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Beyond Green: Making Hotels Sustainable

Written by  Steve Ashkin

When selecting a URL for the website of my new company—the Sustainability Dashboard Tool—I was lucky enough to get my first choice, green2sustainable.com. I chose that URL because of what it says about the ways environmental issues and Green Cleaning are now evolving. The Green Cleaning movement is expanding its focus beyond human health and the environment to include sustainability as well.

Several studies and reports over the past few years have all come to the same conclusion: the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products—chemicals, tools, vacuum cleaners, floor machines, and carpet extractors—not only helps protect human health and the environment but it can also help improve worker productivity and even student test scores. Indeed, Green Cleaning can even be good for business, and this is especially true in the hotel industry.

For instance, the head housekeeper of a high-end Vancouver hotel recently said the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products draws guests who now expect such green services. Further, she says, it attracts many corporate groups, who require their executives to stay in rooms that are cleaned using only green chemicals.

One of the other benefits of most green-certified cleaning chemicals is that they are made from renewable natural resources. Conventional cleaning products, on the other hand, often contain a variety of nonrenewable ingredients, including some that are petroleum based. However, all cleaning chemicals, regardless of whether they are green or conventional, must be packaged and transported, which often requires the use of nonrenewable resources. Disposing of cleaning products can also add to the amount of waste ending up in landfills. Given the staggering amounts of cleaning products manufactured each year—more than six billion pounds annually in the United States alone—cleaning in general must become increasingly focused on its “cradle-to-grave” impact on the environment. Things to think about when purchasing these chemicals include:

• Are the ingredients used to make the product renewable?

• Is it packaged using recycled and recyclable materials?

• Are the chemicals stored in large containers (five-gallon drums, for instance), so they last longer and require less packaging, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases created and the fuel consumed by transporting them?

Going beyond simply choosing green products and addressing all of these issues is the next step in Green Cleaning. The debate about the effectiveness of environmentally preferable cleaning products and their reduced impact on the environment is over—most green cleaning products have passed the test. Now we must begin to manufacture, ship, store, and dispose of them in such a way that helps promote sustainability as well.

What Does Sustainable Really Mean?

Terms such as “green,” “sustainable,” “ecological,” and “eco-friendly” have been used for decades now. These terms have been buzzwords for the green movement, but, as with most buzzwords, they fall out of favor or change over time. Indeed, the word sustainable has evolved quite a bit over time, and today it means far more than it did decades ago.

According to some sources, the word “sustainable” dates back to the 18th century, when European foresters became concerned about the rate at which the continent was being deforested. In those days, wood was used for everything from building material to fuel for heating and cooking. The foresters began a program of planting and harvesting trees in equal amounts, a practice that was referred to as “scientific” or “sustainable” forestry. The foresters reasoned that by doing this they could replenish the forests, making trees a renewable resource. This same policy is still carried on in today’s forestry industry.

The word was more officially defined in 1987. The Brundtland Commission, formally known as the World Commission on the Environment and Development, defined sustainable as “[Using a natural resource in such a way] that it meets the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Although this is the definition used in this article, we should note that sustainability has an even broader meaning today. It often refers to what is called the “triple bottom line” or the “three Ps,” meaning that sustainable companies—in this case hotel properties—actually have three bottom lines rather than just one. These include:

• Profits—essential to the success of any business

• People—the measure of how socially responsible the company is to its staff and community

• Planet—how environmentally responsible a company

Sustainability in Action

One of the best ways that a hotel can become both more green and more sustainable is by rethinking how often sheets, towels, and other linens are washed. Unlike in the past, when almost all linens were changed on a daily basis, most hotels now change a room’s sheets and towels only when requested or on a set schedule, greatly reducing the amount of laundry that must be done. This is sustainability in action.

Additional, facilities can also pay attention to how the linens are cleaned. A hotel that is mindful of the three Ps will choose environmentally preferable cleaning products that work effectively without the use of heat. Green detergents are typically made from renewable resources, making them more sustainable, and by using cold water instead of hot, less fuel and energy are required. This makes the entire washing process not only greener, but more sustainable as well.

• Several other examples of sustainability in action in a hotel property include:

• Paper products made from 100-percent recycled content.

• Environmentally friendly liners used in trash cans.

• Green cleaning chemicals used for all tasks in addition to laundry.

• The use of high-air-filtration vacuum cleaners and low-moisture floor machines and extractors. These help protect the environment and are made of higher-quality materials, making them more durable. This not only promotes sustainability but also provides a cost savings.

Another step that may come into play in the near future is the implementation of “take-back” programs, which are already becoming common in the electronics industry. In a take-back program, machines are returned to the manufacturer at the end of their life cycle. The manufacturer then recycles those parts that can be reused in other equipment or, in some cases, refurbishes the entire machine so that it can be put into service once again. This reduces the use of nonrenewable materials and minimizes the amount of equipment that winds up in landfills. Right now, it’s estimated that more than 500 million pounds of cleaning supplies are shipped to landfills each year, an amount that would require the use of 10,000 garbage trucks.

Making Your Hotel Green and Sustainable

Many of the steps used to implement a Green Cleaning program in a hotel will also make it more sustainable. The first step should be to form a “sustainability team.” Typically made up of hotel management and housekeeping supervisors/ staff, this team is responsible for evaluating how products are being used in the hotel and whether or not there are more sustainable alternatives.

The team begins by creating a benchmark that will give the staff a fairly accurate idea of what materials, procedures, and supplies are being used in the hotel. With this in place, the team can then prepare a sustainability plan that encompasses things such as what materials and products can be transferred to more sustainable alternatives now and which will need to wait to be changed in the future. These plans are often divided into sections determined by which items can be changed now with little or no additional cost, which changes take more time and have an expense associated with them, and which may take even longer and be even more costly.

An example of an easy, cost-neutral sustainable change is switching to green cleaning and paper products. A more costly change would be installing new HVAC systems. Typically, these units are replaced only after a set number of years, so changing them earlier might be cost prohibitive.

Another step that hotel properties need to take to become more sustainable is to monitor their status and progress. Many properties are now finding that the most effective way to do this is through webbased “dashboard” systems, which tell hotel managers at a glance how much energy and water they are using, how much fuel is being used by hotel vehicles, and a variety of other information.

Some properties even showcase these dashboard systems with their guests to indicate how the hotel is doing its part to be more environmentally responsible. They also provide another benefit: By monitoring the use of resources, managers are often able to find areas in which they can take steps to reduce consumption. Not only does this help promote sustainability, it’s also money in the bank.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, a web-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies. For more information, visit www.AshkinGroup.com.


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