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Airbnb, hotels strive to be sustainable

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Some hotels in San Francisco, such as the Fairmont, are going the extra mile in terms of sustainability efforts. But Super Bowl 50 — and the accompanying increase in The City’s visitors — may have unintended effects on the environment. (Jeff Chiu/AP)


San Francisco is now Super Bowl City with a population expected to double over the course of the week. With all these fans in orange, navy, blue and silver visiting, I have to wonder how many of them will be green. What impact will our guests have on our water, energy and waste merely by choosing where to stay. Is staying at a hotel or an Airbnb better for the environment?

Most hotels offer guests the option of reusing their towels to save water. But other sustainability efforts don’t immediately come to mind. I see grand buffets and small bottles of shampoo — comfort above conservation. Last week, I attended a conference at the Parc 55 in Union Square and couldn’t find a single compost bin. But the work to conserve may be happening behind the scenes.

“So many of our sustainability efforts are on the back end,” Jessica Lum told me. “Guests don’t see.”

Lum co-chairs the Hotel Council of San Francisco’s Sustainability Committee. She said some hotels in The City donate partially used shampoo bottles, old coffee makers and even half-rolls of toilet paper to nonprofits. Some have installed efficient showerheads, turbines and low-flush toilets. The Ritz Carlton uses compressed air to clean dishes, the Fairmont keeps bees and the Marriott Marquis works with the nonprofit Toolworks to employ people with disabilities to sort guests’ waste.

These changes are inspiring, but they’re not standard. For example, while the Ritz Carlton, the Fairmont and the Marriott Marquis have good environmental programs, they may waste food.

“There’s so much more food that could be picked up,” Mary Risley of Food Runners, a nonprofit that donates leftovers to San Francisco’s hungry, told me. “The Ritz and Fairmont only give us pastries. None of the Marriotts in San Francisco ever donate to us.”

San Francisco hotels need to standardize their environmental efforts and make them more transparent, so guests know what they’re getting. Why not do away with small shampoo bottles and install dispensaries? Why not make reusable water bottles available instead of plastic ones? Why can’t guests compost?

If I knew my hotel was committed to sustainability at every level, I’d feel better staying there.

Of course, people expect hotels to provide a different experience than Airbnb. Perhaps foregoing some comfort in favor of conservation makes home-sharing the more environmental choice.

According to studies commissioned by the company, travelers who stay at an Airbnb instead of hotels use less energy, generate less greenhouse gas emissions, conserve more water and create less waste than hotels guests. Airbnb also partnered with Nest, Tesla and NRG Solar to help hosts further reduce guests’ environmental impacts.

“We are committed to sustainable travel and are working on a number of new initiatives that will be announced in the future,” Nick Papas, Director of Public Affairs at Airbnb, told me.

I am happy Airbnb says it’s committed to sustainable travel, but I’m not convinced. Of course, it’s always problematic when a company funds its own studies, and I don’t know how many Airbnb hosts have benefited from the company’s partnerships. I also can’t dismiss the housing impacts Airbnb abuse has on The City.

But if the company really cared about the environment, it would do more than rely on users to make good choices. It would share water conservation tips with new California bookings. It would give San Francisco hosts resources to help guests comply with our compost law. It would make it easy to donate leftover food and toiletries to nonprofits.

There are simple changes Airbnb could make to its platform that would demonstrate a commitment to sustainability.

I am concerned visitors to San Francisco this week will unintentionally impact our environment simply by being unaware of our laws and our land. Hotels and Airbnb need to step up their game so environmentalists like me can paint our faces green and cheer for something bigger than football soon.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.