Accounts from a Vegas Virgin

I had never been to Las Vegas before my first business trip. I expected bright lights and never ending rooms filled with slots and poker tables. I expected giant hotels and over the top, well everything. I did not expect to be so taken with the recycling habits of the casinos, hotels and convention centers. Who knew that the Sin City was actually a “Sin-staintable” city.

I spent the majority of my five days inside the Las Vegas Convention Center for work with Crane USA. Our booth was right next to the wine station- lucky us I know. I noticed they had two waste bins, one with a recycling logo facing outward. I walked over to recycle our left over flyers and asked the woman serving wine which one I should put recycling in. She smiled and said, “either”. I was confused. “Either? But doesn’t this convention center recycle?”

The Las Vegas Convention Center is huge. Huge might be an understatement. It literally has millions of square feet of entertaining and meeting space and takes hours to walk the whole building. I would have been shocked and frustrated if this enormous building had not even attempted recycling. The server at the wine booth explained to me that all Las Vegas hotels, casinos and the Las Vegas Convention Center have single stream waste and recycling. Visitors throw their trash or recycling in any bin and it is be sorted later. I had never heard of this before.

When we went out to dinner that night I took notice of the waste bins. Sure enough I found signs that said “Green Code” and “Items will be sorted for recycling and trash”. I was thrilled. Who would have guessed that a city like Las Vegas so known for careless nights and no responsibility, because you know, “what happens here stays here”, would actually take eco-responsibility. Then I thought about it a little more, a three-hour plane ride back to Chicago gives you plenty of time to think.

Does this system really work long-term? Does it actually promote carelessness because people didn’t have to pay attention to recycling or garbage? Is Las Vegas really trying to be sustainable or is this just an easy way out so they don’t have to waste slot space with another bin for waste? Upon arrival back in Chicago I decided to further investigate the recycling and sustainability in Las Vegas.

I decided to look into the places where I was able to go while in Vegas. If I missed your favorite hotel/casino look into it and get back to me:

Of course I had to go check-out Caesar’s Palace, Flamingo and Paris (all part of Caesar’s Entertainment), it was there that I noticed all trash bins were marked with a sign saying “Green Code: All Trash is Recycled”. The Caesar’s Palace Conference Center is LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certified. The building itself and how it operates are both dedicated to conserving energy and water- this from a building with enormous and glamorous ballrooms and meeting spaces. Golf resorts owned by the entertainment company managed to save 200 million gallons of water through infrastructure designs focused on conservation. They truly are forward thinking if they can save water in the middle of the DESERT! That’s awesome!

Two of my favorite hotel and casinos were The Venetian and The Palazzo. They are also doing great things for sustainability. The Venetian Resort, along with the Sands, are Gold LEED certified. In 2008 the Palazzo earned Silver LEED certification making these three connected buildings the largest LEED structure in the world- the whole world! The Sands Corporation, which includes all three of these hotel casinos, saves enough energy each year to power more than 6,500 American homes. They also use the largest solar thermal system in the U.S. This solar thermal system, heats water for their pools, spas and all domestic uses within the buildings. Ahh I feel more relaxed already.

View of  New York New York from The Excalibur. Yes that is a roller coaster. 

Last but certainly not least, I explored a few hotels within the MGM Resorts International, which includes the famous Aria, Bellagio, Excalibur, Luxor and New York New York. These hotels introduced the very first electric car charging stations on the strips. They improved their recycling initiatives after 2007 and in five short years they were able to improve their recycling percentage to 45%. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center is the fifth largest convention center in the country and they manage to recycle 75% of all waste from their events. Another fun fact to know and tell, The Excalibur recycles a full ton of glass and two tons of cardboard each day! The building might look medieval but their sustainability practices are certainly modern.

I spent most of my time in the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s WasteWise Program. The main goal of this group is to divert recyclable materials away from the landfill. Currently, the LVCC averages 65% of materials recycled after all shows. And of course when you visit the Sin-City you must use the Monorail. It gets you everywhere you need to be with zero-emissions, what a way to be part of the solution.

The great news about all these venues is that they have made great process in such a short amount of time and they continue to improve. Everyone from the bartender I spoke to, to waste management professionals speak proudly of their sustainability efforts. In Las Vegas I expected to be inspired and awed by decorations, food and of course the people, but I did not expect to find inspiration for sustainability. The next time you head to a new city, or one that you’ve been to several times, take a look around. If Las Vegas, a city of such splendor and awe, can be impressive in sustainability, what’s stopping the rest of us?

