Does Reusing Hotel Towels Save the Planet or Just Money?

As some of us contemplate traveling again, the Environmentalist from Hell looks into tourism-industry greenwashing.

A hotel housekeeping staff member wearing a dark blue uniform places two folded white towels onto a white bedspread.
Photo: Rawpixel

I don’t know about you, but after months of staring at my same old walls day after day after day, I’m itchy to see some new sights. As we continue to adjust to a reopened economy, some people are starting to think about traveling again.

Even though the only trip in my future is to my mom’s guest room, I’ve been remembering the last time I stayed in a hotel, in January of this year. (Oh, if I’d only known it was the last time, I’d have savoured every second!) Next to the sink was a little card that read, “Save Our Planet.”

“Woo!” I thought, “Y’all know I’m down with that!”

Next, it said: “Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once.” It instructed me to hang my towels up if I wanted to reuse them, or leave them on the floor — like a slob — if I wanted fresh towels.

I high-fived the walls of the hotel. Way to go! (RIP high fives…) This is what we need to do! I always reuse my towels at home. I’d never leave a towel on the floor, I’m about reusing!

Then I came across an Apartment Therapy article referencing a commentary in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research, which claimed that reusing towels could be doing more harm than good by making them harder to clean (resulting in the use of harsher chemicals). I went looking for more info, and found a related claim from a spokeswoman for a hotel-worker union. Tiffany Ten Eyck told the New York Times that while skipping a day of cleaning on a guest’s two-night business trip might not be a big deal, skipping more causes problems. Some housekeepers are only given 30 minutes to clean a room, no matter how many days a guest opts to skip service. They’re forced to use stronger chemicals and more water to get things clean in that limited time.

I started thinking that little card was just marketing for eco-warriors like me.

Another hospitality union leader claims “green” initiatives that encourage forgoing housekeeping service are just cost-cutting measures in disguise. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Unite Here Local 26 president Brian Lang said, “It’s a brilliant marketing program, but it’s done at the expense of, largely, immigrant women.” Housekeepers — who once had reliable, full-time jobs — have had their hours reduced and their schedules made more erratic since hotels started offering incentives like reward points or drink vouchers to guests who skip cleaning.

I started thinking that little card was just marketing for eco-warriors like me. I sighed. Why can’t we have good things?! How was I sold a lie like this? Or… was I? I kept digging.

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, asking guests to reuse their towels results reduces the number of loads of laundry — and related water, energy, and labour costs — by 17%. Such programs also increase the lifespan of towels and linens, reducing replacement frequency. Those are all good things, especially because guests can use a lot of water during a hotel visit. A study for Seattle Public Utilities found ranges from 100 gallons (379 litres) per room per day, up to 400 gallons/day depending on the age of the hotel and size of the room. With over 5 million hotel rooms in the US, saving some water sounds like a good idea!

Here’s what I think: by all means get your towel washed right away if you’ve used it to sop up blood. (Maybe you nicked yourself while shaving. Or committed a murder? I don’t know you, reader.) But I think you could get away with reusing your towel once or twice without it being an undue burden on staff or cleaning systems, so long as it’s not heavily soiled. Just be sure to leave a tip, since the average hotel cleaner makes only US$11/hour, according to ZipRecruiter.

So, we’ve got towels sorted. (I don’t know what you’re going to do with the body from the murder you committed though… Has being alone in my apartment for five months gotten to me? Maybe, reader, maybe.) But there’s a lot more involved in making the hotel industry green. Hotels can take a more holistic approach by making sure they’re using energy efficient machines to launder those sheets and towels. They should be composting food waste and installing solar panels on the roof. At the very least they should have recycling available in rooms.

And don’t forget all the tiny plastic bottles of toiletries you like to take home as a souvenir. If you don’t take them with you, they could wind up in landfills, because no one is going to take the time to wash out the little bits of leftover shampoo to make them clean and ready for recycling.

At least in California, the legislature has passed a bill to ban single-use plastic bottles at large hospitality establishments by 2023 — small hotels have until 2024. Ahead of the ban, chains like Marriott and Intercontinental have already started to phase out small toiletries by putting refillable bottles in showers and bathrooms. A similar bill was introduced in New York state in 2019, and was recently passed by the state senate. This could eliminate 27 million plastic bottles from more than 630 New York City hotels every year. The change could actually be underway already, as the bill is supported by the state’s hospitality and tourism association.

Twenty years into the twenty-first century, how can you not have a BLUE BIN?!

So, next time you find yourself in a hotel — whenever that may be — here are some ways to tell if it’s engaging in greenwashing, or actually working to be more sustainable. Look for a range of environmental initiatives. Does the hotel use LED light bulbs? Do the showers turn off after a certain amount of time to prevent water waste? Are there low-flow toilets, or arrangements to reuse waste water? One red flag that tells me a hotel isn’t serious about sustainability is if it has no recycling bins in the rooms or lobby. Twenty years into the twenty-first century, how can you not have a BLUE BIN?!

Eco-minded consumers are willing to pay extra to stay in a truly green hotel, and 79% of travelers worldwide agree that eco-friendly practices are important to their choice of lodging. In the post-pandemic world, it’s likely travel will be an expensive luxury as the tourism industry tries to recoup billions in lost revenue. This widespread preference for sustainable hotels gives them a chance to lure higher-paying customers with green initiatives.

The best way to reduce the impact of our travel, of course, is not traveling in the first place. And with the ongoing pandemic, we’re all doing plenty of that. But lots of us are also dreaming of the post-Covid vacation we’d like to take, and maybe even saving for it. For once, we have all the time in the world to really think about where our travel dollars are going to be spent. When we finally travel, let’s keep it green.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.