Is your hotel doing right by the environment?

An industry insider and sustainability expert gave us the lowdown on how the hospitality sector can minimise its carbon footprint

Throughout our sustainability series, we reiterated the crucial role the real estate industry has when it comes to fighting climate change. We discovered that throughout the design and planning, construction and user-stages, the materials and systems used inside buildings contribute to all types of pollution. And since hotels operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, these constantly utilise energy and resources that generate huge amounts of environmentally harmful waste, such as greenhouse gases, non-recyclable items and other landfill materials.

To give us some insight on the unsustainable practices still implemented by the hospitality sector today, Pia Ricca, who currently works as a marine biologist for an environmental organisation, shared her experience back when she served as a sustainability analyst and coordinator at Sukosol Hotels in Thailand.

“From my experience working in Southeast Asia, there are still many, many unsustainable practices being used in hospitality, with one of the biggest being the huge consumption of energy, particularly from air conditioning as these systems are generally running all day,” recalled Pia.

How can hotel systems consume so much energy?

Most Thai hotels were constructed a long time ago so these still typically use outdated insulation and air conditioning (AC) systems that consume more electricity than modern buildings. As the generators and AC units do their work to cool down buildings, they release heat back into the atmosphere.

“Scale this up to all of the hotels in Bangkok alone, and you have a huge problem of energy consumption,” she stressed.

To reduce the use of electricity, Pia recommends the hotel management “to renovate insulation, add ultraviolet films to windows, renovate cooling system and close off areas that don’t need to be cooled.”

But that is just one of the many ways the hospitality sector can minimise their carbon footprint.

Sustainable lifestyle concept. RimmaBondarenko/Shutterstock

How can excess food contribute to climate change?

When we think of pollution, we rarely associate it with food waste. Yet, poor food waste management is among the most problematic issues that hotels have been facing, and most of the time, they don’t even realise it.

Food is a major part of a hotel’s operations, from the round-the-clock in-room dining service to the on-site restaurant to the all-day buffet offerings. More often than not, Pia said that the large volumes of meat, seafood and other products generally come from unsustainable and traceable sources.

“The seafood industry in Thailand is already under a lot of pressure, with fish stocks and shrimp farms being extremely unsustainable, but the demands are increasing, thus putting pressure on local fishers and fish farmers. Similarly, the sources of meat, grains and vegetables are coming from high-volume farms, which in itself can have large climatic impacts,” she added.

More: Exploring efficient design: the beauty of reusing rather than discarding

This also means that at the end of every buffet service, the staff always ends up discarding huge quantities of food that would still have been good for consumption.

Even though the carbon footprint from food consumption isn’t massive, Pia explained that the requirements needed to grow and produce the food will just go to waste. To prevent this, the management can improve their menus and adjust the quantity based on the demand.

They also can share excess food to the needy who have barely enough resources to feed their family – and we certainly have plenty of these struggling families across the region. “There are also NGOs in Bangkok that work to take the food waste of hotels away and redistribute to communities in need, and partnering with those can help relocate waste and turn it into a useful resource,” advised Pia.

What else can the sector do for the environment?

If you want to embrace sustainability but are overwhelmed with all the options available, start small. As Pia highlighted in our interview, “simple tweaks in practices can help a lot in the long run.” Begin by replacing single-use mini soaps with refillable soap dispensers, which can help a lot in limiting the huge amounts of unused soaps and plastic packaging, and can also enable more sanitary disposal of products.

She also suggests “using chemicals that are less harmful to the environment, such as ecologically sound cleaning products, and reducing the use of bleach for linens and towels to reduce the greywater out of hotels. This is particularly important for beachfront properties in isolated locations, where there may not be adequate water treatment facilities.”

To date, we already have a number of hotels that practice sustainability across the region. For instance, Holiday Inn Express Melbourne Southbank, which was dubbed as Australia’s most green-friendly hotel, have refillable dispensers for bathroom amenities, green-friendly utensils and water bottles, energy-regenerating elevator drives, solar photovoltaic systems and more. With all these systems in place, the establishment expects to consume 25 percent less energy compared to similar properties.

More: Australia’s most green-friendly hotel calls Melbourne its home

Mariott and Hilton Hotels have also partnered with the Clean the World nonprofit to donate all their partially used soaps and discarded hygiene products to the cause. Traditionally, these would all end up in landfills, but what the nonprofit does is they recycle the soaps using a safe, disinfecting process before they donate to less developed countries mostly affected by hygiene-related illnesses and deaths.

What benefits can they reap from adopting sustainable solutions?

Most hotel owners nowadays are familiar with the sustainable solutions that can be implemented, yet the financial matter has always prevented them from even considering it.

Nevertheless, Pia countered that “investing in sustainability may seem costly at the beginning, but there is no cost to saving our planet and preserving our environment. To me, it is a no-brainer and anyone who does not follow suit is going to fall behind.”

We now share a world with a more woke young generation that is vocal and passionate about the environment. She said that they “hold so much of the spending capital, and they will consciously spend on businesses that are taking good steps to be sustainable and which are more transparent.” Once these hotels have captured this target audience, they can separate themselves from the masses and set an example for others to follow suit.

On the other hand, plenty of private institutions now advocate for the environment, offering awards for eco-conscious hotels – and that is where the PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards’ new Special Recognition in ESG accolade comes in. For our 15th year in the business, we wanted to honour hotel developers who are relentless in their pursuit to be socially and environmentally responsible.

More: PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards introduces new ESG accolade 

As a matter of fact, Pia added that “when hotels get recognised for their sustainable practices through awards, the public will notice these things and it is highly likely that they will choose a more environmentally conscious hotel when booking.”

However, implementing sustainable solutions do not only benefit the brand, but these are also financially beneficial in the long run, especially when you compare your water and electric bills.

“With more efficient electronics and insulated buildings, the cost of cooling them will be greatly reduced and the return on investment will be quite rapid,” she added.

As for switching to organic food and sustainably-sourced ingredients that could be seen as a bit more expensive, these hotels can connect with local farmers and producers, which will most likely provide higher quality product at cost-effective rates.

“Plus, investing in your own country’s resources will help boost the overall economy of the country, which can lead to a boost in tourism. Everything is circular and it is so important to uplift the people around you because everything that you do will have an impact in one way or another,” concluded Pia.

Before the COVID-19 era, the tourism industry across the globe has been highly successful compared to any other decade known to man. Travelling has become more accessible and budget-friendly, and even though it will take some time to go back to the way things were before we all donned masks and carried hand sanitisers everywhere, the urge to explore other places will always be engraved in our hearts.

But before the tourism industry does return to its glory days, we are encouraging the hospitality sector to use this time to think about their impact on the environment. Consider the resources that you are using, be it water, energy, plastic or food. Just keep these sustainable solutions in mind and your carbon footprint will go down in no time.

This is the fifth of a five-part series on how the Asian real estate is going green. Read firstsecondthird, fourth parts here. The sixth part will be published in a month