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Solid Waste and the Impact of the Tourism Industry in the East Asia Pacific Region


Often, when looking at a country or region’s waste crisis, figures only focus on volume, which generally fails to tell the whole story behind the roots of the crisis, and thus how to cope with it. The first important specificity about waste production is that it strongly correlates with development and GDP growth: the higher the GDP level, the more waste is created. From developing countries to developed countries, tourism is one of the strongest and largest sectors driving economic growth today.

In East Asia and the Pacific region (EAP),  the contribution of the travel and tourism sector accounted for an impressive 8.8% of the region’s total GDP in 2018, with a total of USD 296 billion. However, the growth of the tourism industry will likely add a strain on the region's already significant waste problem.

This report aims to provide better insight into the general waste management situation in the EAP region, which relies heavily on tourism for its development, with special attention given to the impact of the travel and tourism sector. The reason this report chooses to focus on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) -- the type of waste generated by households or public places like schools, public buildings, street sweeping, and all the waste that comes from shops, restaurants, offices, hotels, factories and other businesses -- is that it is the source but also the solution to many negative impacts. 

If properly set up and implemented, waste management can significantly reduce air pollution, water and environmental pollution, food insecurity, and even inequalities and poverty. Understanding the general waste management situation in the EAP region requires an in-depth look into the four main variables of (1) the volume of waste it produces; (2) the waste composition; (3) the waste management system; and (4) the waste governance. 

The Negative Impacts of the Hospitality and Tourism Industries on MSW Management in the EAP Region

The volume of waste produced in the EAP region is often cited as the biggest challenge of the region. According to the latest World Bank data, in 2016, the region was responsible for 23% of the 2.01 billion tonnes of MSW created in the world, which amounts to 468 million tonnes, at an average rate of 0.56 kg per person per day. The situation can be explained by the positive correlation between the region’s volume of waste and its rapid GDP growth, strong urbanization growth, and big population size. 

While tourism brings revenue, investments, and employment opportunities to the region, it also brings waste. In 2011, the UNEP estimated a worldwide solid waste generation of 4.8 million tonnes just from international tourism, representing about 14% of the total municipal solid wastes generated during this year. In the EAP region, the biggest source of solid waste from hotels is organic waste (such as food waste), followed by dry recyclable waste. Importantly, single-use plastics used by the hospitality industry represent significant stress on the environment in the form of marine litter. According to a study by The Ocean Clean Up, out of the eight million metric tonnes of ocean waste added in the oceans each year, 88−95% of the global load into the sea comes from 10 rivers, and half of them are located in the East Asia Pacific region. 

It is also noteworthy that waste collection coverage in the EAP region averages about 71%, with the highest rates in urban areas (about 77%) and only 45 % in rural communities. And as rural areas become increasingly popular among travelers seeking unique experiences, tourism can cause additional stress on the waste management infrastructures in these areas, where 46% of the waste produced is sent to unspecified landfills, and open dumping accounts for 18% of the discarded waste.


The Tourism and Hospitality Industries Have a Role to Play in Tackling the MSW Issue in the EAP Region and These are Some Potential Solutions

When one takes into account the health problems arising because of poor hygiene; the environmental damages on water and on air quality, or the money needed to fix an open landfill that became a landslide, poor waste management becomes a cost for society. It is also true for hotels, restaurants, and all businesses depending on tourism. Even if it is hard to measure, the evidence collected together for the 2015 GWMO (the United Nations Environmental Program’s Global Waste Management Outlook) suggests that the global economic costs to society of inaction are 5–10 times greater than the financial costs of proper waste management.


This “cost of inaction” also exists for the tourism sector, especially since the region relies on the attractiveness of its pristine beaches and virgin environment to fuel its development. There have been many examples of excessive waste and environmental damage harming the tourism industry, such as driving away guests, as was the case in Tangier, Morocco, in the late 1990s, and implementing emergency measures that need to be enforced to save touristic spots from irreversible damage, as was the case in Boracay, the Philippines, in April 2018. 


When it comes to taking leadership roles in the fight against waste, most of the countries in the East Asia Pacific region are aware of their responsibility concerning waste and have taken action. However, when it comes to establishing an effective waste management system, the rapidly urbanizing countries of the region face specific challenges, ranging from insufficient infrastructure, lack of organization within the government and lack of engagement with the population, financial barriers, and lack of coordination with the different institutions and stakeholders involved. 


But there is a strong role for the hospitality sector to play in changing tourist behaviors, such as providing large-scale information about sustainability and environmental challenges faced by the countries they operate in. Governments also have a role to play in regulating and monitoring the tourism sector and encouraging good practices such as the ones advocated by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). In the case of a lack of national guidelines, the hospitality industry actors can also explore sustainability measures and practices from international initiatives such as the Global Tourism Plastic Initiative, developed by the Sustainable Tourism Programme of the One Planet network, and led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


Neglecting the environmental aspect in business could become a serious economic threat. As a result, for the hospitality and tourism industries to become economically sustainable, they must first become environmentally sustainable. 

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