Lodging providers are finding new ways to reduce energy consumption and waste, from linen reuse to composting food scraps and even recycling soap.

You've no doubt seen the placard on the hotel room nightstand, asking guests to consider opting out of daily sheet and towel changes. Fifteen or so years ago, such requests were rare; now they're widely accepted among hoteliers and guests. A 2008 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) found 88 percent of responding hotels had linen-reuse programs, and 83 percent offered the same for towels.

These programs just make sense, points out Janet Rhodes, general manager of the Columbus Airport Marriott: "At home, you don't wash your towels every day. You don't wash your linens every day."

The AHLA estimates that hotels with reuse programs do 17 percent less laundry, saving electricity, water, detergent and labor, and realizing environmental and financial benefits in the process.

These programs are the most widely adopted--and most visible--means for hotels and motels to go green, but they're certainly not the only way. Increasingly, places of lodging have done everything from installing low-flow showerheads and energy-saving light bulbs to implementing recycling programs and finding new uses for discarded furniture, food waste and even soap. Hotels are also offering meeting planners packages that include items such as organic flowers for event décor and even carbon offsets for their stay.

Often--but not always--going green has a direct financial benefit. "It's partially due to consumer demand, but it's more due to the fact that it's smart business. It's a way of running an operation more profitably. You could just experience dramatic savings by doing something as simple as changing to compact fluorescents," says Glenn Hasek, publisher and editor of Green Lodging News, an online publication based in suburban Cleveland.

The AHLA began pursuing green initiatives in 1996, when it created Good Earthkeeping to encourage linen and towel reuse. Since then, it has moved forward to create a menu of options for members looking to go green, says consultant Pat Maher, AHLA's "green guru." The major hospitality brands "picked it up and ran with it," he says. Many have adopted practices that go above and beyond what the AHLA has outlined. For instance:

The Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), which includes the Holiday Inn Columbus Downtown and the Crowne Plaza Downtown, offers Green Engage, an online companywide sustainability tool aimed at reducing use of natural resources, carbon emissions and operating costs; improving guest comfort; and raising sustainability awareness.

Marriott International, which also has local hotels, was ranked No. 42 out of 100 by Newsweek in the 2009 list of "The Greenest Big Companies in America." Its "Spirit to Preserve" program enables guests to offset their carbon footprint via a contribution to Brazilian rainforest preservation efforts. The program is also working to green Marriott's $10 billion supply chain, reducing fuel and water consumption by 25 percent per room and installing solar power at 40 hotels by 2017.

Hilton Worldwide, which has two local suburban hotels and one under construction Downtown, has developed LightStay, a measurement system to improve sustainability and economic performance. According to Hilton, in 2010 the company saved more than $74 million in utility costs and cut energy use by 6.6 percent, carbon output by 7.8 percent, waste by 19 percent and water by 3.8 percent. "It's amazing how much we've saved," says Mark Ricci, Hilton Worldwide's director of corporate communications for the Northeast United States and Canada.

All 3,750-plus Hilton properties are required to use LightStay by the end of 2011. The company committed to a 2014 deadline for reducing energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and waste output by 20 percent and water consumption by 10 percent.

Saving Green ... Sometimes

While linen-service placards are seemingly omnipresent, guests may never notice other initiatives. For instance, most places of hospitality have moved from incandescent lights to compact fluorescents. Some have even moved to light-emitting diodes (LED) which, though initially expensive, can save hoteliers up to 90 percent over the life of a bulb, Hasek says.

Guest room energy management systems can detect when guests are and aren't in their room and adjust the heating and cooling system accordingly. "There are systems that will turn off the lights as well or certain outlets in the room if a guest departs," says Hasek. "From a water efficiency standpoint, there's everything from low-flow showerheads to aerators in the faucet to high-efficiency toilets." Ozone laundry systems, which inject ozone into washwater, can help reduce or eliminate hot water needed in laundry cycles.

Hotels' motivation for embracing sustainability isn't entirely altruistic. "Some of it's financially driven, and obviously a lot of it is consumer demand," says Brian Ross, vice president of sales for Experience Columbus. Groups commonly seek a meeting venue that can provide, if not all green options, at least some green efforts. "Quite honestly, if you're not into the basics with the recycling and the linens and some of the energy-saving options that are out there ... they're just not going to look at you," Ross says.

Eco-friendly practices have the potential to make a big impact. According to New Hampshire-based Meeting Revolution, which promotes sustainable hospitality practices, the industry is the second-largest contributor to landfills. The typical meeting attendee uses five plates, seven napkins, six cups, seven cans or bottles, discards two pounds of food and consumes more than 25 kilowatt hours of electricity and more than 15 gallons of fuel--per day. Since the average meeting has 482 attendees and lasts about two and a half days, the trash quickly adds up.

The Blackwell Inn at Ohio State University is a rarity in Central Ohio for turning waste into compost. Ohio State picks up food leftovers weekly; the Blackwell's General Manager Eric Adelman estimates the average haul at 3,000 to 5,000 pounds. "That's pretty much cut our trash pickup in half," says Adelman, adding that the hotel and meeting venue saved 10 percent in 2010 on waste removal costs.

To help planners in their decision-making, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), best known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, publishes "Green Venue Selection," which suggests everything from checking if a hotel is Energy Star-rated to asking about distance to bus stops and other public transportation.

