Couchfish: Don’t leave the lights on

Couchfish: Don’t leave the lights on

Things I don’t understand about hotels.

As regular readers might remember, last year I went back to university to do a Masters degree. Travel was off the cards and I figured in doing one in Responsible Tourism Management, then when travel did restart, I’d be better informed (maybe). Given the title, it should be no surprise that the environmental impact of travel is a bit of a theme.

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The current unit touches on hotels’ environmental impact, and it makes for plenty of interesting material. What is the most baffling though, is there is often (if not always) a clear business case for taking a greener approach. The readings’ focus tends to be on higher-end hotels and global chains, but there are lessons that would work for the smallest guesthouse too ... yet ... examples are few and far between. I did write on one recently for Mekong Review (paywalled).

Keeping your emissions down Ko Chang Noi-style. Photo: David Luekens.

I’ve written before about my misgivings regarding much of the “green award” industry. Getting a green star for using low-watt bulbs while offering private pool villas seems dumb. Yet, plenty of small places (where the only horizon pool is a flooded cistern) don’t even bother with bulbs. Why? I don’t understand.

Below are a few examples. It seems to me, these are no brainers, and I’d love to hear back from readers who can explain why these are not the norm. While you’re at it, please do let me know if the sustainability of your lodging actually matters to you. Thanks!


It is the stuff of life right? According to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, 26% of Earth’s population lack safe drinking water. It goes on to say that 129 countries are not on track to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030.

In a Southeast Asian context, outside of Singapore, there is nowhere I’d be comfortable drinking the tap water. Yes, this is a catastrophic case of governmental neglect. It was telling that on my recent trip to Labuan Bajo, for all the money to make it “super-premium,” residences and hotels still rely on well-water. What gives? How super premium is that? It is authentic, I guess.

No, I think I’ll get my own water thankyou. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Dropping down from introducing piped water to an entire destination, at a hotel level things are not much better. According to SungaiWatch’s annual report, the plastic bottles and single-use cups of Danone, a Spanish food conglomerate, are the number one source of trash on Bali’s beaches. Yet, open a hotel minibar and you’re almost guaranteed to see two plastic bottles of Danone water. Why?

Sometimes you’ll see the larger gallon water bottles in each room atop a dispenser. You can use that to refill your own water bottle. I say sometimes, because in the scheme of things they’re still kind of rare. I asked one hotelier a while back why they didn’t do their water that way. The answer? Guests complain. What?

As a typical guest may not drink a gallon of water during their stay, the room ends up with a half-filled container, and when the next guest comes, they question how long the water has been there. Really? I suggested if that was such a problem, couldn’t the remnants be repurposed to kitchen use after checkout, with a new gallon coming in for the next guest. The owner seemed unconvinced.

Gallon bottles are far cheaper per unit than smaller bottles, so taking this approach would save hotels money. Given the small bottles are often supplied for free, it is hardly a profit centre. Also, infrastructure exists to refill gallon bottles—unlike the smaller ones, which, often end up in landfills or, on the beach. This brings me to my next point.


One of the most popular secondary uses of single-use water bottles seems to be having them wash up on the beach. It isn’t just the bottles of course. Again referring to Sungai Watch’s report, from October 2020 to December 2021 they audited a subset of the waste they collected from Bali’s beaches and rivers. In total they categorised 227,842 individual items, which broke down as follows:

  • Sachets: 69,825

  • Cup: 67,242

  • Plastic bottle (PET): 38,614

  • Hard plastic (HDPE): 36,253

  • Glass: 8,811

  • Metal: 7,097

If you’re curious why glass and metal are so low, in part it is because there are clear recycling routes for these. Waste collectors scavenge both the beach and bins for them to sell—often for a pittance. While I’m a huge fan of what SungaiWatch is doing, another organisation putting together some interesting resources is Bali Partnership—their site is well worth a look.

Thanks, Danone. This mess on Bali’s Batu Belig Beach took three weeks for volunteers and govt employees to clean. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Plenty of beaches in Southeast Asia already have organisations running beach (and to a lesser extent, river) cleanups. When was the last time you were staying in a beach hotel and on Sunday morning staff approached you asking if you’d like to join a cleanup? Never? Same.

