How One Hotel Became a Zero-Waste Facility

Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina took an interesting journey in an attempt to reduce its waste.
March 16, 2012

When John Ford, manager of the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina, watched a garbage truck dump garbage from the hotel into the landfill last fall, he was surprised by the amount of food waste and recyclable materials. He had thought his hotel was doing a great job with its environmental and recycling efforts, but realized he was mistaken. Actually seeing what waste the hotel was putting into the landfill was the first step on the hotel’s recent journey to become a "zero waste" facility.

Zero waste is actually a bit of a misnomer. One of the key statistics when moving to zero waste is the diversion rate, which is the percentage of material diverted from the landfill, and zero waste is achieved with a 90 percent diversion rate.  In addition to reducing the waste in landfills, zero waste is also about reducing the amount of overall consumption.

After the waste stream audit last year, the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina learned that they had a 15 percent diversion rate and needed to make drastic changes to reach its goal of becoming a zero waste facility.

Starting with a zero waste convention

Last fall, the hotel decided to challenge itself and host a convention for 600 people that produced zero waste. Throughout the event, many new practices were implemented to reduce the amount of waste put in the landfill, such as requiring that no paper materials be given out during the conference. Each attendee was given a small flash drive loaded with all conference materials and if they wanted additional information from an exhibitor it was loaded onto flash drive. All exhibit displays that were shipped to the hotel had to leave the hotel in the same box to prevent cardboard waste. Other efforts included allowing no plastic water bottles, serving all drinks in glasses and only uses cloth napkins.

At the end of the five days, the hotel determined that they had exceeded its goal and had a 92 percent diversion rate for the convention. The management and staff decided to take what they learned during the event and apply the lessons learned to their daily operations.

Reducing waste through food composting

The change with most impact was the decision to compost all food waste at the facility. Because the 1,053 room hotel produces over 5 tons of food waste each week, this change alone increased the diversion rate to 80 percent. Instead of throwing away food waste, all pre-consumer waste and uneaten food scraps is scrapped into a waste bin.

All hotel food waste from hotel is taken to the San Diego Greenery composting area and covered in top soil. After 60-90 days of baking in the sun, the waste is turned into compost material that is given free to San Diego residents. “I am proud to say that I have three loads of the organic composting materials from the hotel in my yard at home,” said Ford.  The fee for the composting is offset by the reduced dumping and landfill fees.

Switch to single stream increases recycling efforts    

Because the hotel had an extensive recycling program for many years, Ford was surprised at the number of recyclables taken to the landfill. Because the hotel had different bins for each type of recyclable, employees and guests often did not take the extra step to recycle because it was time consuming. The hotel decided to move to a single stream recycling campaign, where all recyclables commodities are commingled and then taken to waste management where it is sorted.  Although the hotel now pays for the materials to be sorted, the increased amount of recyclables pays for the sorting and more.

(Watch this video to see the many more ways that the Sheraton uses sustainability in their daily operations).

Advice to other hotels

Ford recommends that other hotels consider moving towards zero waste to make changes incrementally instead of across the board at the same time. The hotel began the initiatives one department at a time instead of hotel-wide, which allowed time to make modifications on a small scale. Another step is getting the managers and staff on board with the changes. Ford had the supervisor of the San Diego Greenery tell the staff the large impact on the local environment that hotels efforts would have. He said that after the speech the room was filled with excitement and a feeling that goal was achievable.

After months of hard work, the hotel now has a diversion rate at almost 90 percent and is continuing to work towards consistently achieving the zero waste threshold.

“It’s a proud feeling that unanimously we are all passionate about making a difference. It’s a hotel-wide effort,” said Ford. “It’s about pride and wanting to preserve what we have. It’s a great feeling to know that we are doing the right thing for the environment.”

Jennifer Gregory is a journalist with over 17 years professional writing experience. Jennifer blogs via