How green is your hotel?

Not too long ago, any hotel that had one of those “please reuse your towels” signs in the bathroom was considered “green“. But with new hotels upping the ante by adding more features that reduce waste and environmental impact, it takes a lot more than that to truly be green. Here are some of the greenest hotel features to look for in an eco-friendly hotel.

Sheet and Towel Reuse Programs
Literally, this is the least a hotel can do. Asking guests to reuse towels and only changing the linens every few days or between guests no doubt saves water (and money for the hotel) but those positive contributions can easily be negated through other actions. If this all the hotel does, it might just be more frugal than green.

Bulk Toiletry Dispensers
Every time you check into a hotel, you’re provided with small bottles of face wash, body wash, lotion, shampoo and conditioner. Even if you’ve only used a minuscule drop, those bottles are tossed out and restocked at the end of your stay. This happens every day, for every room sold, at hotels all around the world. That’s a lot of tiny bottles clogging up landfills. The greener option being implemented in many hotels is to install bulk dispensers (similar to soap dispensers in public restrooms) that dole out small amounts of shampoo, soap and lotion without the extra packaging.

Local and Organic Cooking
Hotel restaurant chefs that use local, fair-trade, sustainable and organic ingredients get a gold-star for for being green. Using local products means that the food travels less to get to the consumer, which in turn means less energy is used and less emissions are added to the air from the planes, trains and trucks that transport food. Organic ingredients are created without the chemicals and pesticides that can harm the surrounding eco-systems, fair-trade products support local farmers, and sustainable foodstuffs are made in a way that doesn’t deplete the natural resources of the area. Hotels that employ these practices in their restaurants are doing something that is not only healthy for their guests, but is healthy for the community and environment as well. The hotel gets even more bonus points if some or all of the produce comes from the hotel’s own garden.

Green Lighting Practices
Replacing fluorescent light bulbs with ENERGY STAR certified compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) means that a hotel will use 75% less energy per year. While hotel guests can do their part by turning off all unnecessary lights when not in the room, some hotels, like the LEED-certified Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco, make this easier by requiring the lights to be activated by key card. The key card, usually attached to the hotel key, must be inserted into a slot in order to turn the lights on. Since you’ll obviously need to take the key and lighting key card with you when you leave the room, there’s no way you can leave the lights on while you’re out.

Green Building Materials
The buildings at Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge in Alaska are constructed from scavenged driftwood, the mattresses and bedding at the Asheville Green Cottage in South Carolina are made from all organic materials, and the walls at Los Manos B&B in Colorado are built of local adobe and the ceilings are insulated with cellulose from old newspapers. All of these properties are using green building practices that help conserve precious resources. Using recycled, organic, scavenged and eco-friendly (like low-emission paints) materials in the building process makes a hotel green from the very beginning.

Reducing Water Usage
The El Monte Sagrado in Taos, New Mexico filters its wastewater into pure drinking water, but there are plenty of other ways hotels can save water that are a littler easier to do. Many green hotels install low-flow regulators in showers and toilet tanks, and some even put in automatic-timer showers that shut off after a certain number of minutes. (You can restart them with the push of a button, but the ticking clock serves as a powerful reminder to make it quick). Hotels in temperate areas have chosen to do their landscaping with tropical plants, which require less water to maintain.

Alternative Power
Many hotels are looking to alternative sources of power; the Alpine House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, gets all of its power from wind turbines. Look for hotels that boast the use of solar and wind power for even part of their energy usage. Hotels that use shade trees and crosswinds to cool rooms, rather than air conditioning, also increase their eco-friendly factor.

Recycling Programs
All the paper used in the Hotel Triton in San Francisco, from napkins in the restaurant to stationary in the guest rooms, is made from recycled materials. Of course, after it’s used, it still gets tossed out. I’ve never seen a recycling bin in any hotel I’ve stayed in, and I highly doubt that housekeeping takes the time to separate recyclables from trash. As a result, plenty of paper, aluminum and plastic that could be recycled ends up getting tossed. Any hotel that offers recycling bins in the room is one step up on the green ladder.

