Oak Park Native Helps Westin Michigan Avenue See the Green
Could this be a glimpse into the future of Chicago’s downtown hotels?
At the Westin Michigan Avenue, sustainability manager and Oak Park native Laura Kane beams with pride as she gently tugs the cover from a circular bin. At first glance, the inside looks like just coffee grounds, but a closer look reveals some 5,000 string-like worms eating their way through layers of cardboard bits and food waste.
What’s taking place, explains Kane, is vermicomposting, which harvests the worms’ excrement, or vermicast, into organic fertilizer. This spring, she’ll work the nutrient-rich yield into the soil of the rooftop garden on the 27th floor. Kane, who also serves as one of the hotel’s business travel managers, last summer produced a small crop of parsley, oregano, basil, tarragon, rosemary, sage, tomatoes, bush beans and peppers. Everything grown was used for meals prepared by Westin hotel chefs.
Mother Nature eventually came around, adding the finishing touch to Kane’s ecosystem. When two bees landed on her basil plants, she became giddy. “I was so excited,” she says, “that I told everyone that day, ‘Imagine the possibilities!’”
For Westin Michigan Avenue, this isn’t a science project. Instead, it’s one of many “green” initiatives the hotel has pursued since 2007. That’s when then-Mayor Daley challenged 25 downtown hotels to join his Green Hotels Initiative by pursuing and maintaining their Green Seal certification, the Environmental Standard for Lodging Properties for waste minimization, waste and energy efficiency, and hazardous substances.
Only a half-dozen of those 25 hotels today continue to maintain the prestigious, silver certification from Green Seal. Proudly, the Westin Michigan Avenue is among those six.
The Westin’s first step toward a greener existence was to eliminate Styrofoam from its entire property, followed by the switch over to earth-friendly cleaning chemicals. Recycling bins in the guest rooms originally for paper waste and aluminum cans soon added plastic and cardboard to its contents. Batteries and light bulbs are recycled in another area of the hotel.
Other green initiatives would follow. The hotel began to donate partially used amenity bottles to city charities, while only purchasing paper items like copy paper, tissue paper, toilet paper and paper towels made with a recycled content. Most recently, the hotel partnered with “Clean-the-World,” a Starwood Hotels initiative that donates partially used soaps to Third World countries.
But it’s Westin’s “Make a Green Choice” program that appears as successful as it is interactive: it rewards guests with either a Starbucks gift card or reward points if they agree to opt out of all housekeeping services during their stay.
While these programs demonstrate Westin’s environmental goodwill, there’s an even greener benefit: it saves them money.
This helps to explain why Westin’s $7 million renovation of its ballrooms, banquet and conference space was designed with environmentally friendly features—including recycled materials and energy-efficient products like LED lighting and insulated air walls. The steel beams used in the 38,000 square-foot renovation, for example, are composed of 83% recycled content.
Its new, natural wool carpeting will outlast any synthetic carpeting. Meanwhile, any remaining hotel incandescent fixtures have been replaced with Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL), while all existing CFL has been converted to Light Emitting Diode (LED).
But the statistic that Kane enjoys most is the fact that 90% of construction debris was recycled instead of being trucked to a landfill.
Her boss agrees.
“We’ve made this conscious effort over the past five years to become one of downtown Chicago’s greenest hotels,” says Brent Menzel, Westin Michigan Avenue General Manager. “When we began talking about a comprehensive renovation to our ballrooms, banquet and conference space, we wanted to make sure that every component and renovation feature was earth-friendly—even down to the low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and adhesives used. “Not only are we seeing the financial gains from these earth-friendly efforts,” he relates, “but our guests enjoy doing their part for the environment, too.”
Because of its round-the-clock operation, hotels are among the biggest consumers of energy, and the largest producers of waste. They’ve also long-prided themselves on lavishing amenities on to their guests: the availability of fresh linen, an endless supply of clean towels and new toiletries with each room cleaning, and always a fresh roll of toilet paper.
“Our guests at Westin Michigan Avenue will never see a roll of toilet paper with less than half remaining,” Kane explains, “but that doesn’t mean we throw these away.” She adds that these items are great need by Chicago’s homeless population. Recent Westin donation recipients include Lincoln Park Community Shelter, R.E.S.T. Shelter, the YMCA, and St. Theresa’s Church in Lincoln Park.
While the Westin staff has executed its green strategy to plan, Kane says that most of the credit for making “green” a priority at Westin belongs to its management team.
“They’re very forward-thinking,” the six-year veteran relates. “They care about the environment, but also know there’s a big environmental impact that can be made in this industry.”
A recent Westin audit proves her point: from June-December 2011, the hotel consumed 205,520 fewer gallons of water, 51,380 fewer hours of electricity (that’s enough to operate 5,138 laptops for 10 hours), 128 million fewer BTUs, and 281 fewer gallons of chemicals.
The reduction of chemicals resonates with Kane. “Our mindset at the Westin is to select the greenest products with the least amount of chemicals,” she explains. “It’s a natural thing. It’s the smart thing to do,” she adds. “It’s also the right thing to do.”
In the meantime, Kane yearns for the warmer weather, when she can expand her rooftop garden.
“I’m not a country girl,” she says, “but composting is in my blood. My grandparents survived the Depression by reusing and recycling things,” she relates. “Nothing went to waste. I was raised the same way, and my mom had us composting at an early age.”
“The Westin is definitely ahead of the game when it comes to vericomposting,” says Amber Gribben, proprietor of Urban Worm Girl, a Chicago business that provides worms and classes to urban farmers like Kane. After meeting at a Chicago Green Exchange conference, Gribben supplied Kane with a starter pack of 5,000 “red wigglers.”
Given the eastern exposure and Chicago winds, the garden, Kane admits, won’t be replacing Westin’s daily visits to the produce aisle anytime soon. But she says the measure truly demonstrates the Westin’s continual pursuit of environmental-minded practices.
Until the warmer weather comes, Kane continues to think of new ways to keep the Westin green.
“I’ve been reading up on wind power,” she says with a smile.