Reducing Waste: A Look at Hotel Sustainability Through Marriott International

The tiny shampoo and lotion bottles in hotel bathrooms can feel like a novelty and convenient freebie to sneak into your suitcase before checkout. Room service and continental breakfast buffets feel like luxuries compared to the weeknight meals at home. Turning up the thermostat without worrying about the heating bill can feel liberating. But what if we thought about the environmental impact our hotel stays had? Marriott International (No. 2 on 2019 Top Companies for Diversity) unveiled “Serve 360 Doing Good in Every Direction,” a platform that focuses on Marriott’s philanthropic and environmental practices in 2017. Along with reducing food waste and conserving energy, its most current initiative involves doing away with single-use plastic toiletry products by the end of 2020.

Transitioning from single-use bottles to 10oz pump containers made from recyclable and reusable plastic can save about half a billion tiny bottles annually, Denise Naguib, Marriott’s head of sustainability said in an interview with DiversityInc. That’s 1.7 million pounds of plastic that will be

kept from landfills and the environment and a 30% reduction in Marriott’s current amenity plastic waste. The plan for larger-sized shower containers is the latest in a series of greener moves the company has taken.

In 2018 Marriott placed a ban on plastic straws in its hotels. It’s also ramping up its goal for 2020 to reduce food waste by 50% by 2025, a crucial move considering 60% of a hotel’s waste is food, Naguib said.

“We’re really looking at ways holistically, not just purely on the single-use plastic aspect of it,” Naguib said.

Related Story: Marriott Announces Sustainability Plan to Reduce Food Waste

Marriott’s 2019 Serve 360 report outlines its initiatives toward sustainability and reducing waste. It says by the end of 2019, more than 750 hotels worldwide switched from small plastic amenities to residential size amenities. This move saved 3.7 million small plastic bottles from the trash, weighing more than 42,000 pounds.

“We were the first hospitality company to set a food waste goal and a waste to landfill goal, and we’re very committed to working individually within our own portfolio but also with our competitors to try and find opportunities to solve for waste in our sector holistically,” Naguib said. “This is not just one single brand’s problem. It’s really something that we just all want to look forward to and address because we think it’s absolutely the right thing to do and it’s what the expectation for our industry is.”

Eric Ricaurte is the CEO and founder of Greenview, a hospitality sustainability firm that provides companies with consulting and advisory services. An alum of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Ricaurte has led research and benchmarking on sustainability in the hotel industry through Greenview including the Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index. Marriott helped Greenview, a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), get its start when it hired the firm to help complete its sustainability report in 2009 and later earn its MBE certification. Greenview also works on finding viable sustainability solutions the industry can get behind. He said the rush to discover green alternatives offers more hope for diversity, inclusion and innovation.

“The entrepreneurialism and the opportunity … is actually pretty fascinating, because they’re looking for solutions and that enables more smaller companies to get in and try, and a lot of them are actually diverse companies,” Ricaurte said.

Ricaurte said to understand why the hotel industry generates so much waste, one must first assess the purpose of hotels: to provide a place for people to complete the usual tasks they’d complete at home in a comfortable place outside of the home. In a facility where people are in and out, eating, sleeping, bathing and doing work, convenience and sanitation are central.

“All the preparation, if there’s food and beverage, if they’re eating there, or in the guest room to prepare the room for each new guest every day, that’s where a lot of the things are generating,” Ricaurte said.

Cultural perceptions of cleanliness are also an issue. Many people don’t like to use things in public places that others have also used. But soap should be the least of our travel sanitation worries, Ricaurte said. Airplanes and even hotel remotes are much dirtier.

“The idea that there’s a sanitation issue of the same material that helps remove issues of hygiene — which is soap — I think is kind of ridiculous in systems thinking, but I understand the concern of tampering, or other things that guests might think, ‘This has been used before,” Ricaurte said.

Additionally, Marriott’s new, larger bottles are tamper proof.

As people begin to think critically about where their products come from and where they’re going, society is calling into question the concepts of excess and single-use. When it comes to food, Naguib said rather than focusing on policies for donating excess food, the goal is to not create the waste in the first place.

Food waste is a primary problem for the hotel industry. Though food is organic material, it does not decompose in landfills. (Photo: Libin Jose/

“With food, we really want to make sure we’re reducing food waste from the source, not just dealing with the back-end donation of food,” she said. “How do we reduce the waste from being created?””

This same concept can be applied to plastic bottles, too. Rather than worrying about how to dispose of them, hotels can consider not using as many in the first place. Ricaurte said Marriott’s toiletry initiative is promising because it challenges the behavioral practice of single-use, which reduces the need to worry about plastics ending up in the environment later on.

“Everyone is scrambling to get rid of the plastic, but really it’s the single-use that I like about this. Everybody’s starting to re-examine the concept of single-use,” Ricaurte said.

However, Ricaurte said waste is not the largest problem with sustainability hotels have. It is often their energy usage that has the biggest effect on emissions, and the industry is slow to adopt alternatives.

“What the industry has not been quick to adopt is renewable energy,” he said. “Especially with other industries and their companies, the move toward decarbonization is lacking in the hotel industry.”

The reason hotels are behind other industries in renewable energy is because hotel companies often do not own the buildings they operate in. The businesses that own hotel buildings are fragmented across the world, making energy initiatives difficult to spark.

It’s also important to think about hotels as just one part of the entire travel industry, Ricaurte said. We don’t need to travel to survive. We could hypothetically live without transporting ourselves or exploring attractions. But we need to eat and sleep. As long as humans travel, hotels will be necessary, and humans aren’t going to stop traveling, Ricaurte said.

Issues like these raise important points: The hotel industry is not the largest contributor to climate change (Energy, meat and dairy likely are), and plastic waste is not the hotel industry’s biggest problem with the climate. So, why are these initiatives necessary? Naguib said the plastic straw banning craze of 2018 and 2019 provides insight. Plastic straws only make up 4% of ocean waste, but a 2015 video of a turtle with a straw lodged in its nose had people and businesses changing their habits and looking toward reusable alternatives.

In 2018 along with many other businesses, Marriott announced it would be swapping plastic straws for alternatives worldwide. The 2018 movement to ban plastic straws sparked a change for many regarding how they viewed their consumption habits. (Photo: Marriott International)

“In the grand scheme of things, straws are a small footprint compared to all waste,” Naguib said. “But I also don’t want to lose the notion that that issue with the straws moved a lot of people to wake up to the issue of concern … It really was that powerful symbol, culturally, to move the institutions, the individuals around this particular topic.”

Pumping your shampoo from a larger bottle may not singlehandedly close the hole in the ozone layer, but it is one habitual practice that can be part of a greener, less consumeristic lifestyle. A hotel sourcing smaller amounts food to avoid excess may not solve world hunger, but it can get us thinking about how much we really need.

“I think that guests and associates alike will be absolutely aware of and be able to understand what their responsibility is as a traveler, as a guest in a hotel and how we can work together,” Naguib said. “When we reach our big end goal, one hope that I have is those associates that are part of our portfolio will not only be able to see the impact that’s happening at work but will be able to pull some of those changes and behavior modifications into their home environment.”


Follow us

Join Our Newsletter

Get the top DEI news delivered straight to your inbox