Mother Earth Living

How Green Was My Vacation?

Opportunities to travel lightly on the planet do exist.
By Michelle Kozin
January/February 2005
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Sheraton Rittenhouse bedrooms include organic, natural, and chemical-free mattresses and bedding.
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Tourism is the world’s largest and fastest growing industry. It provides 10 percent of the world’s income and employs almost one-tenth of the world’s workforce. By 2010, those numbers will double.

Many negative environmental and social impacts result from today’s travel practices, according to the International Ecotourism Society. For example, in popular resort areas such as Cancun and Hawaii, overbuilt beachfront hotels have contributed to beach erosion, flooding, and the disappearance of natural wetlands and generate mountains of garbage without adequate means of disposal. In Nepal, the rapid growth of the trekking industry has increased pollution in Kathmandu and caused dangerous crowding and destruction of trails. In Yellowstone National Park, trash left by tourists forces relocation of bears and their untimely deaths.

According to Green Seal, a nonprofit environmental organization, the average hotel purchases more products in one week than 100 families do in a year. Resorts and hotels often over-consume natural resources such as water and power, forcing up utility prices and causing blackouts and water shortages for locals. Because of this, the greening of mainstream travel offers an enormous opportunity to conserve resources.

Heartbreak Hotels

The hospitality industry has yet to come up with a gold standard for green lodging; there aren’t any independent certifications that are as recognizable as the standards for organic food. However, many lodging facilities around the world are committed to saving water and energy, reducing solid waste, and purchasing products such as nontoxic cleaning supplies and post-consumer recycled paper. A pioneer in the field, Saunders Hotel Group, created SHINE (Saunders Hotels Initiatives to Nurture the Environment) at its environmental award-winning Boston properties: The Lenox and Copley Square Hotels, and the Comfort Inn and Suites near Logan Airport. With ninety initiatives including state-of-the-art ozone laundries and energy-management systems, the SHINE program annually saves 1.7 million gallons of drinking water, eliminates 37 tons of trash, conserves 110,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, and saves 175 trees through paper recycling. Another notable eco-hotel is the 193-room Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Green features include recycled granite flooring; furniture made from recycled wood pallets; improved indoor air quality; and organic, natural, and chemical-free mattresses and bedding.

In many cases you’ll have to do some sleuthing to find out how eco-friendly an establishment really is. When you call to make reservations, ask the booking agent or hotel manager:

• Does the hotel offer the option to reuse sheets and towels instead of changing them daily?

• Does the property have an efficient, energy management system in the guestrooms?

• Is there recycling in guest and function rooms, as well as behind the scenes?

• Does the hotel use energy-efficient lighting?

The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) has created a Best Practice Survey as part of its Green Hotels Initiative. Criteria include efforts toward environmentally preferable practices and staff education. Learn more about the initiative and check out the survey at CERES.org/our_work/ghi.htm.

When you travel, take along the Green Hotels Initiative’s Guest Request Card. Printed cards can be ordered from CERES’s website and a printable version can also be downloaded at CERES.org/our_work/ghi/guest_request_sample.pdf. Let hotel management know your preferences for waste-minimizing and energy-reducing measures and give them feedback on how well they met your expectations. “Customer comments, either written or verbal, are important to any lodging establishment,” reports Tedd Saunders, executive vice president of environmental affairs for the Saunders Hotel Group.

Cruise Ship Blues

Cruise ships—the fastest growing segment of leisure travel—leave behind plenty of nasty debris in their wake. In his book Cruise Ship Blues (Consortium, 2002), Ross Klein exposes the darker side of cruising. A typical cruise ship carries 2,000 to 5,000 people and is essentially a mini-city. On land, an operation of that size would have to answer to the Environmental Protection Agency on standards such as sewage treatment, but cruise ships are exempt, most sailing under the foreign flags. An average vessel generates 30,000 gallons a day of raw sewage, which can be dumped straight into the ocean as long as it’s more than three miles off a U.S. shore. Royal Caribbean International estimates that on a seven-day cruise, a ship produces 141 gallons of photo chemicals, 7 gallons of dry-cleaning waste, 13 gallons of used paints, and 3 pounds of medical waste. That doesn’t include 255,000 gallons per day of graywater, carrying chemicals and detergents into the sea.

Over the years, cruise lines have been fined millions of dollars for illegal dumping, yet penalties have not led to any dramatic improvements. Royal Caribbean was fined more than $30 million from 1998 to 2000 for offenses including oil and hazardous waste dumping and falsifying records. In 2002, Carnival Corporation was fined $18 million for ­illegal oil discharges. It is a sad irony that these companies don’t take more of a leadership position in protecting the very waters and ports of call that enable their businesses to flourish.

These floating resorts also have less-than-perfect records on customer friendliness; in fact, cruises can be downright hazardous for passengers and on-board staff. The close quarters can harbor illnesses like the much-reported Norwalk virus, a transmittable gastrointestinal ailment. Cruise ships have also been called “sweatshops at sea,” regularly employing low-paid on-board staff who frequently work eighty hours a week for ten or twelve months straight. Because many ships are registered in countries such as Panama and Liberia, cruise ship workers are functionally exempt from labor standards, environmental regulations, and tax codes.

Disappointed? You still might be able to take that cruise of your eco-dreams if you do your homework and ask questions. Take a look at Ross Klein’s website, CruiseJunkie.com, for updated information on cruise industry developments regarding labor, the environment, ship safety, and security. Search out respected organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and National Geographic, which offer smaller scale but sustainable and nature-oriented cruises. By redirecting your travel dollars toward more mindful operators, you’ll send a message that all cruises should have a conscience.

Adapted with permission from Organic Weddings: Balancing Ecology, Style, and Tradition by Michelle Kozin (New Society, 2003).


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