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On the Spot: What makes a hotel green?

For travelers seeking to assess a hotel's environmental practices, the landscaping, design, bathroom fixtures and more can say a lot about its approach.

May 13, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Question: Can I be a greener hotel guest?

Answer: You can and you should. But, as Kermit the Frog noted, it's not easy being green.

The May 6 "On the Spot" column focused on behaviors of hotel guests that are wasteful and harmful to the environment. But, we should note, it's also up to the hotel to practice what the green gods preach. The question for those of us who are environmental novices — and I am one — is what is a best practice? I'd love to know if housekeeping is using environmentally sound products, but I don't have the expertise to assess that. Instead, experts made these suggestions:

Does the hotel landscaping reflect the area's climate? "The key is to look around," Starr Vartan, author of "The Eco Chick Guide to Life," wrote in an email. "Are lush trees and grasses growing in profusion in natural areas at your destination? Well, then, for the most part, the ecosystem can support similar types of plantings in the hotel grounds too. Usually if a property is using local and native plants for their landscaping, they will tout it on their site. As a side bonus, these kinds of plants really give a visitor a sense of place and a further grounding in the local environment."

Is the hotel designed to adapt to the local climate? This can be especially important at beach destinations, said Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions for Autodesk, a company that creates 3-D design software. A smart hotel, Stewart said, will take advantage of prevailing winds and design accordingly, eliminating the need for refrigerator-like rooms. Such a place might have "open lobbies that allow the wind to carry through," she said. "And they are aesthetically pleasing as well."

Does the hotel save water and energy with various devices and practices? Has it replaced its old light bulbs with more energy-efficient models? Ask whether it uses low-flow shower heads and water arresters in the taps (water gushes from those without and bubbles from those with, Stewart said). And some hotels — not so much in the U.S. but more in Latin America, Europe and Asia — discourage wasting energy with key-card light systems that turn things off when you leave your room. Genius.

Is the hotel on or near public transportation? You can leave the car behind. Some lodgings also rent bikes, offer shuttles and provide free tickets for local transportation, Stewart noted.

Is its food locally sourced? Like many such issues, this one is not without controversy. In his recent book "The Conundrum," author David Owen calls locavorism "the increasingly popular but misguided idea that it is environmentally irresponsible to eat food that was produced more than a short distance from your dining table. The number of miles that any food item travels from its origins to your plate is far less ecologically meaningful than how it was grown, what was sprayed on it while it was growing, how it traveled to market and what else was traveling with it." Ron Loch, the managing director of the sustainability consulting practices at Gibbs & Soell, a business communications agency, doesn't disagree but notes that fuel costs are saved by locally sourcing food. It also contributes to the area's economic development.

Indeed, if you read Owen's book, you may be tempted never to travel again. In writing about high-speed trains for instance, he notes that "one consequence of making long-distance travel cheaper and more convenient is that it causes people to want to do more of it"— and that goes for gasoline prices that make us want to drive, "discount airlines and frequent-flier miles."

Hard to disagree with that. Yet as human beings, travel is key to our mental and physical health. What we are doing to preserve the environment, Owen noted, is flawed. But Loch said: "It's progress. Denying that these issues exist is a real problem. But feeling like unless it's 100% it's no good is a problem. We must celebrate progress."

But in an environmentally responsible way. For more tips, go to latimes.com/greentraveltips.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every query.

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