How Singapore hotels benefit from going green, as well as helping the planet

The Lion City roars ahead with innovative energy systems, food waste initiatives and more in response to demand for genuine sustainable travel options
CAROLYN BEASLEY South China Morning Post 21 Apr 18;

Fed up with “greenwashing”, whereby hospitality businesses tout cost-saving or profit-making practices as green initiatives? In Singapore, a nation that prides itself on its clean, green image, 2018 has been declared the Year of Climate Action by the National Environment Agency, but are the Lion City’s hotels really doing their bit? I’m on a mission to find out whether Singapore can do better than just offering to not wash my towels.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, 5 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions is produced by international tourism, with accommodation pumping out 20 per cent of that. Environ­mentally conscious consumers are therefore recommended to choose hotels with third-party eco-certification, but this is seemingly impossible to find in Singapore.

Ethical booking website, for example, does not list any eco-certified hotels for Singapore, and TripAdvisor’s Green Leaders programme, active in 66 markets worldwide, has no participating hotels in the city state. This apathy seems to extend continent wide; according to non-profit organisation Green Hotel World, Asia is the worst performing continent, with only 0.9 per cent of its hotels certified by a third party as “green”.

The lack of certification is puzzling, as there is apparently money to be made: a worldwide study of 7,000 guests com­missioned by AccorHotels in 2016 indicated that two-thirds of visitors would be prepared to pay a little more for a hotel engaging in green practices. The company’s vice-president of communications and corporate social responsibility, Asia-Pacific, Gaynor Reid, says, “Our guests are really demanding eco-friendly hotels, especially our corporate clients, as almost three quarters of them have a responsible purchasing policy.”

Travel metasearch engine Kayak has an “eco-friendly” filter and, according to Jason Yeung, the company’s head of marketing and PR for Asia-Pacific, hotels falling into that category include those that save water and energy through optional, non-daily linen refreshment, serve locally sourced food, offer bikes for transport and make efforts to reduce waste, elec­tricity usage and carbon footprints. “While we cannot guar­antee that all properties classified as ‘eco-friendly’ have all of these specific features,” he says, “they are conscious of eco-friendly practices.”

One of the Singapore hotels listed by Kayak as eco-friendly is Parkroyal on Pickering, voted Asia’s Leading Green Hotel at the World Travel Awards for the past three years. Approaching the hotel, its greenness is awe-inspiring. This towering, vegetation-covered oasis in the heart of the business district was conceived with environmental efficiency in mind. The hotel features skygardens, waterfalls, planter terraces and cascading vertical greenery, with vegetation cover totalling 15,000 square metres, double the hotel’s total land area.

The plants bring a sense of calm to the busy location. The greenery absorbs heat, provides shade and reduces the need for cooling in guest rooms. Director of marketing communi­cations Lee Kin Seng points out the hidden irrigation pipes. “A gravitational water drip system from our rooftop rainwater tank feeds nutrients and water to these plants,” he says. “When there’s no rainwater, the system switches to NEWater, Singapore’s recycled water.”

In the vast, triple-height lobby area, the lighting is mostly natural, facilitated by a shallow building depth, while high-performance glass cuts out solar heat. A few soft, yellow LED lights inside the lobby, powered by rooftop solar panels, provide additional lighting to boost the health of the indoor vertical gardens.

This was the first development in Singapore built using Cobiax technology, a system that reduces concrete usage by using recycled plastic to create hollow areas within reinforced concrete slabs. Every four floors, there is a cantilevered garden terrace jutting out of the building.

The fifth floor is a dedicated wellness space, with a pool, garden lounges and herb garden. The soaring ceiling here allows airflow and helps prevent heat gain to the upper floors. “If this area was not a garden,” Lee says, “just imagine how many rooms I could add here, to make money for the hotel.”

Stepping out of the lift, guests are greeted by an impressive outdoor corridor design, which promotes natural ventilation. Open on one side, apart from the cascading vine, the corridor wafts with the sounds and smells of vibrant Chinatown below. On the enclosed side of the veranda, vertical garden breezeways link to the next garden terrace, four levels below. Opposite a babbling creek, wooden panelled guest room doors, reminiscent of a forest, open into energy efficient rooms.

“We can’t offer huge rainwater showers, I’m afraid,” Lee says, as he opens the door to a room. “And you’ll notice we have no chandeliers.”

The hotel aims to meet the tightest controls on water and energy consumption. Guest rooms contain recycling bins and drinking water comes in glass containers. Designed to allow in daylight and thus save electricity, the floor-to-ceiling windows are not tinted, meaning guests must lower their blinds for total privacy. “We have had a few guests caught out with this,” Lee admits.

The Parkroyal on Pickering is exceptional in its environ­mental commitment, and other hotels in the Lion City are following suit. The Singapore Hotels Association encour­ages establishments to improve their environmental creden­tials with a biennial awards ceremony. The number of hotels receiving the association’s Green Hotel Award increased from 15 in 2009 to 30 in 2017.

Sustainable buildings in Singapore are assessed by the government’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) under the Green Mark scheme. Ninety-eight hotels have so far qualified at one of four sustainability levels. New buildings are required to meet minimum Green Mark standards, and events organised by public-sector agencies are held only in Green Mark-certified venues, creating impetus for hotels to go green. For existing buildings, the government offers grants of up to 50 per cent of the cost of retrofitting new technologies.

Going green can be challenging for hotels located in historic buildings, as was the case with Hotel Fort Canning. This elegant, colonial-era building is situated beside 18-hectare Fort Canning Park, an area that is central to Singapore’s history. Constructed in 1926 as the administra­tion building for the British Far East Command, the facility served many roles until, in 2011, following a major renova­tion, it became Hotel Fort Canning.

Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority protects the building’s facade, and permission was needed for alterations. Standing in the lobby, it is evident that heritage is valued here, with four glass-enclosed archaeological pits embedded in the reception floor, housing 14th- and 19th-century pottery exca­vated from Fort Canning Hill. Despite the heritage challenges, the hotel has been certified by the BCA with Green Mark “Gold Plus” – the second highest level – for its retrofitted energy and water-efficiency systems.

The hotel offers free nature tours and yoga classes in Fort Canning Park and participation in a plant-a-tree programme (and for those who don’t want to get dirty, someone to plant it for you). In 2017, the hotel was country winner in the category of Luxury Eco/Green Hotel at the World Luxury Hotel Awards.

While the number of eco-friendly hotels is rising, so too are the ways in which hotels can be green. In Singapore, 791,000 tonnes of food was thrown away in 2016, wasting this resource and causing disposal issues, according to AccorHotels. The group has pledged to tackle the problem and at its Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen hotel, general manager Ben Patten is waging war on waste.

Patten discovered that more than 80 per cent of food waste in his hotel was coming from diners’ plates. He launched a Clear Your Plate campaign in February, and for each plate left clean at the end of buffet service, committed to donate S$1 (HK$6) to charity The Food Bank Singapore.

Through a computerised system for measuring food waste, kitchen staff recorded the leftover portions. At the end of the first month, Patten says, waste was reduced by more than 10 per cent. “This translated into 1,534 clear plates, which means we made a great donation to Food Bank.”

In March, the hotel group held a competition called Recipe for Clean Plates, to encourage the reuse of leftover food in local households. People were asked to share recipes using leftover ingredients, with finalists receiving a weekend stay at an AccorHotels Singapore property.

Not only affronted by food waste, Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen also has a gripe with disposable plastic. Doing away with plastic water bottles, the hotel offers guests the choice of still or sparkling water in classy borosilicate glass bottles. Takeaway food is served in biodegradable cornstarch containers and straws are made of paper. Even the humble pen has gone plastic-free, with a disadvantaged community in Indonesia producing the property’s eco-pens from recycled materials.

“Hotels need to understand that we are having an impact in the places where we do business,” Patten says. “Our green efforts here certainly contribute to customers returning.”

And the research confirms that it pays for hotels to be genuine in their efforts. The International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management reported in 2015 that consumers became sceptical when they felt a hotel was greenwashing, and fake initiatives can backfire. For example, where a hotel offers a linen-reuse scheme, ostensibly to help the environ­ment, but persists with disposable toiletries and offers no recycling options, the consumer is less likely to trust the programme and participate, or revisit the property.

Taking this on board, AccorHotels aims to plant 10 million trees globally by 2021, funded by savings generated from the optional linen-reuse scheme. Patten is the project’s coordi­nator for Singapore and says that the initiative has also been assisting coffee farmers in Indonesia since 2012. He explains that North Sumatra produces outstanding, certified sustain­able Arabica coffee. “This year, we are very excited to close the loop,” he says. “We can now buy this coffee, which we’ve helped to grow, and which has bettered the lives of Indonesian families.”

Guests will be able to see – and drink – the benefits of the savings made through linen reuse.

Another way to improve a hotel’s sustainability is to consi­der the source of the food it serves. At Grand Hyatt Singapore, the director of culinary operations for Southeast Asia, Lucas Glanville, explains his passion for sustainable food. “We produce between 3,000 and 5,000 meals per day, so it’s incredibly important that we provide accountable ingredients,” he says.

The hotel started its sustain­ability journey with seafood, becoming one of the first in the world to receive Chain of Custody Certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, meaning that the entire supply chain, from fisherman to restaurant, must be sustainable. Glanville says the hotel eschews a two-tiered menu system, wherein some seafood is sustainable and some is not. “It’s our problem to work out how to supply sustainable food, even if it comes at an increased cost,” he says. “We can reduce our margins or offer great value alternatives such as plant-based foods.”

Glanville says the hotel has removed all shark fin, bluefin tuna and soft-shell crab from its menus. Certain preparations of soft-shell crab require cutting away the eye and mouth area while the creature is alive. “I don’t think that’s right, so we removed that product until a more humane way is found,” he says.

An organic farm on the other side of the Malaysian border, in the nearby Cameron Highlands, supplies cool-climate vegetables, lowering the carbon footprint. Some food even comes from the roof of the Hyatt’s ballroom, which has been transformed into a garden.

As we stroll through this sanctuary, Glanville points to thriving basil, mint, laksa leaf and curry plants. Unruly tufts of lemongrass infuse the air with a refreshing scent and bunches of green bananas soften the high-rise view. While production here is not on a commercial scale, he explains, the hotel’s chefs treasure this connection to fresh produce.

A digester has been installed in the Grand Hyatt’s base­ment to process food waste into organic fertiliser. Through 300 metres of piping, each food preparation area in the hotel is connected to the machine. An enzyme is added to the food pulp, along with heat and recycled cardboard, and after 24 hours in the digester, the fertiliser is ready for the hotel’s gardens or to be sold. The digester prevents 400 tonnes of food waste going to landfill every year, saving the hotel about S$100,000 (HK$600,000) on removal costs, and 55,000 rubbish bags per year. The hotel has also become the first in the world to invest in a trigeneration plant, which produces 30 per cent of its electricity and reduces carbon emissions by nearly 1,200 tonnes per year.

Hotels continue to be large consumers of resour­ces, but the industry has the power to reduce carbon footprints. For their part, tourists can choose greener stays and expose greenwashing when they encounter it.

“People usually embrace green initiatives,” Glanville says. “There’s a limited supply of resources on our planet. Hotels are big consumers and we are all responsible for our actions.”