They’ll often be a flyer at reception or something, but places need to get more proactive. They need to get guests off the arses and down to the sand. They may be on holiday, but simply being on holiday means they are contributing to the mess. They may not be tossing trash onto the beach themselves, but rest assured some businesses they frequent are.

Cleaning up the mess daily though is a finger in the dike. While much of the region is generations behind other countries in education around littering, just because the awareness isn’t where it should be, doesn’t mean businesses can’t change their own practices. Hotels are hubs of single-use plastics and while a growing number are refillable, plenty are not—so guests should start demanding that hotels change their ways. Once they go out in the trash, what happens to them is anyone’s guess, so an alternative is to not use them at all.

The problem is far wider than straws or water bottles and the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance has a handy cheat sheet to use as a starting point.


You can’t talk about plastic bags without talking about food. Individuals using their own reusable bags for their groceries instead of plastic continues to grow. Though do note, you may well need to use that tote bag 20,000 times to offset the overall impact of its production. How you use your bags matter. Hotels buy in bulk, so if the goods are being delivered, get them in cardboard boxes. Better still, where feasible, grow your own. Please note this advice is coming from someone who has only ever managed to grow basil and papaya successfully.

Reduce food waste by eating everything. Works for me. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

From fancy-pants resorts to humble street stalls, food wastage is a major issue. One study found that Stateside, food waste totalled around 63 million tons per annum, with 40% coming from restaurants and hotels. The smart cookies at Hotel Kitchen have made a clever toolkit and also a downloadable PDF outlining some solutions. While many of the suggestions focus on the higher end of the business, plenty scale down.

There will always be some food waste, but minimising it is a smart move for everyone—guests, the bottom line, and the planet. Two of the simplest things to start with? Smaller plates and servings, and vegetarian or vegan menus. Smaller plates and servings directly translate to less waste (and maybe save you a new notch in the belt), while plant-based foods have a drastically lower carbon load versus anything with legs or fins. Don’t forget to eat lots of fruit—Southeast Asia has some of the best and they come naturally wrapped—no plastic required. Hell, you can even throw the wrapping in the compost. Your hotel does compost, right?


Ok, this is the last one. I started off this piece babbling about light bulbs, and I do miss the old yellowish ones, but I get why I can’t have them anymore. Plenty of hotels though, don’t seem to have received the memo. Start by sorting out your lighting.

Indonesia and potential, chapter 68. Image: Solargis. © 2020 The World Bank, Source: Global Solar Atlas 2.0, Solar resource data: Solargis.

The biggest head-scratcher though is the dearth of solar power you see in the region. Indonesia in particular is a laggard on this count—if you’d like to learn a bit about why this paper from the IEEFA is instructive. I’m not going to get into the solar stuff, but that said, there are plenty of other angles hotels can look at.

Start with the gadgets. DVD players, espresso machines, enormous TVs that you need a PhD in networking to link to your laptop so never use. Survey your guests, ask how many actually make an espresso while drying their hair watching a Die Hard DVD on the LCD TV the size of a small nation. Times have changed. Ok, the hairdryers can stay.

Lava-covered rooftop at Alila Uluwatu, Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The beast in the room, of course, is air-conditioning. Windows that can be opened, standing fans, hell, even covering the roof in lava, can reduce the need for this. Cap the remotes so lunatics can’t turn it down to 16 degrees. Make sure the room seals up—open a window and the air-con turns off—there has to be tech for that. Offer a discount if guests forgo air-con. Hell, don’t even offer it. If you’re doing well-designed beach bungalows with plenty of windows and tall ceilings, you don’t even need air-con. If guests complain, give them another standing fan.

Word of mouth

Ok, this is really my last point. If your hotel is doing none of the above, two questions: Why are you staying there? Did you ask them why they’re not bothering with any of it? If, on the other hand, your hotel does some, most, all, or more still of the above, then tell your friends. Chances are the property will be on a sounder financial footing than their neighbours doing none of it. That means they’ll still be around by the time your friends arrive after travel has restarted.

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.