The next time your drink is served with a straw, think twice about using it. Plastic straws, which are totally unnecessary for consuming beverages, are part of the massive waste problem in oceans around the world, causing untold damage to fish, turtles, and other sea creatures that ingest them.

Straws are just one of a multitude of single-use plastic items that are causing a planetary crisis.

The problem with plastic is that it lasts forever. According to scientific estimates, over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced over the past decades. Only nine percent have been recycled and 12 percent have been incinerated; the remaining 79 percent end up in landfills or in the natural environment, causing irreparable damage to our ecosystem.

Gearing up for Combat

If the tide is ever to turn, billions of people will need to experience a “last straw moment.”

One person who has reached that point, and who actually has the clout to do something about it, is Gabriel Escarrer, executive vice chairman and CEO of Melia Hotels International, a global resort chain that hosts 30 million guests every year.

“Melia is joining the combat against climate change, and eliminating single use plastic in all of our hotels is a key step,” says Escarrer in a video he posted on his LinkedIn profile as part of his efforts to draw awareness to this problem.

Technology supports Melia’s no plastic purchase policy,
which will go into effect in 2019

The hotelier, who founded his empire on a 60-room hotel when he was 21, is deeply committed to sustainable tourism and environmentally responsible management of its locations. He made the announcement during his speech at the Group’s shareholders’ meeting earlier this year while noting that great customer experiences have to be compatible with respect for the planet and that plastic pollution is a global challenge affecting all destinations.

Employees Explain Why Straws Suck

Every year his resort chain was using 22 million plastic bottles and a range of other plastic products. That will end in 2019.

Christian Palomino, vice president of Global IT at Meliá, explains how technology supports the no plastic purchase policy, which will enter into effect in 2019: “Every purchase is controlled in the system. First we define what we buy. Then we remove all plastic from the catalogue, which means we purchase only from vendors and suppliers who provide alternative products.”

The first step, for example, is changing from plastic to glass water bottles. This step helps the company maintain its pledge to use only renewable materials and also helps avoid the emission of 15 tons of CO2 emissions caused by processing plastic waste.

“Sustainability is a very serious concept at Melia,” says Palomino with passion. “We’re eliminating straws and are training all 44,000 employees to politely explain to a guest who does ask for one if they would mind reconsidering the request in favor of the environment.”

Simplified Technology Leads to Efficiency

With seven well-known brands that offer everything from the most exclusive luxury at the Gran Melia locations to family holidays at Sol Resort Hotels, the company has more than 370 hotels in 43 countries on four continents. One of the world’s largest resort companies, it originated in the 50s as Hoteles Sol and grew steadily as Spain became a mecca for vacationers. Mergers and acquisitions of other hotels like the Hotasa Group allowed it to become a global leader in the tourism industry.

With an annual revenue of €1,885.2 million, the company is poised for further growth with an aggressive expansion strategy in Asia Pacific.

“As our group grows and becomes increasingly international it needs more robust solutions to support its processes. Flexibility and scalability are essential,” Palomino says.

The group recently signed an agreement with SAP to move its business management to SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud. This will help Melia simplify its technological landscape, reallocating resources as needed, improving efficiency, reducing costs, and accelerating innovation by continually utilizing the latest technology.

Now, Melia’s financial and administrative management, processes, HR, procurement, government, CRM, and business analytics will be managed through a private cloud model.

Living in Interesting Times

Palomino finds this day and age particularly fascinating because every aspect of the business is being transformed by digitization.

“We’ve been laying the foundation for an intelligent enterprise during the past three years,” he explains, and then goes on to elaborate how IT is consolidating reams of data to help senior management make more informed decisions regarding cost reductions and process efficiency. Furthermore, automation coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) enables a more personalized customer experience.

For example, the system alerts the person at the front desk to offer a discount to a guest who has been flagged as someone who regularly uses the spa. Of course, customers must sign up for the loyalty program and agree to share their data. If they do, the technology can support the staff in building closer relationships and offering specialized services.

“We’re very excited about the potential for better data management that SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud offers us, and also for understanding how SAP C/4HANA can further improve customer experiences. Personally, I’m thrilled to be part of the story,” he says.

Melia’s dedication to innovation and excellence have won the company many awards: European Mindset Award 2016 for Best Company in Digital Transformation and the Global Traveler 2017 Award for Best Luxury Leisure Hotel Group in the World, among others.

But perhaps the greatest reward of all lies ahead: A company of this size and scope that builds a plastic-free policy into its procurement system can make a meaningful contribution toward reducing the world’s plastic waste.

Follow me @magyarj

This story previously appeared on SAP Innovation Spotlight on Medium.