Something as small as a plastic straw can add up to a big problem for the environment, so some sustainability-minded hoteliers have eliminated them in favor of biodegradable alternatives and taken other small steps to reduce their environmental footprints.
GLOBAL REPORT—At some sustainability-focused hotels, sweating the small stuff makes a big difference.
Hans Pfister, president and co-founder of the Cayuga Collection, has seen firsthand how something as small as a plastic straw can add up to a big problem. Some months back, he organized a company retreat to “a beautiful island in the Gulf of Nicoya (of the Pacific shore of Costa Rica) called San Lucas, where we picked up 30 bags of plastic that had washed up on the beach.”
The project reinforced the need for an initiative that Pfister launched about seven years ago to eliminate all single-use plastic straws at all of the Cayuga Collection’s eight luxury sustainable hotels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
“We were just sick and tired of the plastic straws and finding them on the beach, so we said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” Pfister said.
Other hotels and hotel brands have taken the same steps to reduce plastic waste on property.
The Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in Lahaina, Hawaii, announced in August 2017 that it was eliminating all single-use plastic straws, and claims to be the first hotel in Hawaii to do so.
Bangkok-based Minor Hotels announced in December its plan starting 1 January to eliminate plastic straws at all of its hotels in Asia, which includes 32 properties under its Anantara Hotels & Resorts brand, 11 under its AVANI brand, two Four Seasons and one JW Marriott. The company stated in a news release that it is the “first major hotel brand” to take that step.
“With the rest of the world promising to follow suit soon, we thought we would try it at home first,” said John Edward Roberts, Anantara’s group director of conservation and sustainability, by email. “Also, of course, we recognize that much of the ocean plastic comes from Asian rivers, so this is arguably where we can do the most good.”
Alternatives to plastic
In each case, a biodegradable substitute was found for the plastic straws.
The Cayuga Collection uses “bamboo,” which is really a plant that’s like a grass, grown and produced by a former gardener at one of its hotels, said Pfister.
“We started to think about and research what we could do,” he said. “We were looking into biodegradable straws from the U.S., and that didn’t feel right either. One of our gardeners at the Harmony Hotel in Nosara (Costa Rica) said I have a plant that might work. … He went to his farm, cut some of this plant, prepared and brought us a few of these straws. They looked great, felt great.
“… It’s not by coincidence that they’re called straws; they used to be made out of straw. So by kind of going backwards, we found something that works. … Needless to say (the gardener) doesn’t work for us anymore. He and his family have their own company now, producing these straws for all of the Cayuga Collection hotels, and many other hotels in the country.”
The company pays 10 cents per straw, which it tacks onto the cost of each drink.
“But it was the right thing to do,” Pfister said. “And you won’t believe the amount of conversation we get going with guests when they get served their drinks at the bar. They really start to understand what sustainability is all about.”
The straws used at Minor Hotels is also a sort of bamboo, discovered and grown by villagers in a mountainous region of northern Thailand, according to a news release.
The idea there came from the Culinary Excellence division, Roberts said, “which is only fair as they’re the ones who have to make it work. But it does illustrate that we’re not just one sustainability guy operating alone; it is truly part of the culture.”
The Sheraton Maui uses a biodegradable paper straw in “keiki (kids) beverages and blended tropical drinks, with other beverages being served without straws,” GM Tetsuji Yamazaki said by email.
The idea came from the hotel’s executive chef, but Yamazaki said it “required an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ attitude.”
“Sustainable practices require the collective efforts of everyone in order to be successful,” he said.
“It’s still only been a few months, and we will need more time to review cost-effectiveness. We have, however, seen a substantial decrease in the number of straws consumed each month by offering marine-friendly paper straws by request only, rather than a straw with every drink served.”
He added that the hotel also sees a benefit from using initiatives like this to educate its guests about its focus on sustainability.
“One of the overarching goals of our resort’s sustainability initiatives … is to increase the awareness of our historic location at Pu’u Keka’a and to educate visitors and guests at our resort about Hawaii’s diverse ecosystems. Our resort is situated at one of the top snorkel spots on Maui. Through socially responsible practices like eliminating single-use plastic straws in favor of marine-friendly paper straws, we are able to create a dialogue with guests about the importance of protecting the ocean and endangered animals like the honu (green sea turtle),” Yamazaki said.
“We measure the success of our programs not only by the tangible profit amount, but also by the ability to educate and provide the resources to guests to help preserve the beautiful natural environment in Maui.”
Not just straws
Guests at the Sheraton Maui who dine at its poolside restaurants and bars also will notice that the utensils are out of the ordinary. They’re all “bio-based, made primarily with potato and vegetable starch and highly sustainable,” Yamazaki said.
At Cayuga Collection hotels, where sustainability “is very much in the company DNA,” Pfister said there also are no lids on property. If a guest asks to take out food, there are biodegradable containers.
And another big one for Pfister is: No plastic water bottles.
“The easy thing is not to serve them in the restaurant, but we ran into challenges on what to offer in the minibar, not using plastic bottles … and what to offer on excursions, hikes and when we pick up guests at the airport,” he said.
“We ask people to bring their own water bottles from the moment they make a reservation. If they forget or don’t have one, we either lend or sell at cost. We use glass alternatives whenever we can.”
Anantara hotels also have eliminated plastic water bottles from guestrooms in favor of reusable containers, Roberts said.
“Had we not made that decision for the group, we would potentially be using 80,000 plastic bottles per night across the world nowadays,” he said.
The cost of replacing the plastic water bottles was minimal – “it was just a question of changing supplier,” Roberts said.
But “to go that extra step to remove single-use plastic bottles from the entire operation—excursions, outside picnics, transfer vehicles, etc.—as we have at the Anantara Golden Triangle (hotel in Chiang Rai, Thailand), the cost goes up strongly because we present each guest with a souvenir refillable bottle,” he said.
“The cost is partially offset, of course, by not having to supply plastic bottles, but a guest would have to drink the equivalent of 40 bottles during their stay to break even, which doesn’t often happen.”
Focus on people
Pfister said all of his company’s sustainability efforts come down to one thing: people.
“When I hear about what’s going on in sustainability in the world, lots of things are related to energy, recycling these kinds of things. That’s important. But to me, it’s all about people. That’s been the most important thing,” he said.
Yamazaki also is inspired by the feeling of community he sees when associates at the Sheraton Maui and guests get together on conservation efforts, such as beach cleanups.
“We make every effort to include our guests and to give them an opportunity to give back to the local community during their travels,” he said.
“By providing an array of opportunities for guests to get involved, we believe that they have a unique chance to become connected to this special place. We hope that guests leave our resort feeling empowered by their travels and excited to return to our resort in the future,” he said.
Roberts said at Anantara the response from both staff and the community has been remarkable.
“The best, of course, is when we not only get buy-in at work, but that our folks take initiatives home or, as is the case with the bamboo straws in Chiang Rai, other local businesses see what we have done and have joined the club, starting to order their own straws, which has turned a ‘crazy idea’ we took to a local village into a thriving community run business,” he said.
He said he also believes that the brand’s sustainability efforts will build guest loyalty, and “in the future people will begin to preferentially choose truly sustainable hotel chains.”