Sally Brown

August 7, 2018 | General

Connections: Silver Bullets

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle August 2018

Those miniature plastic shampoo bottles that you get in hotel rooms bear almost no resemblance to silver bullets. Not that I’ve ever seen a silver bullet up close, I just hear about them all the time as what we need to resolve our problems. We are always looking for that silver bullet (aka technical solution) to fix any and all problems relating to sustainability and climate change. An actual silver bullet is likely about the same size as one of those shampoo bottles and that is probably the only thing that they have in common. No one would ever mistake a hotel toiletry bottle for a solution. They are primarily handy souvenirs. It just may be however, that the answer to climate change will owe as much to the shampoo bottles as to any silver bullet that happens to whiz by.
Depending on the hotel and the level of posh, the numbers of those bottles grow or shrink. At the high end you get one for shampoo, another for the shower gel, the conditioner and then the final one for body lotion. That is four little plastic bottles per room per night. I have to confess that I’ve saved some of those bottles from my favorite hotels. This spring I went to The Historic Davenport hotel in Spokane, Washington and was hoping to add to my collection. The Davenport is an old beautiful hotel. It was built in 1914 and had closed in 1985. A local couple bought the hotel, renovated it and reopened in 2002. I was very excited to stay in this treasure and to take some souvenirs. Instead of the little bottles, however, I found dispensers in the shower for all of the beauty products. It turns out that when the Davenport was remodeled the owners decided to do the environmentally responsible thing and dispense with the little bottles.

Simple Step, Big Impact

While not a silver bullet, replacing those little bottles is a simple step that has a large impact. The Historic Davenport has just over 1,300 rooms. If you figure that 1,000 of those are occupied each night and that each of those has 4 little bottles, over the course of a year that comes to about 1.5 million little bottles. If each bottle weighs 1 ounce (28 grams) that comes to about 40 tons of little plastic bottles annually.
By going to dispensers in the shower rather than those little bottles, the Davenport Collection (it has 4 hotels in Spokane) has reduced the amount of plastic that either gets recycled or landfilled (or stored in that junk drawer in your bathroom). It has also saved the chain money. The larger dispensers are less costly to keep full than the small bottles. So good for the environment and good for the bottom line. While not quite a silver bullet, this type of small change can have an enormous impact.

Let’s Extrapolate

Taking the tonnage of waste avoided and translating it from a relatively small hotel collection in Spokane — not a typical tourist destination — to all of the hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada offers a better idea of the potential impact. A quick Internet search gives the number of hotel rooms in Las Vegas at about 150,000. If you do the same type of multiplication: 4 bottles per room per day x 365 days per year x 115,500 rooms (77% occupancy) that equals a total of 169 million little bottles. If each weighs 1 ounce that comes to an annual little shampoo bottle weight of 5,205 tons. Consider that Orlando has almost as many hotel rooms as Las Vegas (110,000) with New York lagging behind (80,000) and that basically, you can find hotel rooms just about anywhere. This means that a small change in how toiletries are provided by hotels can make a significant difference in the quantity of plastic we use and the quantity of plastic we waste.
It turns out that the Davenport Hotel (and the associated hotels in the Davenport Collection) are affiliated with the Marriott chain of hotels. This past spring, the rest of the Marriott chain is following suit. No more little bottles, replaced by large, refillable in-shower dispensers. Both Marriott and Intercontinental are phasing in the larger dispensers and phasing out the small bottles. I recently stayed at two Hilton properties in the Chicago area, one higher end downtown and another not so fancy by Midway airport. Both had Neutrogena beauty products that I love, and both had those little bottles that I am no longer so fond of. I did not take any souvenirs.
The Davenport Collection was an early adopter of a simple change, one that has an impact but required no real technological breakthrough. While this will not solve the climate change problem in and of itself, it is a great example of a simple step that can have a big impact. Plus you can still stay in any of these hotels and have clean, tangle free hair and moisturized legs. A few more of these plastic bottle type solutions and we may be approaching the speed of silver bullets.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle ( and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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