By: Jill Bernstein.
Arizona attracts millions of visitors every year and Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, is an increasingly popular destination. Drawn by the lush Sonoran desert, the starkly beautiful mountains, and the rich history of the area, visitors to Tucson can enjoy a unique experience of the area’s authentic Southwestern past and its equally vibrant present.
The historic Hotel Congress, in the heart of downtown Tucson, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. On the face of things, the Congress hasn’t changed much in its 100-year history, but look closer and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the many ways in which this historic hotel has embraced an environmentally sustainable present.
For more than a decade, under the ownership of Richard and Shana Oseran, Hotel Congress has been making conscious changes that have reduced energy use, eliminated waste, and provided their visitors with a uniquely Tucson experience. The halls are decorated with elaborate, western motif designs and the rooms are small but cozy, with high iron beds and an assortment of locally produced items ranging from lotions to snacks to whiskey.
On the ground floor, the Cup Café is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and is popular with locals as well as visitors. Just a short walk across the street is Maynard’s, a fine dining restaurant open in the evenings. Much of the food in both establishments is locally sourced, and some of the produce is grown on site.
The hotel’s capital improvement efforts began in 2007 when they replaced old-style urinals with water-efficient EcoBlue urinals, which have saved close to two million gallons of water since they were installed.
Next, they sought to reduce their energy usage. Previously, the entire hotel was on one thermostat. This meant that all the rooms were heated and cooled at the same time, regardless of occupancy. In 2010, the single thermostat was taken out and mini-splits were installed in each room. This enables guests to adjust the heat to their own specifications and reduces unnecessary energy use when rooms are not occupied.
In 2012, the hotel replaced aging, inconsistent water heaters with solar powered models that provided both consistent flow and consistent hot water. The new heaters also reduced their energy costs by 35 to 40 percent.
Hotel Congress also does an outstanding job of recycling and reducing food waste. The City of Tucson provides recycling services and the hotel brings its food waste to a nearby location run by the University of Arizona Compost Cats. The Compost Cats collect food scraps from around the Tucson area and turn these scraps into usable compost that enriches local food-growing soils to help conserve water and grow more food. Through this program, Hotel Congress diverts approximately 500 lbs. of food waste from the landfill every week.
Recently, the hotel launched its One Less Straw campaign to raise awareness of the problems caused by single-use plastics. The hotel has reduced its straw usage by 10,000 straws per week. If a visitor asks for a straw, they offer plant-based straws that can go into their compost collection every week. For those visitors who want a reusable straw, the hotel offers glass straws for sale.
Bottles from the hotel bar are repurposed into glasses that are used in the hotel restaurants and offered for sale to the public.
They are experimenting with using indestructible paper menus made from #7 plastic. The plastic is made from a type of polyester used in the creation of PET bottles, which reduces the amount of printing done, and saves paper. Bed pillows are made from recycled water bottle caps. Shampoo and conditioner containers have been installed in room showers to reduce waste and eliminate the need for mini plastic bottles. The shampoo and conditioners used are locally sourced and feature no plastic packaging.
“What makes our sustainability efforts work is our dedication to educating the staff,” says Rita Dorsey Boutwell, Director of Operations, “and we are always striving to improve.”
The hotel has a ‘green team’ made up of line-level staff, managers and directors who meet once a month and are tasked with educating their peers. “The green team makes sure everyone who works for the hotel understands our sustainability goals and how to reach them,” adds Boutwell. The group also volunteers and participates in fundraisers for local nonprofits. In addition, Gina Murphy-Darling (founder of Mrs. Green’s World), hosts quarterly pre-shift meetings with staff to learn about their latest challenges and to help them continue to make a difference.
There are more changes to come. In 2019, the hotel will replace 40 toilets with low-flow units and will begin harvesting rainwater. The success of their efforts over the last ten years is good for the hotel, good for its visitors, and good for Tucson. Hotel Congress is providing a model for the hospitality industry throughout the state, creating a comfortable, unique historic venue that is simultaneously celebrating its past and leading the way into a more sustainable future.