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On the spot: Hotels and the environment

Hotels' push to lighten their environmental effect requires a little help from its guests.

May 06, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Question: Many hotels, both in the U.S. and abroad, piously announce that they are helping to preserve the environment and reduce water usage by offering guests the option of not having towels and sheets changed daily. We are instructed to hang up the towels if we are willing to not have them changed. Many hotels do not provide sufficient towel racks, making it difficult to hang up the towels. If we do manage to hang up the towels, they are changed anyway. I routinely complain to the front desk, though I always sense that the staff has no idea and no interest in my complaint. I've even written to a few places. Who do the hotels think they are fooling?

Sue Guilford


Answer: Guilford's rhetorical question got me thinking about lodgings and what they're doing to help the environment, what they can do — and what they can't.

Hotels that give you the option of reusing sheets and towels may be helping the environment. But we also know that not washing sheets and towels saves on water, cleaning products, labor and, ultimately, helps the hotel's bottom line.

Although there's nothing wrong with a two-birds, one-stone outcome, experts I spoke with mentioned ways hotels can help and some ways we, as consumers, can too.

For instance, Hyatt Regency San Francisco has installed nearly 800 new toilets that are supposed to save 2 1/2 gallons on each flush, or half-a-million gallons a month. (The old toilets will be crushed and turned into road paving materials and such.)

Hyatt is doing both a good thing and helping to reduce expenses — we think.

But such initiatives come with a wild-card factor. The wild card, dear readers, is us.

If you're not accustomed to a low-flow toilet, you may flush it multiple times, and the savings, never mind the environment, go down the drain. Likewise, other things we may do in a hotel can create problems. For instance, if your suit is wrinkled, do you hang it in the bathroom to steam, thus wasting hot water and energy? I confess I've done it, but after talking with Ron Loch, the managing director of the sustainability consulting practices for Gibbs & Soell, a business communications agency, I won't do it again.

We're away from home, we're not paying the bills (at least, not directly) and so we are perhaps less conservative, Loch said. Cranking up the air conditioning or heat is also a waste, he said. "I know some people will leave the TV on while they are out and lights too as a security measure," Loch said. "That's wasteful."

And he noted, "Food waste is huge.

"Every time you throw out food, you're throwing out energy," he said. "I think people oftentimes order from room service more than they necessarily need."

I am guilty of several of those bad habits, Mr. Loch, but I simply didn't think about what I was doing. Can I be reformed?

"Education is huge," Loch said. Some hotels are offering information that can help "because they are so at the mercy of the guests in determining how much energy and water is used. Oftentimes, you find [that] consumers, if you make them think about behaviors and the impact they have, they're really willing to be more green, sometimes overcoming the habits and stopping them in their tracks."

I asked some experts to educate me, and I also read David Owen's recent book "The Conundrum." In next week's On the Spot, I'll share some of their ideas about being a greener guest — and some of Owen's concerns about the efforts.

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