I am writing this article from my room at the Element Hotel at Times Square overlooking New York City from the 37th floor. Starwood Hotels invited me to stay with them for a few nights in one of the Element Hotels in order to review what they told me is the most eco-friendly hotel in the city, and one of 10 other green hotels they have opened so far in the US. Like my friends, you probably want to know: “So, is the hotel really green?” My answer to this is that, yes, they are making a pretty good effort to live up to the image of a green hotel, starting right at the beginning when designing the buildings for the hotels, for all of which they pursue LEED certification, but, there are also a few glitches I could not ignore.
As far as I know, Element Hotels, Starwood’s “eco-wise trailblazing brand”, is the only major hotel chain to mandate for all their buildings to be LEED certified. To date, 6 of the 10 hotels have received the certification and the rest are being audited.
The hotel manager was able to answer all my questions regarding what makes a hotel really green, which was a relief and showed that the company is not just into green advertising but can explain the claims they make online in more detail. Here is what makes the Element Hotel on Times Square with its 411 rooms more sustainable than the average large hotel.
According to the hotel, it is running on 100% renewable energy although not generated on site. Natural daylight enters rooms as well as the common areas (except of course the corridors) and blinds in the room keep the direct sunlight out in the summer. The lighting in the room is comfortable and energy efficient, achieved with CFL and LEDs. All guest room kitchen appliances are Energy Star rated. There is even a bike charging station in the fitness room that lets guests charge their phones while exercising. What surprised me was the fact that the electricity in the rooms stays on when you leave, something most “non-green” hotels don’t even do anymore as it saves costs and of course resources. Here Element Hotel relies on the eco-conscious behaviour of its guests to switch the TV, lights and AC off when going out for the day. Maybe all of their guests follow the hotel’s “eco-etiquette” secrets and tips for traveling green (although I doubt it). The hotel has electric charging stations for cars.
All showers and taps have low-flow faucets and the toilet comes with a dual-flush system. Guests are encouraged to drink in-room filtered tap water as opposed to bottled water and of course get to decide when their bed linen and towels need washing, like in most hotels nowadays. To clean the rooms, I was told that only eco-friendly products are being used. Sure enough the washing up liquid in my kitchen is by Seventh Generation.
On the web site it says “We also use as many recycled materials as possible in design and construction.” What I like in my room is the hard floor, made from recycled tires according to the manager and of course the fact that they used low-VOC paints. All in all the furniture and finishes seem to be of good quality and will probably last a long time.
The shampoo and shower gel come in dispensers which is much less wasteful than multiple small bottles, and, a big bar of soap is placed on the sink. The hotel donates any leftover soap to Clean the World who then sanitise it again to send to poorer countries.
I also like that the room has actual recycling bins without small bin liners in each of them, which would just result in more waste. Having said that, my disappointment started at the breakfast table where hardly any glassware and ceramic plates, and no silverware was available. Instead, guests have to juggle their breakfast in plastic and paper cups and plates, and eat from wobbly plastic spoons. I was explained that the reason for this is that a lot of guests want to have their breakfast on the go (ok, so they can have disposable utensils) and that catering for 411 double rooms is too much to go dealing with real plates and cups. I can see the point but to me that is just not good enough for a “green hotel”, even if the disposable items are made from corn plastic and paper. I then had to dump my pile of (hopefully not) waste in the only bin provided, although apparently it gets separated and recycled afterwards... let´s hope it´s true!
The hotel’s mission is to offer a healthy and low-impact stay. Fresh seasonal produce from a Vermont-based farm is available 24h and the hotel offers complimentary bikes to borrow and explore the surroundings. They hope that the green features in the rooms inspire people to do the same at home. On the one hand, I wonder how many guests actually realise that they are in a so-called green hotel. On the other hand, the fact that Element Hotel doesn't have the green message plastered all over the place (even though their corporate colour is light green with a bamboo texture to it) shows that they do not just do greenwashing. Thinking about it, most claims they make on their web site are true (read Element's Green Vision or watch a promotion video), and I don’t think it is wrong to communicate everything they actually put into practice.
I guess I am not the easiest guest to satisfy when it comes to sustainability and design, but judging from what I overheard other guests comment on in the lift and from the comments on Tripadvisor, this is currently not a bad choice of hotel, especially when it comes to value for money. Element Hotel's standart price for a double room with bathroom, kitchen, breakfast and 24h snack bar near Times Square is $279. Certain boutique hotels and family-run bed & breakfasts implement a stronger environmental policy than that of Element Hotel NYC, but they are often much more expensive and therefore not accessible to most, especially in New York City.