRDC

Once seen as a necessary luxury on safari or a seaside escape, the plastic bottle has become the prime target in the industry’s laudable efforts to cut down on plastic.

andBeyond have poured an enormous investment into this sphere, providing guests with reusable bottles and sourcing glass bottles for use at camp. Further, they have installed sophisticated water purification and bottling plants at half of all its lodges, with the remainder due to be completed by mid-2018. In its South African lodges, food-to-go packs are now filled with glass bottles, not plastic.

The impact is immediate – and impressive: by bottling water on-site and using glass and aluminium bottles, camps such as Kichwa Tembo (Kenya) and Ngorongoro Crater Lodge (Tanzania) have reduced their usage by up to 9,000 plastic bottles per month.

Mhondoro Game Lodge's glass bottles – courtesy of Mhondoro
Mhondoro Game Lodge’s glass bottles – courtesy of Mhondoro

Mhondoro Game Lodge in South Africa’s Limpopo province have also invested in a water-purification plant to fill reusable bottles across the lodge. In guest rooms, refillable glass bottles have replaced plastic, and each guest receives a personalised aluminium water bottle for use on game drives.

Great Plains Conservation in Botswana were also early-adopters of the trend, and have been providing guests with reusable water canisters for more than a decade. Borehole water is filtered and UV-purified to provide clean drinking water without the carbon footprint.

Drinking straws are another plastic polluter receiving its share of scrutiny. The United States alone consumes 500 million straws each day, and lawmakers from Scotland to California are attempting to outlaw one of the worst single-use offenders.

Tintswalo Atlantic's glass straws – courtesy of TIntswalo
Tintswalo Atlantic’s glass straws – courtesy of Tintswalo

Backing the global ‘straw war’, Cape Town’s striking seaside lodge Tintswalo Atlantic have banned all plastic straws, replacing them with re-usable glass straws.

Great Plains Conservation straws made out of letaka reeds – courtesy of Great Plains Conservation
Great Plains Conservation straws made out of letaka reeds – courtesy of Great Plains Conservation

“Although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters”, says Lisa Goosen, owner of Tintswalo Atlantic. “Our location right on the Atlantic Ocean, where we witness amazing sea life every day, constantly reminds us about the vulnerability of nature, and we feel very strongly about supporting the environmental campaign to stop using plastic straws to help save the oceans.”

In Botswana, Great Plains Conservation have come up with a home-grown solution to the problem, employing local women in the Tsutsubega community northwest of Maun to harvest indigenous letaka reeds and fashion them into drinking straws.

“They strip the reeds, cut [them] to straw length, clean the inside and then sandpaper the ends so they are smooth”, explains Hilton Walker, Sales and Marketing Director at Great Plains Conservation. “Each straw takes several minutes to make and is labour-intensive, but the initiative revolutionises the throwaway straw industry.”

Amongst their other initiatives focused on reducing the use of bottled water and plastic wrap, Wilderness Safaris have also turned their back on plastic straws, and are instead producing replacements made from materials such as glass, bamboo and paper.

No cling film used at Asilia – courtesy of Asilia
No cling film used at Asilia – courtesy of Asilia

Asilia Africa have also introduced planet-friendly straws in all of its camps. Made from organically-grown rye, with no harmful chemicals or bleaches added, the straws are completely biodegradable and compostable.

The company – which operate camps in Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar – have also removed all cotton buds from its camps, banned the use of cling film, and introduced reusable stainless-steel water bottles. It’s not a new initiative, though: in 2016, Asilia Africa replaced all plastic lunch packs with biodegradable containers and cutlery made from sugarcane, paper and wood.

Asilia biodegradable pack-lunch boxes – courtesy of Asilia
Asilia’s biodegradable lunch packs – courtesy of Asilia

“Waste reduction is one part of our sustainability drive”, explains Cai Tjeenk Willink, Group Operations Manager for Asilia Africa. “We’re aiming for the complete elimination of single-use plastics in our operations.”

John Segar

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