How the hotel industry is going green

The hospitality industry is entering a more health- and environmentally conscious world as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

By Shannon Bergstrom May 14, 2021

After a quiet year due to COVID-19, the hospitality sector is waiting to kick into high gear again as soon as business and recreational travel resumes. It will be entering into a new world, however, one where consumers are more health and environmentally conscious than ever, and coupled with increasingly stringent environmental regulations, sustainability is set to play a larger role in the industry.

Hotels haven’t necessarily had an outstanding reputation for sustainability in the past, with heavy energy and water consumption — and extensive use of single-use plastics — being the norm. Yet in keeping with the times, the industry has been making great strides toward sustainability for a number of years now, and many hotels are already leading the way when it comes to sustainable operation.

So, what strategies have hotels used to go green, how are existing hotels raising the bar, and what does the future hold for an industry that produces an estimated 60 million tons of CO2 per year in the U.S. alone? The hotel industry is changing policies and some of the most high-profile examples of what a sustainable hotel looks like can offer guidance for the future.

LEED leading the way

Many hospitality groups use the U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification framework to guide their sustainability initiatives. It’s most common to build a LEED-certified hotel from the ground up using the hospitality specialties of both the building design and construction and interior design and construction systems.

When it comes to LEED, Marriott International is ahead of the curve, having certified an extensive number of its hotels thanks, in part, to the LEED Volume Program it helped pilot, which uses pre-certified prototypes to simplify and expedite the process of accrediting groups of buildings. One benefit of adopting LEED from the planning stages is that it ensures a building is green to the very core, like the Silver-certified Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, which was constructed using 95% recycled steel and 26% recycled concrete.

Although less common, it can still be highly effective to transform existing structures from the inside out with the LEED Certification for Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance system. One great example is the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Opened in 2006, in 2013 it became the first five-star hotel in the region to obtain Silver certification after extensive auditing and retrofitting that helped reduce energy and water usage by 9% even before the certification process was complete.

Unlocking sustainability with efficiency

Energy makes up around 6% of operating costs for hotels in the U.S., and is a resource most easily lost due to inefficiencies. Shifting to renewables and increasing energy efficiency is therefore a huge step for hotels in going green. Adopting technology such as smart systems and changing electricity providers are an easy and effective method many hotels use to “green” their energy use, but some go the extra mile by generating energy themselves.

Water is not only another major cost, but also a valuable and limited resource in many regions. MGM Resorts prioritized water conservation when planning the MGM National Harbor in Maryland, which was designed with a roof that collects rainwater that is treated and fed into a 700,000-gallon storage system to be used for landscape irrigation and back-of-house toilets.

Taking control of waste management

Waste is a key issue in the hospitality industry. Food waste and single-use items are a particular challenge for hotels. However, these issues can be solved with strategies that transition away from disposables and improve waste management. For example, the 1 Hotels Group has worked to improve the sustainability of their hotels by streamlining waste management and making a conscious effort to find local partners who can recycle items not accepted by municipal programs, like compostable utensils, air filters and appliances.

With food waste, along with donating excess and traditional composting, technology has risen to the cause. Smart systems like Winnow Vision, adopted by the Intercontinental Hotel Group, use artificial intelligence to analyze discarded food to monitor waste streams to help chefs and managers improve menu planning. To process leftover organic waste, the Grand Hyatt Singapore even built its own on-site waste management plant with a Biomax thermophilic digester that processes approximately 1,000 kilograms of food waste generated per day into organic fertilizer to be used for landscaping.

Is the future of hotels net zero?

With the global push for net zero emissions, one major future trend will be zero energy buildings. One of the best current examples is the Boutiquehotel Stadthalle in Vienna, which uses solar panels, photovoltaic technology and groundwater heat pumps to generate 100% of the energy it needs to operate. These technologies, plus energy-saving equipment and a smart building management system, minimize energy to only 2% of overall operating costs, compared to a 6-7% average in Austria. The hotel also offers incentives for customers to use low-carbon transport for their journey.

Beyond the net zero horizon is carbon positive, or buildings that produce more energy than they consume. Plans for carbon positive hotels are already in the works in Denmark and Norway.

Even in these difficult times, there is still value in sustainability to help bolster the hotel industry’s post-pandemic recovery. Prioritizing sustainability gives businesses a competitive advantage and sets them up for long-term success in a world striving to decarbonize — where sustainability isn’t just desired or expected, but in many cases actually required.


Author Bio: Shannon Bergstrom is a sustainability operations manager at Recycle Track Systems (RTS), and a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices. RTS is a tech-driven waste and recycling management company.