Hotel stays can seem daunting when it comes to waste. There are so many items in the rooms that are disposable–from water bottles to soaps to q-tips to shower caps. Hotels set you up to fail! But when armed with the right supplies and a few little tricks, you can check-in and check-out without having a lasting, negative impact on the planet.
Above: Scrub-a-dub-dub! Keepin’ my showers simple with a safety razor, bar soap, and a shampoo bar.
1. Do A Little Research
I rarely get to choose the hotels I stay at for my work trips. When traveling for leisure, I try to find hotels that are in my budget and committed to environmental protection + sustainability. But whether you get to choose where you stay or not, there are a few extra things you can research before you leave to help with your zero waste stay:
- Does the hotel recycle and/or compost? If I stay at a hotel that doesn’t offer one or both of these services, I take all of my recycling and food waste with me when I check out vs. throwing it away. Leave no trace! I will track down recycling and composting bins on my trip home or dispose of everything when I get back to D.C.
- What amenities does the hotel offer? I like to pack light, so I always use the hotel hairdryer and leave mine at home. But I also look for perks like continental breakfast, mini fridge, microwave, complimentary shoe shining, and of course, free Wi-Fi.
2. Bring Your Own
I carry a zero waste ‘kit’ with me everywhere I go. Depending on what I am doing each day, I add or remove items to fit my needs. When traveling, I pack the full kit. Preparation is power! I also bring my own toiletries so that I never have to rely on hotel products
- Water Bottle: Bottled water is readily available in hotel rooms. Just say no! You may get lucky and find water glasses in your room but they usually have paper or plastic wrapped around them for ‘sanitation’ purposes. (Suurreee.) Avoid the waste and bring your own water bottle. You can fill it up at restaurants, water fountains, or bottle refill stations for free. If you are concerned about water quality, add a charcoal stick to your water bottle to serve as a natural water filter. If you are a coffee or tea drinker, bring your own travel coffee cup to avoid to-go cups at coffee shops and restaurants. If you would prefer not to carry two bottles on every trip, there are several companies that make hot + cold bottles that can handle all of your beverage needs! (Klean Kanteen; Hydroflask)
Above: Sanitation, 2017
- Utensils + Napkin: I really enjoy eating out. ALL THE FOOD. I keep a bamboo utensil set and a cloth napkin (second hand) in my purse so that I can avoid disposable cutlery and paper napkins. I chose bamboo utensils because you can take them through airport security without setting off the x-ray machine. If you like using straws, consider investing in a metal, glass, or bamboo version and adding it to your kit. TIP: When I find a restaurant that I want to try, I get on Yelp or TripAdvisor and look at customer photos. You can quickly determine if a restaurant offers plastic or metal utensils, paper or cloth napkins, and straws in drinks. I like to know what I am up against.
- Food Container: I pack snacks in glass jars or metals tins. This helps me avoid buying junk food along the way (one of my weaknesses) or eating the individually wrapped snacks on the plane. Once I get to my destination, I use the empty containers to package up leftovers or to collect food waste. I have forgotten a food container on a couple recent trips. In Dallas, I had leftovers at a Mexican restaurant that wouldn’t be edible the next day. Normally I would have taken the scraps and found a way to compost them. The restaurant only had Styrofoam boxes so I let the server throw my food away. Even after doing this for over a year, I forget. Mistakes will happen!
- Cloth Drawstring Bag: I carry 1-2 Ecobags cloth produce bags in my purse. These are great little bags for buying loose bakery items (cookies, breads), whole fruit, package-free trail mix, nuts…the possibilities are endless! It is also the perfect bag for collecting recyclable waste when staying at a hotel that doesn’t recycle.
- Handkerchief: Every hotel has tissues or toilet paper in the case of a runny nose, but I travel with a couple cloth handkerchiefs instead. Clean hankies also serve as a great back-up napkin. If my handkerchief is dirty at the end of the day, I throw it in my wet bag and wash it when I get home. I purchased a set of 4 handmade, cotton handkerchiefs on Etsy for $6.
- Toiletries: Let’s be honest, it is often easier and more convenient to leave your toiletries at home and use the hotel’s free products. But did you know that 2.6 MILLION hotel bars of soap are thrown away every single day? The waste is staggering. Just imagine how much good could be done with that amount of soap! Plan ahead and stop the waste before it starts by bringing your own toiletries. Opting for bar soaps over liquid soaps can make the packing process easier, and you won’t have to worry about liquid limits when flying.
MY WASH KIT INCLUDES:
– Bar Soap (hands, body wash, shaving)
– Shampoo Bar
– Apple Cider Vinegar Conditioner
– Dry Shampoo + Application Brush
– Facial Cleanser and Moisturizer (2-in-1)
– Tea Tree Oil (acne treatment)
– Tooth Brush, Toothpaste, Floss
– Safety Razor + 1 Blade
– Cloth Make-up Remover
– Hairbrush + Comb
Above: Hotels are filled with ‘pretty’ toiletries that are individually packed and designed to be thrown away after a few uses. None of these are essential, so come prepared and practice saying ‘No’ to disposable (and often toxic!) toiletries.
