In a decade of travel, Robin Brinn accumulated dozens of small toiletry bottles from hotel bathrooms, bringing them home to her New York apartment and storing them in bags. But when she recently moved, she discarded most of them.
“I just really wanted to pare down,” said Brinn, 67, a retired clinical social worker. “I had bags of stuff that I had taken over the years. A couple of things had the name of a lovely hotel on the bottle. But I threw most of it out.”
Like Brinn, many travelers collect the tiny containers as souvenirs or to use when they return home, home organizers say.
“It is the rare home that does not have at least a small if not very large collection of hotel bottles,” said Karin Socci, a KonMari practitioner and home organizer at the Serene Home who worked with Brinn during her relocation. “I can’t tell you how many pounds and pounds of those things I have discarded.”
But (ever-so-slightly) lighter suitcases at checkout and less cluttered home closets might be in our future. Like grocery bags and straws, the miniature bottles of toiletries and cosmetics that many guests swipe from hotels are in the sights of legislators and hotel establishments who are trying to reduce the environmental effect of plastic waste.
Hotel-industry officials say the tiny bottles that squeeze out thick lashings of shampoo, conditioner and body lotions are slowly being replaced by wall-mounted, refillable dispensers.
In what might become the first such state law of its kind, a bill, AB 1162, is making its way through the California Legislature that aims to scrap the tiny single-use plastic bottles at hotels and other hospitality establishments. It was passed in the Assembly last month and has moved to the Senate for committee examination.
“The goal is really to start to phase out single-use plastics in our state in general,” said Ash Kalra, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This is really low-hanging fruit because the industry is already moving in that direction.
“It might take some … adjustment, but it is part of a larger conversation of trying to get plastics out of our culture,” Kalra added.
Plastic items spilling out of the carcasses of dead sea creatures or piled in landfills have inspired bans across the country, but the undertaking has mostly taken place in a patchwork of city and county governments. The City Council of Orlando, Florida, this month approved a partial ban on straws and bags, and last month, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, banned plastic bags starting next year.
In March, lawmakers in New York agreed on a statewide ban on most types of single-use plastic bags from retail sales, making it the second state to do so after California, which has been at the national forefront of legislative action to ban plastics clogging shorelines.
Santa Cruz County just south of San Francisco was the first in the state to pass a plastic-straw ban in 2016.
In Seattle, a ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect in 2012 and on plastic straws and single-use utensils last year.
In 2016, the world generated 242 million tons of plastic waste, according to the World Bank. North America, which it defines as Bermuda, Canada and the United States, is the third-largest producer of plastic waste, totaling more than 35 million tons.
The transformation in the hospitality industry will be both cultural and economic. Industry observers were concerned about how the changes in the pending bill would affect the work of housekeeping staff, or that guests would recoil from using refillable bottles that had been accessible to previous guests and just topped up, rather than completely replaced.
The California bill says that from the start of 2023, lodging establishments with more than 50 rooms would be prohibited from providing a small plastic bottle containing a personal-care product in a bathroom or sleeping room. Establishments with 50 rooms or fewer would have until Jan. 1, 2024.
The California Hotel & Lodging Association had pushed for an extension of the deadline to make it easier for hotels to comply. But it said some of its members already had environmental programs in place.
“The hotels are largely going in that direction,” Lynn Mohrfeld, the association’s chief executive, said.
He estimated it could cost about $70 for each of the 500,000 hotel rooms in California to be transformed to accommodate multiuse dispensers.
Generally, hotels and hospitality organizations assume guests will nick toiletries. But if they don’t disappear from rooms, bottles left behind are often repurposed.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group, said it did not have national industrywide trends but that its members addressed such issues individually.
Some donate extras to homeless shelters or other organizations helping people in need. Terranea Resort, a 102-acre resort that employs a sustainability leader in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, donates “partially consumed, wholly usable” toiletries left in guest rooms to the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles.
“In one month alone, this can amount to over 380 pounds of toiletries diverted from the landfill and sent to those in need,” the hotel says.
Hilton hotels, Hyatt and Marriott International have programs intended to reduce landfill waste, the California Hotel & Lodging Association said. InterContinental Hotels Group said last year that it would remove plastic straws from more than 5,400 hotels in nearly 100 countries by the end of 2019 and introduce bulk bathroom amenities at some of its brands.
Some hotels work with Clean the World, an organization in Orlando that recycles soaps and leftover plastic bottles collected through its partnerships with 8,000 establishments.
The Hotel RL chain and Clean the World announced such a partnership in April, citing market statistics that estimate the hospitality industry generates about 440 billion pounds of solid waste every year, “a great amount” of it soap and bottled amenities.
Sandie Beauchamp, a vice president of marketing, said that recycled products were reused for emergency-relief operations, but that the organization was also working on a project to use recycled plastics to be turned into park benches or furniture.
“The goal is to never have anything go into landfills,” she said.