Let’s Cut the Trash: Tweaking Tourists’ Wasteful Behaviour

By Simeon Choo, Emilee, and Lionel Ong

In February 2018, typically-controversial Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte made global headlines again when he declared Boracay a “cesspool” and shut it for six months. But was he wrong from an ecological standpoint?

World-famous Boracay saw some two million visitors in 2017 (nearly 33% of all tourists to the whole country), putting strain on a poorly-planned waste management system and ruining the aesthetic appeal of its white sandy beaches and pristine diving spots.

Common solutions to the problem

Unfortunately, Boracay is not the only tourist destination to fall victim to its own success. Several other prime beach resort towns in Southeast Asia like Phuket, Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia face similar challenges. Remediation actions taken by hotel management and local authorities have mostly comprised of replacing plastic items with more environmentally-friendly materials, or policy changes such as limiting the number of tourists.

These are important measures that will contribute significantly to the reduction of waste that mars the pristine natural surroundings that make these destinations prime tourist attractions in the first place. But for hotels and restaurants in other tourist attractions further removed from the unsightly heaps of plastic containers and decaying food, the incentives to reduce waste are weaker, even though green practices help businesses to save money. The waste situation will only continue to deteriorate as countries in the global south seek to leverage the tourism industry for economic development. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of them are already struggling to deal with the stream of plastic waste being shipped in mostly from the developed West.

While there are no publicly available studies on the composition of waste produced by tourists, the largest proportion comes from single-use plastics and expired or partially consumed food. Individuals produce far more waste on vacation than they do in their daily lives when they use shampoo bottles and toothbrushes provided in hotel rooms, or take excessive portions at continental breakfast buffets. Other single-use plastics such as snacks, cling-wrap and plastic plates provided by room service also contribute to the waste problem. Restaurants and hotels in tourist spots also generate large amounts of food waste when tourists are unfamiliar with food portions or would like to try new foods but do not consume all of it when it does not suit their taste. Structural readjustments and policy changes will most certainly reduce the ecological damage caused by tourist consumption, but in areas where they fail to do so, behavioural nudges offer some help.

Less-common solutions that draw on behavioural science

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

The Southeast Asian tourism industry could draw lessons from several ongoing behavioural science initiatives outside the region. For example, hotels that are unable to eliminate the use of plastic can increase recycling rates by placing clearly labelled recycling bins beside trash bins currently found in hotel rooms or around the compound. Placing these bins at convenient locations helps remove structural barriers to recycling in a context where tourists are unlikely to seek out ways to recycle a handful of plastic bottles. Behavioural science has shown that placing moral signs with short messages such as “Throw your plastic in this bin so it will not end up in the sea you are going to swim in” beside these bins improves recycling rates, especially at hotels or resorts that beach-loving tourists frequent.

Furthermore, local authorities can look at placing recycling bins conveniently beside waste bins at the beach to collect glass or plastic bottles. Another idea would be to adopt an increasingly common practice in supermarkets around the world, where vending machines that collect these bottles provide a rebate voucher in exchange. Such vouchers would be used at partner hotels, restaurants, and local vendors so that tourists are given additional incentives to participate in the scheme. Making the programme as attractive as possible to tourists who otherwise would not participate if they see no immediate self-benefit is important in encouraging participation for the initiative to succeed. However, as the monetary value of these vouchers will likely be minimal, preliminary tests should be carried out to investigate the effectiveness of such a program targeted at tourists on a short-term stay.

To tackle the problem of food waste, it is important to understand where and why most of it is generated. Regarding tourists, one common problem is that of individuals being unaccustomed to new flavours which may not suit their taste buds, and who end up discarding half the amount of food on their plates. Local restaurants can deal with this by offering tasting samples or smaller portions for dishes that tourists like to try for the first time. In addition, since many hotels offer complimentary breakfast buffets, one way to reduce food waste generated by buffets is to reduce the size of plates used, as larger plates tend to bias perceptions about how much food one can actually finish.

One important point is that much of the research on behavioural science is country context-specific. Local problems often require local solutions because cultural mindsets, values, and practices affect the way individuals react to policy interventions. For example, some measures that are warmly welcomed by travelers from one country may not be so favourably perceived by travelers from another. Local authorities therefore need to take any recommendations into their own local contexts.


Closing down tourist destinations temporarily to deal with waste management problems may be a drastic measure, but it is one whose impact on profits hotel and restaurant owners are well aware of and would be keen to avoid. Designing behavioural nudges to reduce the waste that ruins the appeal of their immediate environment is thus in the interest of businesses in the tourism sector. Above all, tourists want convenience, comfort, and to have a good time. A successful design of behavioural nudges will have to take this into account.

1 thought on “Let’s Cut the Trash: Tweaking Tourists’ Wasteful Behaviour”

  1. So, all that criteria will need to be met; the Trash Isles will also have its own flag and national anthem, too. And if you think any of this is ridiculous then please consider the idea that THERE’S AN AREA CUMULATIVELY THE SIZE OF FRANCE MADE UP ENTIRELY OF WASTE PLASTIC IN THE SEA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.