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Hotel Guests Can Help Clean Up the Environment, One Towel at a Time

HER WORLD

April 15, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I can't think of many things I relish more than checking into a hotel room and messing it up, turning the air conditioner to high, using lots of bath towels, using up those bottles of free toiletries and waking in the morning sure that someone else will make the bed with clean sheets. Women who have done more than their share of domestic chores know what I mean. For us, a hotel room is a place to cut loose.

Lately, though, this pleasure has been dampened by notices placed on pillows and hung on bathroom towel racks that ask hotel guests to conserve water, energy and detergent by reusing their towels and declining fresh sheets. It may be the right thing to do, but I can't help wondering how much of Earth's precious resources are saved when I use the same towel two days in a row and whether the hotels' motives have more to do with penny-pinching than with protecting the environment.

Project Planet, the Atlanta organization that makes and distributes the little cards, estimates that a 150-room hotel can conserve 6,000 gallons of water and 40 gallons of detergent a month when guests reuse their sheets and towels. A hotel, meanwhile, saves $1.50 per room for every day a guest reuses towels and sheets, according to estimates by the Houston-based Green Hotels Assn., an organization that produces the cards for hotels.

My friend Penny Kaganoff, a meticulous recycler at home, thinks the "great towel scheme," as she calls it, is just a scam perpetrated by big hotels to cut their costs by preying on guests' sense of political correctness.

My sister, who often travels to Asia, takes full advantage of the lovely, fluffy towels that hotels supply. "Using three or four is excessive, but one is an indulgence I think I deserve," she says. She has also noticed that some foreign hotel rooms have a slot near the door in which you insert the plastic room key to turn on the electricity. Removing the key when you leave switches off the lights, TV and air conditioner. This simple measure (which, admittedly, can be subverted if you have two room keys) suggests that there's more to conservation in hotel rooms than reusing towels.

Starwood Hotels, which operates 725 properties worldwide (including Westins and W hotels), is exploring the use of thermostats that sense when a room is unoccupied, then lower the air-conditioning or heating. The 207-room Ojai Valley Inn & Spa has a full-time recycler who spends his days hand-sorting paper, plastic and kitchen scraps. And many U.S. hotel chains are replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that cost more initially but last longer and use less electricity.

Still, the effort to get guests to reuse towels and sheets goes to the heart of the matter because it challenges travelers to participate in hotels' conservation efforts. The American Hotel & Motel Assn. supplies 150 of its member properties with towel and sheet reuse cards.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts puts the cards in every room.

At 375 properties owned or managed by Hilton Hotels Corp., a guest's linen is usually changed every third day, unless the guest requests otherwise.

In a recent test program at six Westins and Sheratons, Starwood Hotels, North America, found 70% of their guests willing to reuse their towels and 96% willing to sleep on the same sheets.

On the other hand, the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air in L.A. doesn't display the linen reuse cards. "When someone is paying over $300 a night, the least they can expect is clean towels and sheets every day," says Frank Bowling, the hotel's general manager.

But Costas Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that supports environmentally responsible projects around the world, says reusing towels and sheets could significantly decrease hotels' water and electricity consumption. He believes guests enjoy true rejuvenation when they help out with hotels' conservation efforts, putting them at peace with the Earth.

Arthur Weissman, president of Green Seal, another Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes the use of environmentally responsible products in businesses, is all for towel and sheet conservation too.

But that doesn't go far enough for Barry Dimson, part owner and environmental consultant for the 193-room Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel in Philadelphia. That hotel is dedicated to the green cause, from its 100% recycled toilet paper to its high-tech air filtering system. Dimson has little faith in linen reuse programs. "If that's all a hotel does, it's just doing it to save money," he says. He advises consumers to ask questions when they book a room, such as, "Does the hotel recycle?" and to vote for the environment with their feet.

Meanwhile, I've converted to towel and sheet reuse. Cutting loose is even more fun when I can do it with a clear conscience.

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