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Villa Sevilla (in feature photo) and Hacienda Los Laureles (in photo above) can teach hotels a lot about going green. Feature photo and photo above: Francisco Collazo

It’s high time hotels did more than leave a card on your pillow and ask you to indicate when you want your sheets and towels changed.

Maybe I don’t represent the traveler norm–that’s entirely possible–but my average hotel stay is no longer than two nights. I don’t need my sheets and towels changed at all during that time.

Hotels claim to save “thousands and thousands” of gallons of water through their pillow card sheet-towel change policy, and I’m willing to concede they probably have. But if hotels are really committed to going green(er), here are 10 tips I’d like to offer them based on some smart environmental strategies I’ve seen during my travels in the past year.

1. Replace disposable plastic coffee pods and bleached paper filters.

How about reusable mesh filters and small packages of coffee in recyclable paper envelopes? Or take a cue from Portland, Oregon’s Heathman Hotel, which offers a French press in each room. Any of these three options reduces waste and cuts costs… a management no-brainer, if you ask me.

2. Replace disposable cups with ceramic or glass.

While we’re talking about coffee, can we get rid of the disposable cups… especially Styrofoam, which contains toxins and takes hundreds of years to break down? Your guests can drink their coffee in the room or fill up their travel mugs (bonus points if you sell reusable travel mugs on-site).

3. Turn room wastebaskets into trash sorters.

Improve recycling and the use of your staff’s time by turning each room’s wastebaskets into a simple sorting system. The Doubletree in San Juan, Puerto Rico does this. Each wooden wastebasket has two plastic bins nestled inside: one for regular trash, one for paper and plastic recyclables. Employees don’t have to sort trash from recyclables, and guests get visual confirmation that the hotel is taking an extra step in reducing its negative environmental impact.

4. Get rid of toiletries in little plastic bottles.

Matador contributor Teresa Ponikvar confessed that she loves hotel shampoos, conditioners, and lotions that come in little plastic bottles. So do I (and I have a whole collection of them).

But getting rid of these little plastic bottles and replacing them with refillable pumps that adhere to the side of the shower are much more environmentally friendly and cost efficient. Villa Sevilla in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico uses refillable pumps, and proprietor Marina Lawson says:

“Those small sample bottles of shampoo and conditioner are not only expensive but they generate much waste. Instead, we purchased wall dispensers for shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand soap. These are easily refilled and can be taken down to be cleaned. At the cost of $15 for each dispenser and about $0.06-$0.12 cents per ounce for the shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and soap, this won hands down over the cost of $0.75-$0.95 cents per one ounce unit of plastic bottled product with our logo. For guests on a week-long vacation, we calculated that we’re preventing at least 14 small plastic bottles from going into our landfills. We’re also lowering our operational costs, and we can pass those savings on to guests.”

5. Replace plastic laundry bags with cloth bags.

By now, I hope you’re cluing into the fact that going green also reduces hotel operators’ costs. Switch out those plastic bags guests use for laundry service and replace them with cloth bags, which the guest leaves in the room at the end of his or her stay, just like all the other linens.

6. Switch to a key card system that activates lights and air conditioning.

Last year, while working on a couple of city guide assignments for Gayot Guides, I stayed at five boutique hotels in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Oaxaca, Mexico.

In each hotel, I noticed that my room key controlled the lights, making it impossible for me to be irresponsible and leave the lights on when I went out. When the guest enters the room, he or she inserts the hard plastic room key into a wall unit that allows the lights and air conditioning to be controlled. When the key is removed, the lights and utilities are disabled.

According to Sylvie Laitre of Mexico Boutique Hotels, there’s an obvious reason besides environmentalism to switch to the key card system: electric bills are cut by as much as 40% in hotels where key cards are used.

7. Green your roof.

Photo: pnwra

This step is a big one, no doubt… one that requires more planning, effort, upkeep, and up-front investment than the preceding tips. Yet it’s also one of the most visible ways to show your hotel’s commitment to the environment, and its long-term payoffs guarantee a respectable return on investment.

Among the benefits of green roofs: (1) longer lifespan of the roof; (2) cost savings on heating/cooling bills; (3) improves sound insulation; (4) improves aesthetics and–depending on design–creates attractive recreational/amenity space; (5) provides potential space for small-scale food production; and (6) contributes to decreasing overall temperature of urban spaces.

That roof you see in the photo above? That’s the green roof of Marriott’s Victoria, British Columbia property.

8. Build an on-site garden.

This is an especially smart step for hotels that also operate or host restaurants. On-site growing cuts sourcing costs and provides visual confirmation to guests that some of the food they’re enjoying is just about as local as it can get.

9. Implement a gray water recycling program.

Like the green roof and the garden, setting up a gray water recycling program is a step only the most committed hotels are likely to take, but Peter Kaiser, owner of Hacienda Los Laureles in Oaxaca, Mexico, offers persuasive evidence suggesting that the switch is worth the effort.

“We recycle approximately 90% of the water consumed per room (or 20.000.00 liters per day based on a full hotel)…, and recuperate 20,000.00 or more from our pool when cleaning,” Kaiser says. Not only does he feel better about the impact of his operations; he saves money, too.

“By now, I hope you’re cluing into the fact that going green also reduces hotel operators’ costs.”

