“Sprayed down.” “Hospital-grade disinfectants.” “Stringent cleaning protocols.”
As hotels started to come out with their COVID-19-related safety measures (and these pristine cleanliness phrases) this spring, the word “carcinogenic” passed through my mind. Weren’t the hotels I was staying in clean before? I pictured drones spraying chemicals in rooms and onto guest beds. I have an active imagination, though cleaning drones aren’t so farfetched. I actually smelled the “clean” in a few lobbies I entered, which made me sneeze—not a good look during a pandemic. The notion that hospital-grade products were being used across common spaces wasn’t quite as reassuring as it was likely meant to be.
The hotel industry has gone to great lengths to make us feel at home away from home—before the pandemic, and doubly so now as travel dwindles. It’s a lesser-of-two-evils scenario regarding public health, says one expert. “A potential exposure to the coronavirus is more likely to cause you an immediate problem than a very modest exposure to a carcinogen,” says Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, who specializes in operations, technology, and design.
But it’s not just cleaning products that are less environmentally sound. At many hotels I’ve stayed at, salt and pepper shakers are gone, replaced by tiny single-use plastic ones. Condiments, oils, and vinegars are no longer served in bottles on the table, but distributed—fast-food style—in little packets. In the salon at one hotel I visited, everything is now plastic, including the stylists’ aprons and customer capes. Has the industry (quietly) abandoned all the (very public) statements about eliminating single-use plastics? And if so, for how long?
An unfortunate truth: Pandemic or not, sometimes sustainability costs more. “Thinking short-term will not help the hospitality industry in the end,” says Costas Christ, founder of Beyond Green Travel. “It’s cheaper to buy single use plastics and throw them away than it is to spend a bit more for compostable and biodegradable coffee cups and utensils. It’s cheaper to run a septic pipe off your beach resort than to invest in a proper waste filtration system to protect the ocean from pollution. We need to move to a profit and loss business model that includes the costs for protecting the environment.”
Environmental preservation costs more, but it’s more important than ever to continue on the gains the hotel industry has made in recent years, like investing in renewable energy sources, eliminating plastic water bottles, and projects like Fairmont’s Bee Sustainable Program with rooftop beehives.
“A hotel could choose among a slew of disposable items made of more ecofriendly cornstarch versus plastic,” says Christ. “What’s the difference? A single-use plastic cup might cost a few pennies and the compostable cup may cost 15 cents. But thinking short-term by putting profits before environmental damage will only hurt the travel industry as more people begin to understand the direct connection between our personal health and well-being and planetary health and well-being. We cannot have one without the other.”
For cleaning products, Red Carnation Hotels, a collection that includes Ashford Castle in Ireland and the Milestone Hotel & Residences in London, has been a leader in the space by implementing nontoxic Premium Purity, a Danish brand of cleaning product, also recommended by Christ. “With this, we are able to offer guests and teams superior levels of hygiene in our hotels, while supporting our core sustainability goals,” says Jonathan Raggett, managing director of Red Carnation Hotels.
The product offers long-term protection, compared to conventional disinfectants such as alcohol and chlorine that vaporize quickly. Premium Purity makes surfaces self-disinfecting, says Raggett. It’s also sustainable, unlike toxic chemicals in most cleaning products.
Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, was the first hotel in the U.S. to implement Premium Purity, also making an investment in a cleaner, more sustainable future. (Premium Purity claims that clients save on water consumption and electrical costs, even if the upfront cost is more.) Alternative options are available. For instance, Ani Private Resorts, with properties in the Caribbean and Asia, uses a nontoxic water- and salt-based solution to disinfect surfaces, and even fruits and vegetables.
Reusable, washable masks at hotels are also a key part of COVID sustainability. We’ve all seen streets littered with disposable masks (a growing problem around the world). Many hotels have embraced reusable—and branded, like Kempinski Hotels’—masks, but some take it a step further by adding a community partnership element. The Bushcamp Company in Zambia partnered with local tailors to create washable masks made from colorful chitenge fabric for their staff.
“Everybody will throw the ecofriendly out the window in a rush during COVID,” says Christ. “But there are effective, medically reviewed, nontoxic, and environmentally friendly products [like Premium Purity].” Costs for implementation vary on size of property, number of rooms, and more.
It comes down to making the choice to implement them, perhaps by having to opt for a bigger financial investment in an already difficult year of zero to low profit.