Week of 04/24/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Many hotels now ask guests to re-use towels and not request new sheets every day, to save water and energy. What other eco-friendly trends, if any, are taking place in the hospitality industry?

—Jenny Baker, Bozeman, Montana

Asking guests to re-use towels and keep their sheets for more than one night are just a few of the many ways the lodging industry has been rapidly "greening up" operations in recent years. According to the Green Hotels Association (GHA), a trade group of hotels, motels and inns across the U.S. that is committed to sustainable business practices, thousands of member establishments share common goals of saving water, energy and other resources—while saving money—to help protect the planet.

And travelers don’t seem to mind. Such minor concessions as saving towels and sheets are garnering some 70 percent participation among guests, according to GHA, and in the process are saving lodging establishments as much as five percent on utility bills.

Other examples of green-friendly hospitality strategies abound. Shower wall-mounted body washes (ubiquitous in Europe) are replacing those tiny, individual soap bars and disposable shampoo and conditioner bottles. Room lights are being retrofitted with energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs in lieu of those incandescent energy hogs. Some establishments are installing "occupancy sensors" so that lights go on and off automatically when guests enter or leave their rooms. Still others are providing cloth laundry bags made from retired sheets, and installing "low flush" toilets to save water.

Hotel restaurants and banquet facilities are also getting in on the act, serving water "upon request only," shunning disposable paper and plastic in favor of reusable pitchers and pourers for cream and sugar, and using small serving dishes in place of single-serving pouches for butter and jellies. Some are also using coins or chips for car parking and coat checking instead of paper tickets. Outdoors, solar energy is powering signs and, in tropical areas, heating water. And mowed landscaping is being replaced by plantings and other kinds of ground cover to reduce lawnmower use and its inherent air and noise pollution.

Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of environmentally friendly products and practices throughout the business world began working with the lodging industry a decade ago. They work to educate the 54,000 U.S. hotels and motels about the economic benefits of environmental choices, and publish Greening Your Property, a comprehensive guide to green purchasing and operations for the hospitality industry. The guide helps hoteliers find environmentally friendly options for nearly everything they buy—from industrial cleaners and floor care products, to paints, lighting, and recycled paper towels, tissues and napkins. Additionally, Green Seal"s hotel certification program helps tourists, meeting planners and business travelers identify environmentally responsible lodging options.

The green trend has proliferated primarily at smaller independent hotels, but the large chains are paying attention, too. Indeed, placards asking guests to re-use towels are already ubiquitous tubside at hotels operated by the likes of Best Western, Marriott, Ramada, Sheraton and Westin, to name a few. And many of these chains have enacted far-reaching practices and policies involving environmental sustainability.

CONTACTS: Green Hotels Association, www.greenhotels.com ; Green Seal, www.greenseal.org .

Dear EarthTalk: How does air pollution from forest fires and volcano eruptions compare to that created by industrial smokestacks and car tailpipes?

—James Stovall, via e-mail

When forest fires occur, they can release significant amounts of gases and soot particles (known as "particulate matter") into the atmosphere, where wind currents can then carry them great distances across major water bodies and national boundaries. When this pollution touches down in any given populated area, it can cause severe respiratory ailments and aggravate chronic heart and lung conditions. During especially hot and dry summers, forest and wildfires can take a large toll on regional air quality.

Volcanoes can also contribute significantly to atmospheric pollution. Since it started erupting again last September, for example, Mount St. Helens has become the largest source of noxious sulfur dioxide in the state of Washington, beating out the Pacific Northwest"s largest power plants for the distinction. Luckily, though, this active volcano is in a sparsely populated area because people have long known well enough not to take up residency in too close a proximity. As such, its emissions have little effect on human health in the region.

While pollution from forest fires and the occasional volcanic eruption is problematic on a sporadic basis, its impact pales in comparison to that of industrial and automobile emissions, which contribute to millions of respiratory disorders around the world every day of the year, not to mention global warming and its many looming domino effects.

According to research conducted by the American Lung Association, industrial and automotive sources of pollution in the U.S. account for annual emissions of 25 million tons of nitrogen oxide, 20 million tons of volatile organic compounds, 100 million tons of carbon monoxide, 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, four million tons of airborne heavy metals, and five million tons of particulate matter. Forest fires, by comparison, emit about 25 million tons of particulate matter in total during the hottest and driest of years.

While there is little if anything that can be done about volcanic eruptions except to be adequately prepared for them when they occur, forest wildfires of the news-making variety are largely preventable through sound forest management practices, primarily involving the use of smaller, "controlled burns" that eliminate the "tinder box effect" that results from allowing unchecked buildup of wood debris on the forest floor.

Similarly, human-caused industrial and automotive pollution issues can be addressed through the good faith implementation and enforcement of myriad laws, regulations, programs and strategies, as well as the development and application of emerging alternative technologies that, particularly in the automobile industry, are becoming more and more of a reality every day.

CONTACTS: American Lung Association, www.lungusa.org ; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health, www.epa.gov/airnow/smoke2/smokecover.html .