Green Cleaning Products
Using non-toxic, all-natural cleaning products helps reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals that get into the water system and cause pollution. Look for hotels like Denver’s Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast which uses only baking soda to its clean tubs, sinks and toilets.

Other Green Practices
When combined with some of these larger-scale practices, the smallest acts can help make a green hotel even more eco-friendly. All Fairmont hotels offer free parking for hybrid cars, the Vancouver Hilton offers an alternative fueling station, and many hotels will provide free bikes for guests to get around on. Stocking guest rooms with glass drinking cups instead of plastic and relying on natural lighting as much as possible in public areas are two additional practices that make a big difference.

I doubt there’s any hotel that employs every single one of these practices. But it’s a safe bet to say that the more of these strategies a hotel uses, the greener it is. No hotel will have zero impact on the environment, but choosing a hotel that take does its best to use environmentally-friendly policies will help make your travels greener.

Solar powered plane to circle the globe

While Boeing and Airbus scramble to make larger, more luxurious planes, others are pushing the envelope in different directions, attempting to find ways to make them more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Take the Solar Impulse for instance. This plane is setting the bar high, with a plan to circumnavigate the globe completely under solar power.

The Solar Impulse is the brain child of Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss adventurer and environmentalist, who launched the project back in 2003 with the aim of promoting the use of renewable energy sources. Now, in 2009, he is closing in on that dream. His plane has a 200-foot wingspan which is lined with 12,000 photovoltaic solar cells that will draw energy from the sun to power its four engines.

Piccard unveiled the latest design for his plane on June 26th in a ceremony near Zurich. This prototype will undergo test flights in 2010, including night flights using solar power stored in batteries. In 2011 the next design of the plane will be completed, with 2012 set as the tentative start of its world tour. The fact that this plane can fly even at night is one of the the things that separates it from other solar powered aircraft in the past.

While we might be years away from solar power becoming commercially viable for flights, it is projects like these that are paving the way for the future of flight. A future that is clean and environmentally friendly.

Hydrogen fueling station coming to San Francisco Airport

If you drive a fuel cell vehicle, you’ll be able to recharge at San Francisco International Airport. The hydrogen station that is planned will also be used for a fleet of airport shuttle buses and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority hybrid buses. This project has been funded in part by a $1.7 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (ARB).

Linde North America, an engineering firm, has been engaged to design and install the system. “At the heart of the station is the Linde MaxFueler 90, a dispensing system whose fast-fill technology makes hydrogen fueling quick and easy, creating a similar experience to what motorists now get at their local service station,” says Mike McGowan, head of hydrogen solutions for Linde North America.

John L. Martin, San Francisco International Airport director, said, “The development and installation of a hydrogen fueling station at SFO is just a further extension of the Airport’s commitment to being a good steward of the environment. Whether it be the expansion of solar or wind energy systems, the continued use of CNG and biodiesel fueled vehicles, or being part of cutting-edge systems such as hydrogen fueling facilities, SFO is fully committed to reducing its carbon footprint in our community.”

The project is set for completion in early 2010.

Band on the Run: Soaking in Solarfest in Vermont

There’s not a lot of places more chilled out and easygoing than a festival in Vermont on a beautiful July weekend that runs on solar power and promotes alternative energy and environmental solutions. It’s called Solarfest: The New England Renewable Energy Festival. Going there makes me want to just sprawl on the grass and watch the clouds overhead while simultaneously saving the world.

It can be done! Resting fuels the fight, I feel. And celebrating further fans the flames. Clouds keep us just as informed as anything… and watching clouds clears my head — funny how cloudiness offer clarity — which is just the state of mind needed to tackle the next step in any process. But maybe it’s the sunshine around the clouds that really soaks in and helps us lighten up for a while? (Okay, I’ll stop this metaphoric meandering now and just tell you about the festival!)

Besides the chance to consider our part in the movement for change that is upon us, the music at this festival is always a bonus. This is our third time performing here over the years and it’s always inspiring to take in the rest of the acts. Whoever chooses them has some eclectic and interesting musical taste, for sure, (Break of Reality were amazing!) and I’m thrilled that we’ve been among the artists to provide the score for this event – an occasion I support, wholeheartedly.