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Paper Nor Plastic: Remember Your Reusable Bag

As of August 2015, Chicago banned ‘single use’ plastic bags from grocery stores within the city. The city defines ‘singe use’ bags as the thin plastic bags that most grocery and drug stores provide for us at checkout. The ones that easily rip if you try to carry two gallons of milk in the same bag, naturally these items are usually double bagged. Chicago’s ban replaced these ‘single use’ bags with a thicker plastic bag that is considered ‘reusable’.

Despite several stores posted signage alerting shoppers that plastic bags would no longer be available for them after July, many were still surprised when checking out at the store. As someone who noticed the signs and was at first thrilled about the end to plastic bags in a city where it’s not uncommon to see plastic bags stuck in trees and fences, I was disappointed and even angry to find out plastic bags were still available. This makes it a fake ban to me. Why claim to ban plastic bags when the ban is to replace them with thicker ‘reusable’ plastic bags?

Like Chicago, cities like Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and several others across the country implemented similar bans on plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores. These bans include completely banning plastic bags from stores to offering a thicker plastic bag that is considered reusable. California was the first to ban plastic bags and water bottles in several cities, but others are just at the beginning of their efforts. What makes a successful plastic bag ban? How can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? And how can consumers make a difference just by remembering to bring reusable bags to the store?

Research from CNS News in Austin, Texas found that a year after their plastic ban was introduced, with the same intentions to ban ‘single use’ bags and replace them with ‘reusable’ plastic bags, the ban was actually less sustainable. The research goes on to explain that producing the ‘reusable’ plastic bags means using more resources to produce a plastic bag and ultimately people are not reusing it. Well, that was research money well spent- not. Why are you offering a thicker plastic bag instead of just doing away with plastic all together? This seems like the only logical solution to actually reduce the number of plastic bags in use and encourage people to use true reusable canvas bags.

As with most polarizing decisions, there needs to be incentive for people to get onboard. In Maryland and DC, they found success charging just five cents for a plastic bag. While that doesn’t seem like much, in both cities they found that it was enough to make consumers think about whether what they were buying was worth the extra five cents for a bag. 90% of shoppers in the area now remember their reusable bags when shopping.

Why does this even matter? What harm do plastic bags pose to the environment as a whole and how can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? The Plastic Pollution Coalition released data that shows in America, we use 30 million tons of plastic each year and only 8% of that gets recycled. Plastic is a strong durable and petroleum based material, it does not biodegrade. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and it’s getting into our waterways and oceans. Eliminating plastic bags is an easy way for us to maintain the health of ecosystems and of our most precious resource, water.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow. Plastic bags drift into the oceans carrying pesticides and other harmful chemicals directly into our waterways. Animals can get caught in the plastic or confuse it for food. Populations of fish, birds and other wildlife are washing up on shore dead with large amounts of plastic material to blame. Wildlife in the ocean may not matter to you on a regular basis, but it seems ironic that consumers bring a salmon filet or pound of shrimp home from the store in a plastic bag and then claim that they don’t care about ocean wildlife. If you want to continue to enjoy the selection of food at the store, you need to think about how your actions influence it.

Chris Jordan photography shows an albatross decomposing with plastic of every kind in its stomach.

How can cities improve their plastic bag bans? Actually follow through on that, ban plastic bags. Force people to use a true reusable bag, even if it means starting by imposing a five-cent tax. Institutions and government don’t like to force the public to do anything. The thing is plastic bags have not been around for that long, 1962 to be exact. It’s only been since 1968 that the government required all vehicles to have seat belts. In 2004, the government made it illegal to smoke in public places. These were changes the government enforced and that the public had to adjust to and today they just seem like common sense.

Plastic bags have a direct impact on our health as well. They contaminate our water supply, the air we breathe and use resources that can be put to better use. Why is it so hard to adjust to using the same, at most, half a dozen bags each shopping trip to improve our health and the health of our environment?

You may be thinking, my city doesn’t ban plastic bags, maybe they don’t but you can. Change doesn’t start at the government level; it starts with an individual and the decisions that they choose to make. Reusable bags, reusable water bottles, these are solutions we already have and need to continue to use while addressing other pollution issues. The next time you go grocery shopping, remember your bags and remember that you’re part of the solution.

(Bags shown far left) My latest shopping trip and I am pleased to say that the people checking out in front of me and behind me all had their own bags. I hope this is an easy change that becomes habit for most people.