Pulper over plastic: Q&A with Matt Payne, managing director of Made by Oomph

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BHN spoke to Matthew Payne, founder and managing director of Made by Oomph, about the company's eco-friendly alternative to plastic and how the industry can meet its sustainability target.

How does Made by Oomph cater to the boutique and lifestyle hotel sector?

The rise of the boutique and lifestyle hotel sector has defined the modern travel industry over recent years, with hoteliers investing more and more in creating unique, authentic and cultural experiences for their customers.

What's more, today, brands can't ignore social media and the power it holds as a marketing channel. In fact, 62 per cent of people say they have become more interested in a brand or product after seeing it on Instagram. The "insta-effect" has become so great that it doesn't just influence how a hotel is marketed; social media now dictates its design and the experiences guests have.

At Made by Oomph, we recognise these trends and have translated them into the products we produce and how we work with hotels. Offering hotel brands innovative and personalised key cards with eye-catching finishes and the latest technology to help them stand out and create a seamless brand experience from booking to departure.

We know that when it comes to hotel key cards, it's no longer just the look that matters. The rise in social responsibility amongst us all drives the need for more sustainable, eco-friendly solutions for hotels and the hospitality industry, which is the added bonus that our products offer.

Tell us about your research and the reasons why your product base is shifting towards eco-friendlier products?

As one of the largest global industries, the hospitality sector is a major contributor to the waste and pollution problem. Until recently, most of the key cards used within the hotel industry have been made from a material now understood to be causing mass environmental damage… plastic.

Plastic became so popular and widely used for a reason. As a material, it's exceptionally useful thanks to it being lightweight, durable, cheap to produce, waterproof and mouldable. So, any alternative to single-use plastic must be commercially viable for the hospitality sector and deliver what consumers expect.

A greener alternative must also be affordable. While many hotels are working hard to reduce their reliance on plastic, they also must remain profitable.

My own personal mission from the beginning has been to create more sustainable solutions, way before the war against plastic became "trendy". Back in 2008, Made by Oomph created some of the first eco-friendly cards made from PLA, recycled PVC and recyclable PET which were revolutionary at the time. We then turned our attention to natural materials that shared the properties of plastic, either in their raw form or after being processed, to offer cards to the hospitality industry which had all the features, finishes and functionality of the products they - and their customers - were used to.

Finding a material that offered the durability of plastic without the pollution wasn't easy but that didn't dissuade us from pressing on with the project. It took a decade of research, development and testing of many variations of paper cards for quality and durability before we arrived at a solution that we were satisfied with and were confident that our clients would agree.

Based on our research and development, pulper made from wood fibre was by far the best material for the job, being strong and durable yet 100 per cent natural. It's also an ideal base to add brand customisation and personalisation.

Why is pulper used as your base product?

Pulper material is sourced from sustainable forests and can be manufactured using 100 per cent renewable wind-powered electricity, meaning the process is carbon-neutral. It's hardy stuff too; it tolerates the harshest conditions like mud and water without any help from plastic.

Pulper can be precision cut to any size and shape - perfect for hospitality brands looking to inject a bit of personality into their hotel key cards, but also conference or exhibition passes - and can accommodate technologies such as magnetic stripes, NFC and RFID chips.

It also prints crisply with premium colour reproduction using standard offset printing techniques without the need for a plastic coating or laminate, so there is no trade-off between aesthetics and functionality.

Being a completely natural material, it's also fully recyclable in the mixed paper bin after use. Reincarnation is a beautiful thing.

Our pulper range has become incredibly popular in a very short period of time and already accounts for more than 30 per cent of our new business. In addition to that, we're busy working closely with our current clients to introduce pulper cards to their operations, producing samples, carrying out on-site testing. With a number of our biggest hotels successfully making the switch already, we can be sure that our pulper card is the future.

How high up the priority list is this for hoteliers?

It's certainly getting higher up the list, if not at the top, particularly now that there is growing pressure from a consumer-led movement. As the public starts to demand more from businesses when it comes to protecting the environment, those who don't evolve and decide to keep with the status quo risk being left behind.

Just look at Glastonbury, which banned single use bottled water in 2019. Instead of getting a backlash from inconvenienced music fans, they were praised the world over as a best practice example of fighting plastic waste at scale.

We're certainly seeing more of our hospitality customers taking their environmental responsibilities more seriously and investing in becoming greener. Being able to offer our hotel customers competitively priced recycled plastic and pulper key cards has made phasing out single-use plastic easier for them.

The popularity of our Pulper range was instant - and it's still on the up, driven mainly by the hospitality industry.

