08/20/2010 04:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hotel Goes Green, Saves a Fortune

Complimentary breakfast buffets help to make the Embassy Suites Hotel & Ski Resort one of the best lodging deals in South Lake Tahoe, California. But what happens to the food that guests pile onto their plates but are too stuffed to eat and thus discard is part of an amazing sustainability overhaul that should serve as a model for the hospitality industry worldwide. As an extra plus, the hotel's ambitious array of green innovations have saved its owners nearly $1 million since green measures were launched in early 2009.

"It's terrible that people waste food. We don't want to greenwash," said the hotel's chief engineer David Hansen, who gave me a tour of the hotel, situated smack-dab between ski slopes and sparkling blue lake.

But now the uneaten food doesn't go to waste. Instead, five cubic yards per week of leftovers are toted about ten miles up the road to Full Circle Compost. Full Circle sells its compost to nearby Hungry Mother Organics, which uses it to grow lettuce and heirloom tomatoes. Full Circle also sells soil to the Embassy Suites: It's the only soil used in the hotel's leafy atrium, a skylight-illuminated indoor forest whose $500,000 worth of live plants help keep the air fresh.

"The soil I buy might have been our guests' pancakes twelve weeks ago," David Hansen said. "This is my lab."

After getting excited about green technology while helping Robert Redford create Utah's Sundance Resort, Hansen brought his newfound knowledge to the Embassy Suites upon being hired there. Launched in January 2009, sustainability measures ranged from LED bulbs and Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee in guest suites to impressive recycling strategies to free-range chicken served in the restaurant to compostable corn-fiber cups and bags. Styrofoam has been replaced with biodegradable materials. Kitchen fans are now on timers. A computer-operated temperature-control system allows staff to preprogram which meeting rooms need to be warmed or cooled, when, and for precisely how long. Sensing from afar a room's temperature as well as that of the air outside its windows, the system's central "brain" automatically opens or closes air vents in that room to cool or warm it. Before this system was installed, AC and/or heating ran 24/7 in all such rooms, occupied or not.

According to GreenLodgingNews, the hotel's owners had already spent $250,000 less than they had expected to spend on energy by July 2009. When comparing the first six months of 2009 against the first six months of 2008, "electricity consumption dropped by 575,000 kilowatt hours ($98,902 savings) and natural gas consumption by 9,314 dekatherms ($67,709 savings). The hotel also experienced increased efficiencies in waste management, reducing by 48 tons the amount of waste sent to landfill. This resulted in an additional $15,250 savings."

Hansen told me that, overall, green tech reduced the hotel's operating budget by over 10 percent last year -- including $361,000 saved in energy bills and $33,000 saved in waste removal. Bottle-and-can recycling saves the hotel over $700 a month.

Hansen showed me the Embassy Suites' laundry operation, where 120,000 pounds of linen per month are washed not with hot water or caustic chemicals but ozone. Injected into the hotel's washing machines, the gas is a fierce oxidant that punctures and breaks down bacteria.

The ozone process halves every spin cycle and sustains the linens' lifespan by as much as 50 percent.

"It also opens the weave of the fabric," Hansen beamed, "which makes our linens come out brighter and softer" -- and cheaper, to the tune of $3,200 in electricity-bill savings every six months.

Nevada Energy recently rewarded the hotel's eco-friendly efforts with a $27,727.20 rebate check, according to GreenLodgingNews.

The Embassy Suites' indoor swimming pool is sanitized not with chlorine but with Morton Salt.

"It's so low-tech," Hansen said. "I love low-tech."

In the four hundred guest suites, GreenSwitch wireless technology shuts down lights and power in empty rooms, even if guests have thoughtlessly left everything on before departing.

Green innovations are catching on at other hotels and resorts nationwide.

"If saving money is the bottom line that it takes to change corporate America, sad as that is," Hansen said, "then so be it -- we're saving money."