For years now hotels have been using environmentalism as an excuse to cut their costs. Knowing that customers want to “save the planet,” they have been doing things like offering to not wash the towels or change the sheets unless the traveler really wants them to. Many hotels simply will not change the sheets if you’re staying for multiple days (hopefully they still do when you check out) unless you call the front desk and ask. While they say they are trying to save the planet, their motives are really about saving money. For the hotel, doing fewer loads of laundry means less cost for water and power to do all of the laundry and, probably more importantly, less time required for the maid staff to make up the rooms and wash linens, and therefore fewer maids and lower payrolls.
Now I agree that there is no reason to be wasteful when at a hotel. There is no reason to leave all the doors open with the air conditioner going, leave all of the lights on and the TV on when you go out, or leave the shower running with no one in it. This just causes the cost for the hotel owner to increase, which forces her to raise the price of the rooms (there is no magic source of income that allows her to pay for extra utility use without raising the room cost – you are paying for your utilities, even if it seems like they are “free”).
I don’t mind using the same sheets for a few nights – it really seemed wasteful to wash them every day. But personally, the requirement to throw the towels on the floor unless you want to keep using the same ones goes a bit far. First of all, most of the time they will not be dry by the time you use them again in most hotel bathrooms. Second, with all of the towels being white, the chances of getting back your same towel are slim, meaning you’re using someone else’s towel each day – gross!
Throwing the towels on the floor, however, makes the room messy. It also means everyone is walking on all of the towels, which seems sort of disgusting even if they do get washed. It also means more wear and tear on the towels, which means replacement more often. Finally, if you throw them all down and the maid comes late, you end up without a towel or the fun prospect of digging into the wet towel mass when you want to dry your hands. But I digress, what does this have to do with economics?
Well, the hotel we stayed at last week had a sign that was particularly irritating. It started with “Every drop matters.” and then told tips for saving water like turning off the water when you’re brushing your teeth or taking shorter showers to “save our resources.” While there is no reason to be extremely wasteful, the hotel chain was being short-sighted by trying to get their guests to be ultra-conservative with their water use. Why?
Well, first of all, unless you are somewhere like Arizona or the Sahara where there is a real water shortage, there is no need to conserve water. It falls from the sky on a regular basis and there is more than enough unless usage grows to the point where there really is more being used than is available. This is not going to happen in most areas. Pumping and purifying it is also not that much of a resource drain for a little extra use either – it just means bigger pumps and bigger plants, and you can actually get some cost savings per gallon due to the economies of scale. On an economical basis, the water company has fixed costs like the number of employees and the cost of maintaining their equipment. They are not going to lay off employees or close down plants just because people use less water (hey, they’re a monopoly – there is no reason to reduce costs or increase efficiency). What ends up happening is that they just raise the cost per gallon to cover their costs. Cut use by half and you’ll be paying the same amount for half as much water. You can pay $100 per month with a green lawn or $100 per month for a brown patch of dirt outside.
So if hotel guests really do cut their water use dramatically, maybe only flushing every fourth time and pouring a cup of water to rinse off their toothbrushes with like they were backpacking somewhere instead of in a room connected to city plumbing, it would mean they would be paying the same amount for being miserable as they would be for being comfortable. For the hotel, it would also mean their costs would be a lot more when people came who decided to let the water run all night because their per gallon cost would be higher. So if you own a hotel and it is not located in Death Valley, maybe take off the ultra low-flow shower heads and let your guests be comfortable. And please, wash the towels.
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