3. Speak Up at the Front Desk
Check-in and Check-out are two times where you have to be very vocal about wanting to avoid waste or else you can end up with an abundance of things: extra keys and paper key holders, pamphlets, coupons, a printed invoice, a receipt… dare I go on??
- Check-In: I ask the front desk not to give me a paper key holder and I only take as many keys as I absolutely need (for fear of losing them!) I request that all bills and receipts be sent to me electronically. I ask them not to offer me ‘quick’ checkout, which usually involves a staff member sliding a stack of papers under the door for you to fill out so that you don’t have to stop by the main desk on the way out. All other pamphlets and promotions that I am offered, I politely refuse. If the hotel offers a daily newspaper or turn-down service, I ask the staff to make a note on my reservation that I do not want these amenities.
- Check-Out: I stop by the front desk on my way out to check out, return my room keys, and double check that the hotel e-mails me a copy of my final bill and a receipt. Unless you need a hard copy for your records, be sure to remind the staff that you don’t want printed copies.
4. Decline Housekeeping
- Privacy 24/7: Many hotels have a card that you can leave on the pillow so that your linens + towels aren’t changed that day. I am very skeptical of these cards..whenever I have come back to my room right after housekeeping finished cleaning, the towels were magically dry and all the wrinkles had disappeared from my slept-in sheets! Instead, I put my ‘privacy’ sign on the door and leave it up for my entire stay. This is the only way I can be sure that my sheets and towels aren’t changed. Don’t forget to tip housekeeping when you check out!
5. Take Advantage of These Hotel Perks
- Complimentary Breakfast: Aside from getting (the obvious) free breakfast, you can pack up fresh fruit and other package-free foods in your jar, tin, or cloth bag for snacks. And don’t forget to fill up on free (usually mediocre) coffee and water!
- Shoe Shining: Not available at all hotels, but this is my favorite free perk. A pillar of the zero waste movement is caring for your belongings so that they last a lifetime, and a shoe shine is a great way to extend the life of your favorite pair. In order to avoid the disposable plastic bag that hotels provide for shoes, I use a drawstring laundry bag with my name written on it. You can use a china marker or crayon to write your room number directly on the bag.
- Mini Fridge: The mini fridge is a great way to reduce food waste if I end up with leftovers or purchase fresh food while traveling. I also keep food scraps for composting in the fridge until right before I leave to avoid any smell.
Above: My dirty laundry bag doubles as a shoe shine bag.
6. At the Risk of Sounding Like a Dad…
- AC + Heat: I adjust the thermostat before I leave the room to save energy. When the weather is mild in the spring and fall, I turn the thermostat off. In the summer, I will set the temperature high and in the winter, I will set the temperature low. This ensures that the air doesn’t run all day long but the room will still get air circulation.
- Unplug: I unplug my chargers and hair tools when I am not using them to avoid leaked electricity, and I turn off all the lights and the TV when I am not around.
- H20: It is a struggle not to take 30-minute showers at hotels, where hot water is plentiful and never seems to run out. I aim to keep showers to 5 or so minutes, to turn off the water while washing my face or brushing my teeth, and to limit the number of times I flush the toilet during my stay. Once in a while, I’ll take advantage of an amazing hotel bathtub to unwind at the end of a long day. It’s all about balance!
Do you have tips or tricks of your own
to fight waste during a hotel stay?
Check Out My Waste
This is all the recycling and landfill trash that I accumulated at the hotel during my last 3-day work trip. The picture proves that even when you say the right things at the right times, waste will happen. Case in point: I checked into the hotel and made it up to my room without any waste. Then, a glitch happened at the front desk with my reservation and the hotel had to make me all new keys. They delivered the keys in a paper key holder and sealed them inside of ANOTHER envelope. They also slid a paper copy of my bill under the door on the day of check-out. C’est la vie! All you can do is try to avoid trash at every chance you get and not give up, even when things don’t go as planned. I will recycle all the clean, dry paper and the bottle cap, compost the napkin and sugar packets, and the straw will go into my trash jar. The hotel kitchen had composting so I didn’t collect organic waste.
Left corner, top to bottom: welcome notes from the hotel; a cocktail napkin from a reception where I couldn’t find a plate (ha ha!); a straw, even when I told the waiter, ‘No water, please’; business cards from the hotel staff; a key card holder; a restaurant gift certificate in a black envelope; a paper copy of my bill; blue envelope; two sugar packets; coke bottle cap. ***Not shown: glass coke bottle (recycled)