Solarfest takes place on a farm in a small town called Tinmouth, Vermont, just a couple hours south of Burlington. It’s in its thirteenth year, I was told, and it’s still very casual, very alive, very non-corporate and staying that way. Someone commented to me later that they were shocked that it was still so (relatively) small after thirteen years — I think there are a just a few thousand attendees over the weekend, if that — and I responded that I thought it was perfect this way.

And I do.

Why should festivals aspire to exponential growth? Yes, it’s good to grow in terms of widespread knowledge; we want people to know about solar energy, alternative fuels, how to make soap by hand without the nasty chemicals, etc. But, this notion that growing in a linear fashion until you’re so big that you need to move locations, hire outside security companies, solicit corporate sponsors and hang plastic banners all over the stage is just, well, counter-intuitive. It’s good to know that people want to come to events like this one, but so too is the natural turnover of people so that new faces replace old ones and that the festival is fresh but still manageable in terms of size.

Sustainable. That’s the ultimate goal. Success. Locally.

Musicians aspire to this kind of linear growth too, imaging that if they sell five hundred copies of their CD one year that the following year they ought to sell at least five hundred and one copies. There is a lot of cultural support for the notion of “more” growth as if it equals “better” when we all know that these two ideas are not often linked – at least, not anymore.

Festivals like this one promotes the notion of a natural cycle of things: the ebbs and flows, mountains and valleys, moments of prosperity followed by wondering where the next dollar will come from. Ultimately, this creates a balance which brings us sustainability. Something living and breathing. Organic and alive. Not just a bar graph rising towards the sky and never looking down on the grounded state from which is began.

For my garden at my house, I never ask it to grow bigger and bigger with every year. In fact, I want it to reach a sustainable and healthy growth level and then remain. I will tend it and it will yield. The next year, I will do the same. All told, the house will be fed by this garden and the garden will never take over the house.

That’s sustainability.

In this same way, Solarfest is a sustainable festival that is not being taken over by its own growth. It has been at its current location for the past few years and it’s nestled sweetly on a farm with hills that roll upwards on the perfect angle from the barn, half of which is transformed into a stage and backstage area. This hill creates a natural amphitheatre and holds the colourful blankets and chairs of hundreds of chilled out people angling smiles towards the lights.

Backstage, the barn swallows swoop overhead and come in and out through the open upper windows of the barn. As the evening rolls in, the stage lights cast an eerie glow on the interior of the barn and the jerky movement of those swallow wings create a natural strobe effect, flickering the lights and casting trippy shadows. You can see the hay stacked high on the far side where performer’s gear is piled; amps upon amps separated by similarly shaped and sized squares of hay just beyond the tarp.

I love it. I smiled at it all and took it all in.

Just before our performance on the Saturday early evening, I took a walk around the grounds. As in previous years, I was moved by the displays and vendors. There were innovative greenhouse designers, book vendors for little known or hard-to-find publications, vegan and non-GMO food suppliers, hemp clothing vendors, kid’s craft areas, etc.

Everyone was smiling. Kids were running around freely and safely. Sunhats were bobbing on the heads of older women walking gently through the grass holding their skirts above their ankles. Men with babies strapped to their chests. Lots of bare feet and beads.

I stopped for awhile and listened to Bill McKibben speak. He was on stage just before us with just himself and a microphone. He is a published author (many times over) and his most recent book is called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He spoke about the economy of things like support, kindness, belief. He was natural and articulate and he made the audience both laugh and think without sounding pedantic or heavy.

Before the end of his talk, I went backstage again to make sure my equipment was all ready and that we were together as a band. I was cradling my guitar and warming up when the audience cheered for his words and the MC took back the microphone to signal a break between sets.

When Bill walked off the stage and through the backstage area, he smiled down at his feet and just sauntered off. It was self-effacing without being under confident. Is that possible? Perhaps I just saw raw humility. It made me stop for a moment and just stare off and wonder. It made me want to read his books.

I didn’t see him again for the rest of the festival, but I imagine he was there somewhere. At least, his words were.

They have staying power.

As does this festival.