by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 18, 2011

The Four Seasons Hong KongThe U.S. hotel industry has been slow to jump on the environmental band wagon, but those who have embraced the concept are reaping accolades, awards and loyalty from customers.

This week, MGM Resorts International won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2011 award for outstanding achievement in food waste recycling programs (one of 12 sustainability categories charted by the agency) at its Las Vegas Strip resorts, beating out 150 competitors. Among the criteria for consideration were food recovery policies, prevention of food waste, and the amount of food donated for reuse or compost. The win was no small accomplishment, considering that in 2010 MGM recycled 8,772 tons of food waste at its Las Vegas hotels, more than doubling the amount processed in 2007. A key component of the hotel company's food reuse initiative is a partnership with RC Farms of North Las Vegas, where 3,000 pigs per day fatten up on food scraps from MGM hotels, casinos and restaurants.

According to the EPA, food comprises the second largest waste category in the United States after paper, with more than 34 million tons of waste generated in 2009. Of that, 97 percent was thrown into landfills or incinerators, creating a significant source of noxious methane. "With millions of people dining each year at our 165 restaurants and 11 employee dining rooms, MGM Resorts is committed to leading the way to reduce our waste to landfill," says Cindy Ortega, the company's senior vice president of energy and environmental services.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, Minneapolis-based Carlson Hotels announced it had signed an agreement with Clean the World Global to collect and recycle hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and bathroom gels to help fight the spread of preventable diseases by promoting better hygiene, sanitation and living conditions worldwide. The agreement, part of Carlson's Responsible Business program, encompasses 607 hotels in North America. To date, 19 of those properties have contributed more than 8,060 pounds of soap (roughly 43,000 soap bars) -- enough to provide 8,600 children with soap for an entire month.

In June of this year, when Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts announced it had launched a sustainability effort to plant 10 million trees, its Hong Kong property immediately set about planting 300 fig trees at a nearby organic farm, from which the hotel's executive chef, Herve Fucho, has been sourcing vegetables for the past two years. The fig tree saplings are expected to produce their first fruits by year's end. And with the right care and grooming, they should live a healthy and productive 40 years, tripling the supply harvest for the farm. "For our team, it was about choosing a project that had many dimensions and would bring both short- and long-term benefits," says William Mackay, regional vice president and general manager of the 399-room Four Seasons Hong Kong.

Big hotel companies aren't the only ones greening their act. Small independent properties, like the new 164-room Shore Hotel In Santa Monica, Calif., which opened this past summer, have launched creative initiatives that embrace their local communities. The boutique hotel's "Green Concierge" is a local expert on all things sustainable and eco-friendly, helping guests plan visits to local farmers' markets, sip espresso at fair-trade coffee houses and reserve hybrid taxis. Likewise, at the six-month-old 58-room Hotel Skyler, next door to Syracuse University in upstate New York, 50 percent of revenue generated by two loft-style "tree house" suites are donated to the nearby Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital. The Hotel Skyler is one of only three properties in the U.S. to seek LEED Platinum certification -- the highest standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council -- and one of just 100 LEED-certified (in any standard) hotels in the country. But it's a safe bet that number will grow quickly, which is welcome news for eco-conscious meeting planners.