When most of us manage to carve out the time, money and effort required to clock out of the daily grind for a while, the top priority is stepping away from the nagging mundane worries that are waiting for us every morning. Vacation spots excel at helping to push thoughts of the job, the commute, the chores and the bills to the side in deference to an image of luxury, if only to be enjoyed for a short time. Given Gallup’s recent numbers on where the environment sits in the list of priorities for Americans, chances are that sustainability doesn’t rank high on most of our vacation itineraries.
There is certainly an argument to be made that the ideas of luxury and sustainability do not go hand in hand–read: strongly opposed–but the fact is that, like most parts of our culture, vacation spots do not have to be so unsustainable and are rife with opportunities for improvement without compromising the patron experience.
I recently found myself on one of the year’s coveted breaks, temporarily migrating southward to recharge the batteries for a bit. The cold winter that clung to the Northeast this year made the trip that much more welcomed. With goals of rest and soaking in some Vitamin D, the destination in question was Mexico–my first visit to our southern neighbor. My family chose a coastal resort as the enclave for winding down and the weather was nothing short of perfect for the duration of our stay.
A Not-So-Green Paradise
The resort in question had clearly taken great pains to craft a beautiful (albeit unnatural) environment for its guests. From the manicured gardens, to the decorative trees, to the ponds and rivulets running amidst walking paths, little expense appeared to be spared in their quest for a tropical Eden. At first glance it is completely successful in accomplishing its goals (getting people there and making them want to come back), but it doesn’t take long to acknowledge the large amounts of energy and resources necessary to sustain this manufactured reality. That being said, there is a wealth of untapped potential.
There were a number of needless transgressions. When the weather hosts a breezy 77 degrees, there is no need for the air conditioning to be pre-set to 65 before we even arrived. Walking into a chilly room upon arrival is a fleeting experience that uses energy to temper an environment that most people aren’t even there to use outside of sleeping anyway. Additionally, low-flow fixtures in the rooms could have been an easy switch that most people would never notice.
Clean water was most likely the most misused resource on the property–a commodity that Mexico is not flush with to begin with. Given the nature of the business, there is an argument for the pools and the hot tubs. Maybe there is a case to be made for fountains and swoopy rivulets in the circulation network. But one thing that was markedly unnecessary was the amount of water used on landscaping. The main culprit, of course, was grass. In much the same way that the lawns across America, whose waning use questions their necessity, these patches of green serve as only aesthetic garnish yet mandate the lines of sprinkler heads that trace the network of pathways around the resort. Even if all this system only sprayed greywater (which seems unlikely given its proximity to the pools) it would still be a large amount of agua that could be used for something else like cooling tower makeup. Given the diversity of plant life in the region, a tasteful selection of native plantings could have undoubtedly taken the place of a water-dependent mono-culture.
The other head-scratching void was on site power generation, particularly photovoltaics. The same clear skies that pull Americans down for a week in the sun make a great case for hosting solar panels on the flat roofs of the complex. Given the fifteen-odd buildings arranged around the compound, the resort could most likely harvest a meaningful portion of its daily power use by capturing that rooftop acreage for clean energy.
Speaking of clean power, I also wondered about the prospects of food waste and anaerobic digestors for complex like this one. With six restaurants and numerous bars on site, the resort undoubtedly generates a notable amount of daily food waste. Given the remote nature of the resort, there has to be a large resource cost for transporting that waste off the property to a destination that is most likely a landfill. Instead, an anaerobic digestor could produce a cleaner fuel for the facility while keeping that waste on site and ultimately spit out some fresh compost for all of the planting searching for nutrients.
Slow and Steady Progress
The news wasn’t all bad though. Wandering around the grounds revealed what looked to be components of a first pass for integrating some more efficient technology. The main building did have waterless urinals and low-flow, motion activated faucets–both consistent with the current best practices for public restrooms. LED lighting also proved to be a favorite, most notably in the path and landscape illumination. It would be great to see this kind of tech infiltrate more of the rooms as well.
There were numerous trash receptacles that were broken into three components to separate recyclables out of the waste stream. While it’s difficult to know how much of this actually makes it to a recycling plant, trash sorting is a daily activity that needs to be kept as consistent as possible in order to improve our country’s (and continent’s) participation and help to close the cost gap for our recycling infrastructure.
Despite the fact that these kinds of establishments are crafted around the imagery of “paradise”, all of these steps for incorporating sustainability could be integrated without any detriment to that perception. As is often true, a large portion of these efforts can operate behind the scenes while trimming meaningful amounts of needless waste.