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Aug. 29, 2019, 9:29 a.m. EDT

Dropping mini shampoo bottles is another ‘feel good’ move that, like banning plastic straws, does little environmental good

Symbolic initiatives distract from actions that can make a real environmental difference

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By Yossi Sheffi

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Plastic waste now clogs our rivers, oceans and landfills.

InterContinental Hotels Group will replace mini-shampoos and conditioners with possibly more efficient bulk products by the year 2021 . Marriott Hotels recently followed suit, vowing to ban miniature toiletries by next year.

But environmental activists shouldn’t rejoice just yet.

The announcement is yet another example — such as banning plastic straws , false sustainability claims and corporate commitments that are far in the future — that seem to be more of a PR exercise than real attempts to move the needle.

I’m a professor of engineering and the director of the MIT Center of Transportation and Logistics . As I argue in my book “ Balancing Green: When to Embrace Sustainability in a Business (And When Not To) ,” announcements of these kinds distract us from legitimate — and more challenging — measures we need to put in place to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Behind the headlines

InterContinental Hotels Group /zigman2/quotes/204459500/composite IHG +2.06%   /zigman2/quotes/202865596/delayed UK:IHG +0.10%   CEO Keith Barr says that replacing miniature bathroom products “ will allow us to significantly reduce our waste footprint and environmental impact ” at the conglomerate’s hotel chains, which include InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn.

It’s true that the British foundation Clear Conscience estimates that 200 million travel-size toiletries end up in U.K. landfills every year, but there’s another motivation: With 5,600 hotels, the savings for IHG can mount to over $11 million annually.

Additionally, studies we have carried out at MIT and elsewhere show that evaluations of a product’s environmental impact can mislead if economists don’t consider the entire supply chain management process.

For example, most of the carbon footprint of companies like Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +3.49% , Microsoft /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT +1.60% and Cisco /zigman2/quotes/209509471/composite CSCO +0.93%  comes from the suppliers who actually make the iPhones, routers and Xboxes, not directly from the company itself.

Additionally, the net reduction in discarded plastic could be minimal at best if the larger containers are filled from single-use plastic pouches. Also, we don’t yet know if the larger containers are recyclable, nor the cost and environmental impacts of making, transporting, installing and maintaining them.

Even if replacing miniature toiletries does reduce waste somewhat — as other hotel chains join the movement and California is moving to ban them — the move to bulk products will barely put a dent in the plastic waste that now clogs the planet’s rivers and oceans. It is another “feel good” initiative which help avoid the move to more serious actions that can actually make a difference.

Read: San Francisco airport bans plastic water bottle sales; McDonald’s warns thick paper straws can’t be recycled

Banning plastic straws is another such example. While outlawing plastic straws makes for excellent public relations copy, it has virtually no impact on the global accumulation of plastic garbage .

Read: Damn the turtles! 35,000 McDonald’s customers want their plastic straws back

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