One summer back in college, I worked at a major tourist attraction – Mad Martha’s Ice Cream Parlor, on Martha’s Vineyard. We had lines out the door every afternoon. And no matter how long people waited on those lines, by the time they got to the front they’d look up at the big list of flavors behind our heads as if they hadn’t had a half hour to do just that, and wondered aloud what they’d have. The line would last that much longer, as each person stepped up to do this. Mulling over chocolate vs. rum raisin, while the rest of us waited, and waited. I developed a working theory that when people go on holidays, they leave their serious – aka working – minds behind. I call it vacation brain.
I mention this because I used to get vacation brain when I stayed at hotels. It’s like all my sense jumped out of my head to look at the view. At home, I’d wash my sheets and towels once a week. On vacation, make it once a day! And change those soaps, I want new ones. And just look at that minibar. It’s so mini! I’d open up all those little bottles of moisturizer and body wash. They’re so cute! I’m taking them home! Well, it turns out that last idea wasn’t a terrible one, because once something is open it’s thrown out, and that wasted product and those tiny plastic bottles add up. But an even better idea is to bring my own supplies, in reusable containers, and leave the hotel’s items closed to serve another client, another day. I’ll occasionally even buy fancy shmancy brands that I wouldn’t usually use, so that I feel like I’m splurging while on vacay.
At some point before eco became marketable, I came to my senses about the linens, and realized that nothing required cleaning up every day. So I would put that Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door for a day or two, to keep the sheets and towels from being washed unnecessarily. That did, oddly, disturb the hotel workers, who would repeatedly come back to check if the sign was gone. But until the beginning of the welcome green practice of putting a note on the bed signifying not to wash the sheets, it was all I could think of to do.
These days, that sheet sign is de rigueur at most hotels. So is a sign about towels, although it’s somewhat confusing. If they’re not left on the floor, they’re hung up so neatly that it’s hard to tell what’s been used and what’s new. But it’s still better than hauling everything off to the wash.
Speaking of washing, I know discarded soap sounds like a sliver of a problem, but it ain’t so, according to the Global Soap Project. The group collects used soaps from hotels and reprocesses it into fresh bars that they distribute to people in need around the world. In their estimate, 2.6 million soap bars are thrown out at hotels DAILY. Saving the soap doesn’t just help reduce landfills, it helps populations get better hygiene. This is so win-winny I can’t stand it. And while I never like to tout a particular company, I have to give a post-Thanksgiving shout out to Hilton Worldwide, which just joined up with the Project this past November to donate their soaps.
When at your next hotel, ask if they participate in the program, and if not, gently suggest it as a great idea that’s also a great marketing tool. Every hotel likes to look clean and green.
If they don’t participate, then take the used soaps home. They’re so cute! But really, they’re just going to be thrown out, so save their packaging and pack them away.
The last place I stayed had a smart idea (okay, it was a Kimpton Hotel in Seattle); their fancy bath products came in dispensers hooked to the shower wall, so there was no bottle waste at all.
Rooms usually have several trashcans scattered about, with plastic bags lining in each one that get replaced every time even one item has been thrown in it. If the hotel has turndown service, this can happen twice a day. So I consolidate in order to save the plastic bag waste. I use the bathroom trashcan and leave the other ones clean.
If the hotel or the location doesn’t have a recycling program, I pack out the way I would on a camping trip. Anything I empty out, I put put back in the suitcase. I haven’t yet done this with plastic water bottles, but I vow to do this as much as possible from now on, stuffing the flattened bottles in my bag. In general, I try to live the way I would at home: when I leave the room I turn the lights off, and set the air conditioning or heating either off or to a minimum setting. If I can open a window for cool air, I do.
Onward to the buffets – I do my best to hold onto my dishware for the length of the meal, rather than letting the servers take it between courses. I don’t get more food than I can eat, which is as good for me as it is for the environment. To that end, I also try to choose food that is local and in season.
My friend Cari is a world-traveling environmentalist, so she has a plethora of ideas I’d never thought of. When she’s on a low floor she takes the stairs if it’s an option, and when taking the elevator she’ll squeeze into a full one rather than taking one alone. She even takes the revolving door rather than the conventional swinging door; it keeps the temperature steady. She’ll take her own bags to her room rather than letting a bellboy deliver them on a separate elevator trip. She asks the concierge for sites within walking distance rather than driving or taking a taxi. If booking a tour, she’ll ask for the most eco-friendly version, to let the concierge know that such an option is popular. And she’ll drink tap water or bring her own filter bottle rather than buying bottles, except in places where the water would kill her, or worse.
And this may go without saying, but I’m gonna say it: there’s no need to take things from the hotel just because they’re there. It’s a huge drain on their resources and I don’t need any sewing or shoe polishing kits (again, unless I’ve had to use them already). Let alone towels and laundry bags. Just because your brain is on vacation, your hands don’t have to turn to crime!
Facts and sites galore:
The extremely cool Global Soap Project
Consider eco-tourism for your next trip. Here’s an independent guide – Eco Hotels of the World - that takes no commissions or fees.
For hoteliers, here’s a for-profit organization, “Green” Hotels Association, with lots of suggestions on ways to save resources and money. I’m not recommending you buy them here, but perhaps they’ll give you some good ideas.