Managing waste in tourist cities

Everyone loves a holiday. You fly somewhere exotic to sit on a beach and forget about everything – your work, your problems, your waste… few people adhere to their home recycling regime when on holiday, but while you may forget, someone has to think about it.

Beach waste tourist citiesThe United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that revenue from international tourism in 2019 reached £1.1 trillion, but your trip to that fabulous exotic city might be causing more problems than you realise, as there are multiple negative impacts tourism can have on the environment. These include putting a large demand on energy, resources and on the waste management system of the city you’re in. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 1.3 billion tons of waste, between four and eight per cent of global waste, is produced each year solely by tourists.

This waste can potentially overload waste management systems, especially in destinations that are more rural in nature or have a low population. This increase is quite often seasonal as many cities have peak seasons in either winter or summer. Overloading, as well as tourists’ lack of familiarity with differing waste systems, can lead to improper waste disposal, which can in turn lead to environmental problems such as groundwater or soil contamination and greenhouse gas emissions, among others.

Littering is also a particularly problematic issue in tourist areas, especially those on the coast, and can have extremely damaging effects on both the local landscape and the marine environment. A study by environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting earlier this year revealed that over 80 per cent of the 12.2 million tonnes of plastic entering the sea every year comes from land-based sources, with litter like drinks bottles and other packaging being the largest contributor.

To overcome these problems, different areas have implemented strategies based on their specific priorities to increase the sustainability of their waste management systems.

Local preservation

All tourist cities have to cope with the amount of waste caused by tourists but if you live in a city which is home to a culturally significant UNESCO World Heritage site, then you have to worry about preservation, too.

World Heritage city Bergen is the second largest city in Norway and is known as the ‘gateway to the fjords’. Bergen is in the process of developing an underground waste disposal system called The Bossnett to help maintain its medieval city centre.

This network of vacuum pipes is being constructed under the city centre and allows waste to be transported to the outskirts, where it is sorted and processed either via recycling or to retrieve energy which is used to heat the city.

By moving waste underground, the city hoped to reduce the risk of fire, pest problems, litter, noise and the presence of waste vehicles. The project was completed in 2015 and has helped Bergen achieve high rates of waste separation and recycling, making the city one of the most sustainable in Europe in terms of waste management. It’s similar to the automated vacuum assisted collections system (AVACS) used to deal with rubbish on Roosevelt Island in New York City, which receives over two million tourists every year.

Several European World Heritage cities teamed up from April 2016 to February 2021 tackle waste management issues specific to such locations by taking part in the Interregional Environmental Integration of Waste Management in European Heritage project (Intherwaste).

The four-year project was launched as a means of developing better waste management solutions through sharing information and expertise between European Heritage cities. The project aimed to aid in the difficult task of dealing with high amounts of waste while preserving the heritage of the member cities, which are also popular with tourists.

During its final conference, Intherwaste declared the project a success and that it ‘summed up what heritage cities can do in order to align their waste management practices with various circumstances imposed by heritage areas and being labelled as such’.

Beach waste

The combination of beach and waste doesn’t make for a good holiday, so some areas are coming up with innovative ways to keep their beaches clean.

Officials in the coastal city of Larnaca in Cyprus are now using a recycling vending machine to encourage people holidaying in the popular Mckenzie Beach area to recycle their plastic, glass and metal packaging.

The vending machine, the first of its kinds in Cyprus, was installed with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment to reduce the solid municipal waste produced by hotels on beach, and in doing so will help reduce the amount of waste entering the sea. The success of the pilot project has led to the installation of similar vending machines in other locations across Cyprus

Users of the EU-backed project are rewarded a one cent voucher for every item recycled which they can put towards parking, cultural events, the hire of sunbeds or umbrellas, or donated to charity.

Similar schemes exist around the world, for example, in Australia, there are beachside vending machines that accept plastic bottles and aluminum cans in exchange for cash or vouchers that can be used to purchase goods from local businesses. In Spain, there are beachside vending machines that accept plastic bottles in exchange for credits that can be used to charge mobile phones or access free Wi-Fi.


When you’re on holiday, with limited access to cooking and storage facilities, you produce a lot of food waste – the leftovers from one of the many restaurants you’ve eaten in, the fruit in the cocktail you didn’t bother eating or the remains of the kebab you had on the way back from the pub. It all adds up. When you add that to the amount produced from every other holidaymaker in the same region, its a lot, and in some areas food waste, or biowaste, is the main barrier to achieving a sustainable waste management system.

In response, several Mediterranean countries, where biowaste produced ranges from 30 to 50 per cent of total waste arisings, started a three-year project to tackle the issue, which ended in 2015.

The Selective Collection of the Organic Waste in tourist areas and valorisation in farm composting plants project (SCOW) was originally developed to manage the amount of biowaste produced in the Mediterranean basin, including that arising from agricultural practices.

The aim of the collaboration was to ‘close the cycle of biowaste’ in different countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, namely Spain, Italy, Malta, Palestine, Israel and France (Corsica).

They did this by developing cheap, simple but effective door-to-door biowaste collections from both households and tourist hotspots like hotels and restaurants and small-scale composting facilities in areas of high tourism and agricultural activity, which are areas of high biowaste generation. Although it encountered some conflict with legislation in some countries, as well as with existing waste management practices, the project looked ‘to promote a co-management of biowaste from tourist areas with another biowaste flows from rural areas, like manures or vegetable wastes’, and was ‘strongly focused in the role of farmers as facility managers and compost users’.

Following the success of the SCOW project, similar initiatives have been launched in other tourist areas in Spain and other parts of the world. These initiatives aim to promote sustainable waste management practices and reduce the environmental impact of tourism by implementing selective waste collection and valorization programs.

Sheer number of people

Some cities have to cope with a mass of tourists that can be in the range of two to ten times that of the native population. Based on the UNEP estimate that European tourists generate about 1 kilogramme (kg) per person per day and Americans generate up to 2kg per person per day, that means a lot of waste.

The European Commission-funded three-year UrBAN-WASTE project was initiated to deal with waste management issues in cities with high levels of tourists ‘because no one goes on holiday to see waste’. It was launched in Tenerife in 2016, where a framework to make waste management, collection and treatment as sustainable as possible was developed.

The consortium of 27 partners has been funded under the Horizon 2020 programme, and involved pilots of ‘eco-innovative and gender-sensitive waste prevention and management strategies’, including projects aimed at reduction and recycling.

They were trialled across Europe in cities such as Copenhagen, Florence and Lisbon and included the development of innovations including a mobile app that rewarded holidaymakers for ‘low-waste behaviour’.

Despite the project's official end in 2019, the UrBAN-WASTE network continues to operate, allowing project partners to share knowledge and best practices on sustainable waste management in tourism. The project has also inspired other initiatives and projects in Europe and beyond, promoting sustainable tourism practices and reducing the environmental impact of tourism.

The majority of these projects involved cities that are members of the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and sustainable Resource management (ACR+), a global network of local authorities and other organisations that work together to promote sustainable waste management.

So when you go on holiday, do forget your work and your problems, but spare a thought for the people dealing with your rubbish. While you’re away, don’t forget about your waste.

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