Could you give us some cost comparisons versus less environmentally friendly products?

Finding new versatile sustainable solutions is our passion. What we've experienced is that most - if not all - new environmentally friendly solutions come at a price. We wanted to be different and made a conscious strategic decision to offer our sustainable solutions at competitive prices.

For our original plastic cards, we simply replaced 60 per cent of the cards' overall PVC content with recycled PVC material. Saving the planet's natural resources, without any impact on the price of the cards for our clients.

The 'Eco-friendly' approach is my personal mission. We, at Oomph, are focused on introducing the 100 per cent natural eco-friendly Pulper cards to as many hotels and businesses as possible. With that in mind, we decided to part-subsidise the production of the Pulper cards, keeping the prices competitive for our clients to encourage them to make the switch!

Partnering with a brand like yourself is but one step towards achieving a greener economy and planet. What else could the industry do to ensure that it meets the Paris Agreement on Climate Change?

In addition to investing in new environmentally friendly hotel key cards, there are many steps the industry can take as a collective to meet its sustainability targets.

There are obviously small steps hotels can take individually to reduce their energy and water consumption and overall carbon footprint, such as installing energy-saving technologies, contracting local suppliers, and banishing plastic bottles in favour of shared water stations on each floor.

On a larger scale there is plenty more the industry could be doing. For starters, there's currently no single, universal set of criteria for officially recognising hotels as eco-friendly. Standardising this promotes more transparency and help customers make a responsible choice when booking their stay.

Sustainability also needs to be built into a hotel's architecture, quite literally. Any new build projects should prioritise local construction materials and skillsets, energy management and low emission systems to minimise any impact on the environment from the outset. Governments are encouraging economic incentives for the development of environmental improvements and construction of "green" buildings too.

The industry also has the responsibility of helping to change guests' behaviour. We're now seeing educational schemes become more commonplace, aimed at raising awareness amongst guests about the impact of their hotel habits.

For example, signs placed by the door reminding them to turn off lights when they leave their room, reuse towels as many times as possible and opt out of getting their bedsheets changed every day. These initiatives will need to be scaled-up in the coming years if we are to create tangible change.

What are the signs of greenwashing? How is this affecting genuine efforts and values to become sustainably sound?

"Greenwashing", coined in the 1980s in response to outrageous corporate environmental claims is, unfortunately, still taking place in the hotel industry. It can be a highly lucrative way of boosting bookings at a time when "eco-tourism" is growing in popularity.

In fact, the term was first used in response to practices in the tourism industry. A New York environmentalist came to the judgement that a hotel in Samoa placed notes in rooms promoting towel reuse to actually save money on laundry, not the planet.

In tourism, greenwashing can be challenging to spot because sustainability is complex. However, sometimes greenwashing is so obvious it's laughable. It's not uncommon for guests to obey a sign telling them to reuse their towels and linen, only to turn around to see plastic bottled water stocked in the fridge.

Greenwashing by irresponsible organisations can create negative impacts for an industry as a whole. But on an individual level, hotels caught out in their greenwashing attempts risk damaging their reputation beyond repair. With so many public channels, social media and rating websites like TripAdvisor for customers to vent their frustrations, it won't be long until those practicing greenwashing are exposed to the world.

Having a comprehensive green programme, certifications by independent and widely accepted green agencies and communicating the message to customers should be the new industry standard.

What is the future outlook for the guest, hotelier and ultimately your business?

The impact of climate change is becoming more understood and accepted. As a result, sustainability cannot be ignored. It is one of the few global trends that is certain to be big over the coming decades, impacting every industry in every part of the world. None more so than the global travel and tourism industry.

A growing number in the industry are leading by example and being completely transparent by publicly verifying and certifying that their hotels meet environmental standards. But these schemes are voluntary and have different standards - some stricter than others - so this disparity needs to be addressed so people can make clear, informed and responsible choices when it comes to where they travel and stay.

All in all, these changing trends, preferences and policies in sustainability will open-up new market opportunities for those businesses ready to take them.

As for Oomph, launching our eco-friendly pulper range is just the beginning, always evolving and looking for fresh ideas. We're already invested in further innovation of our eco-friendly range and cards features, along with unique recycling/upcycling programmes, that we hope to launch later on this year. Watch this space!

Made by Oomph is a a UK producer of eco-friendly event badges and lanyards, membership and loyalty cards, and hotel key cards. Its global client list includes KFC, Travelodge, Google, and Airbnb.

The company recently launched its sustainable pulper paper card, with built-in contactless technology.

BHN recently spoke to Matt Payne about hotelier's attitudes towards sustainability and avoiding greenwash.

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