The Renaissance Columbus Downtown hotel has sought to satisfy sustainability-minded customers with offerings such as an eco-friendly water service (think filter stations or pitchers, rather than plastic bottles), recycling and online event menus, says General Manager Geri Lombard, who is also chairwoman of the Greater Columbus Lodging Council. Such steps "are recommended by Marriott," she says.

The Renaissance goes above and beyond by offering other niceties such as paperless billing and the ability for organizers to choose organic floral arrangements. Renaissance restaurant Latitude 41 has a menu that emphasizes local foods, and even grows its own herbs on the hotel's roof, alongside tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

When weighing what green initiatives to pursue, the Renaissance, like its peers, has to tread carefully, Lombard says: "The guests really appreciate it, and meeting planners want to have more social responsibility, but unfortunately there has to be a balance between cost and affordability." The hotel recycles, but "it costs us a ton of money," she says. "We recycle all of our in-house paper and cardboard and that kind of stuff, but it comes at a cost."

LEEDing Hotels

The USGBC doesn't offer hotel-specific LEED certification, but does provide resources for the hospitality industry. "What we did create was a free resource for hotel developers, owners, and managers with examples of green strategies that have been used by LEED-certified projects," communications coordinator Ashley Katz says via email. Katz says there are more than 100 LEED-certified hotels and more than 600 registered projects in the pipeline. (There are about 58,000 places of lodging nationwide, says Maher.)

Locally, two hotel projects have registered with the USGBC: the Hilton Columbus Downtown and the OSU-area SpringHill Suites by Marriott. The Hilton, set to open in late 2012, includes its plans for LEED certification among its marketing materials, says Julia Hansen, director of sales and marketing. "I think in general, folks are interested in the fact that you're going to be working towards green initiatives. I think people like that."

Going Green, Doing Good

Beyond benefiting themselves, meeting planners and the environment, hotels have found that going green can directly benefit others. The Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association (OHLA) is involved in three such initiatives, says Executive Director Matt MacLaren: the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio, Clean the World and Constellation NewEnergy.

Furniture Bank of Central Ohio

Furniture Bank of Central Ohio (FBCO) President Jim Stein says the nonprofit's relationship goes back to around 2003, when members of a Leadership Columbus class developed a database of Ohio hoteliers for the FBCO. "That's become a good source of furniture for us," he says.

Hotel and motel donations have represented as much as 18 percent of the FBCO's incoming items in a given year, though with the economic downturn, renovations--and therefore furniture turnover--have dropped off, reducing that proportion to more like 10 percent to 12 percent, Stein says.

The recent conversion of the Hyatt on Capitol Square to a Sheraton property netted quite a haul for the nonprofit. "That was a very large renovation, as you can imagine, and so we've received an awful lot of good things from them," says Stein. FBCO received more than 500 pieces of furniture as a result of the brand change.

"We really appreciate what hotels do," Stein says. "Their willingness to partner with us in this, obviously it's a great environmental benefit. ... It's keeping it out of the landfill, which is terrific, but at the same time, it's helping families, so it's a win-win proposition."

Clean the World

Clean the World takes the complimentary soap left behind in hotel rooms, processes it and then sends it to developing countries in need. "This keeps the soap from going to landfills and helps millions of people have the soap they need for hand washing to prevent disease," MacLaren says.

Each day, hotels in North America discard millions of pounds of soap and shampoo. At the same time, impoverished people around the world die of acute respiratory infections and diarrheal disease--5 million such deaths occur annually, most among children age 5 or younger, says the organization. Many of these deaths could have prevented via hand washing, but soap is often unavailable.

Now partnered with more than 1,100 hotel properties, Clean the World operates in every U.S. state, Puerto Rico and Canada, and delivers soap to 45 countries, including shelters in the United States. In the last two years, it has distributed more than 8.5 million soap bars around the world, keeping more than 1.2 million pounds of hotel waste out of landfills.

Constellation NewEnergy

For a fee, Constellation NewEnergy will secure Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) from certified resources such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass or landfills. By purchasing RECs, companies support the operation and development of facilities that generate renewable energy.

Employee Initiatives

The airport Marriott's Rhodes says that while some green initiatives have come from its corporate parent, many--including the ones she finds most enjoyable--come from associates. For instance, the housekeeping team noted it was tossing half-full containers of shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion. "They simply said, ‘Why are we doing this, and can't we send this somewhere where it's needed?' " she says. So now the staff boxes the toiletries and sends them to the Faith Mission homeless shelter. "It's safe, it's a win for us, it's a win for green initiatives, and it's a win for the mission," Rhodes says.

Similarly, in response to the steady stream of newspapers provided to guests and then discarded, a manager suggested that the hotel send them to the Capital Area Humane Society, which uses the papers to line animals' cages.

In these sustainability initiatives, "I don't think there's a huge cost savings for us," says Rhodes. "But I think where we get the benefit of it is it's the right thing to do, our associates know it's the right thing to do, and so what I think you get out of it is increased employee engagement, and, hopefully, increased loyalty from guests and your meeting planners. They may not come out and say, ‘Yes, I chose your hotel because of your green initiatives.' ... They may not come out and say it, but they may think in the back of their mind, ‘Heck, if I spend X here, or X here, I want to do business with the one who's taking care of the environment.' "

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the January 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.