Ask Pablo: What Makes A Hotel "Green?"


Image Source: Alan Levine
Dear Pablo: I am seeing more and more hotels claiming to be "green." What exactly makes a hotel green?

Virtually every hotel these days has signs asking you to hang your towel if you want to use it again or leave it on the floor if you don't. This does not make it a green hotel though, it just makes common sense. According to Project Planet InterContinental Hotels estimates that it saves almost 200 million liters a year in the US alone, and Marriott International claims an 11-17% reduction on water and water treatment costs. According to Southwest Florida Water Management a hotel can save $15,000 a year with a towel reuse program (100 room hotel with 60% occupancy). It makes financial sense and decreases environmental impact but it does not necessarily make it a "green" hotel. What makes a hotel sustainable then?What Makes A Hotel Green: Energy
The average hotel in the United States spends $1.04 on electricity per square foot each year. At over 36,000 square feet for the average hotel, this adds up to $37,100 and around 500 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The need to reduce hotel energy use is clear and the best solutions are operational changes and energy efficiency improvements. Many hotel rooms in Europe have a switch located by the door that requires that your key card be inserted in order for it to turn on the electricity to your room. This ensures that you don't leave the lights, TV, or air conditioning running while you are out seeing the sights. Need to charge a mobile phone while you are out? There is usually an un-switched outlet for this purpose.

Also seen in European hotels are flat-screen televisions with motion sensors that keep you from leaving CNN international running while you take a twenty minute shower. Back here in the United States energy efficiency improvements are mainly limited to CFLs, leaving a lot of room for improvement.

What Makes A Hotel Green: Water
Many hostels and budget hotels in Europe only provide hot water during certain times of the day (like 7-9 AM) while the 4You ecological youth hostel in Munich takes it a step further with 1-minute shower buttons. After pressing the button two or three times you get the idea, rinse the suds off and move on.

In addition to showering, a major use of water in hotels is in laundering sheets and towels. While many hotels have programs to encourage towel re-use, some are quite halfhearted and could be improved. Finally, water features like pools and fountains can be a significant drain on water resources, particularly in drought affected regions. As water evaporates into the dry air it needs to be refilled. Sorry Belagio, your 9 acre fountain is probably not sustainable... (although it does use less water than the golf course that used to occupy the same space)

What Makes A Hotel Green: Waste
A small percentage of hotels are beginning to offer recycling and compost bins alongside a downsized trash bin. This not only diverts waste from landfills and cuts down on waste hauling costs, but valuable recyclables like aluminum cans can bring a modest amount of revenue to a large hotel (enough at least to pay for the bins).

A significant source of waste in hotels comes from the small shampoo bottles and that bar of soap that is discarded after you use it only once. Reducing the waste of such "disposable" items can reduce the amount of plastic produced and discarded, as well as the amount of soaps that are manufactured. Some hotels are now using liquid soap dispensers by the sink as well as all-in-one conditioning shampoo and body wash in the shower. This eliminates the need for tiny bottles and the waste of unused soap. Can't avoid the little bottles? Here are some tips:

  • hotels can collect partly-used bottles and donate them to homeless shelters
  • hotel guests can take partly-used bottles home for use in the guest bathroom
  • bring your own soap in a reusable container and leave the hotel's soap for the next guest

What Makes A Hotel Green?
Some hotels may offer organic bedding or reclaimed wood floors. Others may serve local foods that are in-season or shampoo that was not tested on animals. A few hotels may have solar panels or purchase carbon offsets. There probably is no such thing as a "sustainable" hotel today, although many claim to be. Rather than a prescriptive list of items that define a sustainable hotel it is much more about a process of continuous improvement. Ultimately any steps taken must decrease the impact on the environment, promote human capital, and make financial sense in order to meet the definition of sustainable. Let's face it, boutique hotels are nice, but also prohibitively expensive for all but the elite. Making energy efficiency and other improvements based on a reasonable return-on-investment will allow a hotel to remain affordable, financially viable in the long term, and accessible to us all.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Environmental Footprint | Greenwashing | Waste