Beyond gray water recycling, Kaiser also recommends installing energy-efficient light bulbs with a lifespan guarantee of one year or longer. In addition to being environmentally responsible, says Kaiser, “it saves me many complaints and work hours.”

Kaiser’s boutique hotel, which turns nine years old today, also has an excellent on-site restaurant, Los Cipreses, which composts egg shells, coffee grounds, fruits, and vegetables.

10. Encourage guests to enjoy environmentally friendly activities.

Provide bikes for loan or rental. Partner with local ecotourism companies to promote low impact activities that also expose guests to the local ecosystem. Include recommendations for local farmers’ markets and the like in your concierge’s list of recommended activities.

Community Connection:

Hoteliers: What other strategies do you recommend to your colleagues? Share your tips in the comments below and don’t be shy showing off the environmentally friendly steps you’ve taken to make your property greener!

Sustainability Environment


About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • Trisha Miller

    Excellent article! I’m sending it to all the hotel reps I know!

    I’ve stayed in a few hotels – mostly in Mexico – that have adopted some of these methods. Seems like a lot of US hotels are a little slow to join in, but I really hope more will jump on this bandwagon (soon!).

  • Gray

    LOVE your ideas (especially #7 and 8)! The only one I cannot go along with is #2. I’ve seen hotels rooms with glasses and ceramic mugs, and I’ve also seen the undercover videos showing how housekeeping often “cleans” them. NOT by taking them to the kitchen for a nice hot flush through an antiseptic dishwasher, but by rinsing them out in the bathroom sink and drying them with used towels. NO thank you. I always bring my own travel mug. At least I know only MY germs are in it. Selling reusable travel mugs on site would be a good alternative, though, and it’s an automatic souvenir of your trip.

    • Julie Schwietert

      Gray- No kidding! I always wash the cups or mugs before I use them (and I bring my own travel mug, too– good tip!).

  • Hal

    Great ideas, Julie. I hope you’re sending this to the Hilton’s!

  • Tabatha Smith

    Really great article Julie! And most of the tips are so easy it’s hard to understand why they’re not already being used everywhere!

  • Suzanne Delaney

    Obviously, the hotel industry has to start somewhere when it comes to becoming more environmentally responsible — and I think your ideas are all ones that could be easily implemented in no time if just a little extra effort was made on the part of managers and big wig execs (I particularly like #’s 6-10).


    Because the industry as a whole is so fundamentally buried in eco UN-friendly policies — from the way most major companies operate solely on a business-oriented plane with the focus of extracting as much as they can from their locations’ surroundings (in human labor, natural resources, etc.) to purely turn a profit…. it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than the meager suggestions you’ve outlined here for any real, lasting progress to occur.

    Which leads me to my main gripe about the “green” movement in general. I get the bottoms up approach — I do — so spare me. But when dealing with such an important, pressing issue and such a vast business empire, there are much bigger aspects on which “greenification” energies should be placed….in other words, I feel like most efforts to “greenify” in general only make daily m.o.’s superficially less-harmful to the environment, doing more harm than good by focusing more on adapting, rather than changing, institutions (like hotels) to fit our modern “needs” in an eco-conscious age — when we, as eco-conscious travelers & people, should be reassessing those needs instead.

    • Julie Schwietert


      Thanks for the taking the time to leave such thoughtful input. I agree with you- absolutely. And at the same time, I don’t think that this industry–or any of the other ones that are so problematic–are going to just disappear or become more altruistic.

      Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time observing, talking with, and learning about some of the biggest hotel corporations in the world, as well as the communities where they’re located, and what I’ve learned has really surprised me. For some communities–St. Kitts is one example–the hotel industry has really propped up the local economy when all other traditional means of economic sustenance have disappeared. In St. Kitts, the sugar industry collapsed five years ago. By all accounts I listened to there, people who were already marginal (economically speaking) plunged into poverty. Several major hotels established properties on the island and are now responsible for providing employment in a small country where few stable jobs exist. In some of these hotels, employees talked about being able to finally go to college or being able to acquire jobs in management that they never would have acquired otherwise. As an outsider, I was wont to see the hotel as a negative force, one that degraded the environment and diluted the “authenticity” of local culture. But when I set aside what I expected to hear, I learned something entirely different.

  • Julie

    Thanks, Tabatha!

    Hal- It’s interesting. Some of the biggest corporate hotel chains are really taking significant leadership roles in greening the industry. But there are others who are greenwashing or who are not setting/enforcing standards for all of the hotels in their company, so it’s important for us to find and share examples of places that are really committing themselves wholly to environmentalism.

  • Bryan Cassidy

    Great article, as my full time job (outside of part-time travel writing) as brought me to do carbon assessments and environmental sustainability projects before. Just wanted to add some additional thoughts:
    #3 – They might not need to sort it out of the city operates on a ‘single-source’ stream in which all waste is processed together and sorted at the facility.
    #6 – I couldn’t agree more with this one. This is probably the biggest waste of electricity for a hotel.

  • Tim Patterson

    Solid tips here.

    You know what chafes my ass? Little signs by air-dryers in airport bathrooms that thank you for saving the earth by not using a paper towel. As if one paper towel could begin to make up for the tons of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere through air travel…

    Sigh. I suppose something is better than nothing.

  • John Bergdoll

    Great tips.
    When installing a green roof, you can conserve water and save additional money by planting Indigenous plants (native to the area).

    Another unfriendly practice that we could do without is the complementary hard copy newspaper.


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