More American hotels need to ditch the disposables

Hampton Inn breakfast
© K Martinko

A weekend at the Hampton Inn generated more trash than my family produces in a month at home.

I spent the past weekend at a hotel in Indiana. I was there for the wedding of a dear friend, and this hotel – the Hampton Inn – had been recommended as the most convenient place to stay. It was nice and comfortable, but I had the shock of my life when I went for breakfast on the first day.

Everything in the dining room was disposable – paper plates, Styrofoam bowls, plastic-lined cups, plastic cutlery (that was wrapped in more plastic). Even the cups for measuring out waffle batter were disposable; whatever happened to an old-fashioned ladle?

I asked a server if there were any reusable plates we could use, all the while mentally berating myself for not bring our own. She looked at me as if I’d requested something illegal. “Is there at least recycling? A compost bin?” I asked desperately. She gestured at the trashcan: “You can just go ahead and put it all in there.” Sure enough, as I watched, a fellow guest tossed his empty 7-Up bottle in the trash and walked away.

This behaviour shocked my Canadian sensibilities, coming from a place where recycling happens in most places. I should have known better, though, since I've heard similar stories from family members and fellow TreeHugger writers who have stayed at hotels in the United States.

Within a half hour, despite my attempts to reduce waste by sharing plates and cutlery, my family had accumulated an obscene amount of waste on our table – more than we produce in a week at home. At the end of the meal, there was nothing to do except shovel it into the trash and walk away.

What bothers me most is that the Hampton Inn is clearly aware of the need to be more environmentally considerate. Every disposable item in the breakfast room contained some kind of stamp, seal, or statement proclaiming its greenness:

“Certified post-consumer recycled material,” “Recyclable & Renewable,” “May be recycled if you have access to a recycler that accepts paper products containing food residue. Such facilities may not exist in your area. Contains approximately 91% renewable material. Renewable material may include: cellulose fiber from trees that are regenerated at a faster rate than they are used and other naturally renewable materials.”

It was a real-life experience in extreme greenwashing. If the Hampton Inn actually cared about being more environmentally friendly, it would do away with disposables and replace with reusables. I realize the Hampton Inn is a budget hotel, but that’s no excuse for environmental profligacy.

Just because disposables are made from renewable materials doesn’t make them any less wasteful; in fact, I’d argue that people become even more complacent about using disposables when the very items in question are greenwashed into looking like an eco-friendly option. There is a false perception that the environmental damage is less, that it’s OK not to change one’s habits or challenge how it’s done, while ignoring the fact that, renewable or not, disposables still result in the same amount of unnecessary trash filling our planet’s landfills.

Switching to reusables would mean having to hire someone to wash dishes, but I doubt the hotel company would have trouble covering that cost, especially if they no longer had to buy a plate, bowl, juice cup, coffee cup, fork, knife, and spoon for every client. Considering that guests pay a generous amount of money to stay there, funds are not the issue here; it's more about priorities.

Speaking of value, providing reusables at breakfast would make the stay more pleasant. Nothing cheapens a meal quite so much as using disposable plates and cutlery to eat one’s breakfast. It renders the fancy dining room décor unnecessary, as the dining experience has rapidly degraded from ‘I’m eating out at breakfast’ to ‘Oh, I guess I’m roughing it on a picnic.’

After our meal, my husband went back to fill up our water bottles. The server offered him a plastic bottle of water. “No, thanks,” he replied. “I’ll fill them from the big pitcher on the counter.” “Oh, we fill that with bottled water,” she said.

Later that afternoon, I used an empty conference room to practice violin ahead of the ceremony. As I stood playing, I could see the big plastic bags of breakfast trash, heaped in the corner of the room, emanating an unpleasant smell, awaiting disposal. The green 7-Up bottle was visible at the bottom.

It was a jolting reminder that, even though trash may disappear from view, it never disappears fully; it simply gets moved to someone else’s backyard – usually the backyard of less privileged individuals – until, of course, there’s no more space left and we are forced to start living with our own trash. At that point, America’s love affair with disposables and convenience will deteriorate rapidly, but it will be too late.

In the meantime, I have realized the importance of never traveling without a full set of reusable dishes. A valuable lesson learned.

Tags: Disposable | Tourism | Waste

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