Updated: Mar 5
Staying in a hotel can be so fun! I remember as a kid running in and jumping on the fresh bed and loving the millions of excessive pillows. It felt like I had just bought a new house for the night and could take long, hot showers whenever I wanted. Now that I am a little older and have my plastic goggles on though, hotels also have quite a few nasty hidden secrets you don't expect.
Noah and I recently spent two weeks on the road visiting six states in my little Prius. We camped for six nights, stayed with my grandparents for five nights, and slept in a motel for two nights. I also spent a week in Minnesota for my sister's wedding in a lovely hotel at the beginning of June. During both of these two trips, I payed close attention to the waste at the hotels and took notes of what to do to avoid them. Being zero waste while on vacation can be tricky, but with a little planning you can dramatically reduce your impact.
Pick Your Zero Waste Hotel
Before you begin your adventure, it's a good idea to research the hotels you're staying at and their environmental policies. This will give you a better idea of what to plan for and how to pack to avoid waste. The website Green Hotels Association offers a way to locate "green" hotels near your destination. These hotels are not regulated in any way when they become a member but rather "indicate" their interest in implementing green policies and get support from the association to do so. There are also a variety of international certification programs such as the Green Globe and Green Seal that you can look for.
The main item that most hotels will carry are the plastic wrapped soap bars and mini shampoo containers. These are only good for about three to four uses and simply a waste of plastic. The simple solution is to bring your own bathroom products and not touch any of the items. If they look completely untouched and unopened, you have a good chance of them being saved for the next visitor. I recommend however that you ask the front desk whether the items are thrown out after each visitor, no matter what. If their policy doesn't allow the cleaning crew to leave the bathroom products, take them home with you and donate them to a homeless shelter!
As alternatives to the plastic products, there are several items you should plan to bring. The main three are hand soap, shampoo, and conditioner. To avoid having to work around airport regulations regarding carry-on, each of these can be bought in bar forms. You can also bring refillable bottles from your home stash to use during your stay.
Eating and Drinking
I always look for a hotel that offers free breakfast in the morning, because who doesn't like free food? However, many places will only offer items that are packaged. If you truly want to avoid waste and still eat the free breakfast, consider bringing a few items to supplement your options. For example, a small container of sugar can be brought to avoid the plastic packets. A reusable bowl and silverware will help you avoid the styrofoam cereal bowls and disposable spoons. An insulated thermos is helpful to fill with your coffee and a water bottle can be re-purposed to house a morning cup of juice.
It is also a good idea to have a container with you that you can store compost in until you return home or have access to a nice spot of dirt to bury it in. Banana and orange peels (although great breakfast items) will still end up in the landfill and not decompose.
A little less common form of waste are those TV remote wrappings. Many hotels still have the practice of wrapping the TV remotes and other items in the room in plastic. To avoid opening the remote, there are a few simple options. You can manually control the TV on the screen, push the button through the plastic wrapping, or not watch TV at all!
Although not directly a waste thrown in the trash, using electricity frivolously is still wasteful. It is important to remember that although you are not responsible for your electricity bill, turning out the lights when you leave the room still helps the planet. Setting the air conditioning (or heater) for a reasonable temperature and lowering it when you're out for the day reduces the electrical output.
The cleaning crews at hotel are getting much better at only washing laundry that is truly dirty. Most places have a policy that anything hung up will not be washed and only those on the floor will. It is a good idea however to put the "Do Not Disturb" sign out on your door until you truly want your room to be cleaned and towels/sheets to be washed. Washing sheets and towels daily is an unnecessary waste of water and chemical detergents.
In that same breath, I'll just briefly mention water for the showers. Obviously enjoy your vacation. But remember that those twenty minute showers do waste a lot of drinkable water.
Leave feedback for the hotels - either positive or negative!
After your trip, make sure to let the hotel staff know what practices you were happy with and would make you come again. On the flip side of the coin, if you found the hotel had policies that were wasteful, be sure to tell management that you were disappointed and will choose a different hotel in the future. Customer feedback (and losing customers) can drive even large chains to update their policies to be more on tract with environmental standards! We want more options for zero waste hotels!