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by Sarah J.F. Braley | July 20, 2015

Jo Licata, community projects manager, Hilton San Francisco Union SquareOn the garage level of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square -- one of the host hotels of Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress, being held Aug. 1-4 -- Jo Licata works among bags of donations, ready for local groups to pick up. "I have a group coming on Monday to pick up five bags of children's clothing,” she told me last week.

For most hotels, going green is a new effort, as it has become clear that many of the practices save money and/or help their communities. At this Hilton, sustainability has been an integral part of the property’s operations for more than 20 years. In fact, Licata's position, community projects manager, was created for her in 1994 (she's been working there since 1989), and she now supervises the hotel’s community-involvement programs. Her duties include finding places to donate extra food, materials and services from the property and other local area hotels. Recipients include those in need in the community as well as nonprofit organizations. She also is now director of education for the Northern California chapter of the Green Meetings Industry Council. And she has a title gleaned from friends: "I and a group of my women friends who do sustainable work call ourselves the Dumpster Divas, because we can't stand seeing anything go to waste."

The hotel's location really got the programs going. "We are on the edge of an ever-changing neighborhood that has a lot of families, a lot of children and low- to middle-income people in it, and we are in close proximity to a number of social-service agencies," Licata notes. When her position was created, she says, it was because "the executive committee of the hotel wanted to put a neighborhood face on the property and strive to be a good corporate citizen. It was about being a good neighbor. I literally walked through the neighborhood and shook hands with people. I didn't have a budget - it was mostly, 'maybe on Saturday we could get a group together to help paint a building or clean up a playground.'"

New water-bottle refilling station at the Hilton San Francisco Union SquareAs the hotel's green programs grew, Licata noticed that the property was always discarding reusable items: "I would see things languishing in storerooms. What were these chairs doing here? What can I do with them? I started making sure our excess supplies were not being trashed or disregarded, and making sure they were being donated."

She got meetings involved early on. "When large groups came to our property in the '90s with truckloads of hats, pencils, pens, notebooks and desktop knickknacks, these items were often left behind, so I started working with our conferences in a big way. Tote bags are such a big commodity for the Salvation Army and the places where we were donating food. We told our conferences that anything they did not want to truck back, we would take care of and make sure people knew it was donated by XYZ conference." (Now when meetings come to the hotel, they expect that they are going to plan an event that operates in a very sustainable way, Licata says.)

Exterior of the Hilton San Francisco Union SquareNext, Licata reached out to other properties in her area. "We started telling them about what we were doing, and in '96 or '97, I started the Hotel/Non-Profit Collaborative; 20 years later, it's still going on. I work with most of the hotels in the city, helping them dispose of everything. We just donated 900 ballroom chairs that went to several different agencies."

Licata even began recycling one of the hardest conference items to dispose of -- foam-core signage -- before most everyone else, donating it to schools for use in art projects. "We started harvesting all of this, anything that still had a second life in it. Then we drilled down. We began bailing cardboard and gathering bottles and cans for recycling. When the city started a compost program, we did a study on how much we would save in garbage costs if we composted. Compost is 60 percent of the waste in the garbage stream because it's so heavy and wet. In 1999 we started retrofitting space on the loading dock, and on Feb. 14, 2002, we began composting hotelwide. In the past we had garbage, cardboard baling, bottles and cans; when we started composting, we filled at least one bin every day. Then we went from seven days a week to on-call for compactor pulls. We can put wax-coated cardboard in the compost, and paper towels and hand towels from the bathrooms."

Today, and on a daily basis, Licata and crew at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square donate prepared sandwiches, salads and pastries from the on-site Starbucks outlet, as well as any banquet overages, to Food Runners. The hotel's employees are wholeheartedly on board, regularly bringing in kids' clothes, baby products and stuffed animals; several times per month, someone from child protective services picks up the donations. Some of the community-building activities have been turned into team-building events: For some recent programs to benefit Stop Hunger Now, shifts of up to 200 employees at a time were putting together packages for emergency food relief.

Licata also takes requests. "We had one agency ask for shoes and slippers for men. I put out an SOS to the Northern California Concierge Association, and they picked up about 15 boxes of men's shoes that we donated," she says. "Sometimes I get asked for blankets and send out a call to the various housekeeping offices at the hotels. I also work with local office buildings. The men's and ladies' rooms are cleaned at night, and they remove partial rolls of toilet paper; I asked if they could harvest those. So, for the last 12 years, the buildings with night cleaners have been donating those rolls. One agency told me they saved enough money on toilet paper to hire another social worker."

In addition to benefiting so many others, says Licata, the program "gives me a lot of satisfaction and makes me very proud. It's just what we do for the community."

The 1,919-room Hilton San Francisco Union Square is the largest in the city, offering 134,500 square feet of meeting space, including 73 meeting rooms and a 30,000-square-foot grand ballroom.