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May 26, 2019

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Sustainability on the Strip: Behind the glitz and glamorous excess, properties are serious about being green

Mandalay Bay's solar panel array

Courtesy / MGM Resorts International - Kurt Lubas - Social Media

Mandalay Bay’s solar panel array.

The Las Vegas Strip is the brightest spot on Earth, famous for operating 24/7 and for its opulent displays that include fountains, massive buffets and more.

But perhaps unbeknownst to some visitors is that many major properties are renowned for their sustainability efforts.

When it comes to water, hotels and casinos on the Strip are some of the most efficient users in the drought-stricken region, says Bronson Mack, outreach manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Resort properties account for about 7 percent of water use throughout the Valley, Mack continued. Factor in that water used indoors on the Strip is reclaimed, recycled and placed back into Lake Mead (as is the case for indoor water use across most of the Valley), and the Strip’s water impact is even smaller.

“Probably 3 to 4 percent of our total water is actually consumed by casinos,” Mack said. “And they are the backbone of our local economy.”

In addition, most of the major casino companies tout a recycling rate of more than 40 percent, compared with the approximately 20 percent recycling rate in Clark County in 2017.

Jeremy Walters, a spokesperson for Republic Services, which oversees recycling in Southern Nevada, said MGM in particular—which operates Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and several other Strip properties—has been a recycling leader in the region.

“MGM properties have an extensive sustainability program that not only targets the recovery of recyclable materials, but food waste as well,” Walters wrote in an email.

So how do these massive properties, many of which are luxury hotels designed for comfort, rather than conservation, manage to stay green?

Water conservation

Smart landscaping techniques and minimal landscaping overall are two major reasons why most casinos don't consumer more water, Mack said.

In Southern Nevada, outdoor water use accounts for the most water loss overall because it doesn’t get reclaimed, recycled and put back into the water system and Lake Mead. Instead, it is lost through evaporation or seeps into the ground.

For this reason, the Strip’s relative lack of grassy lawns—the biggest water suckers in the Valley—and use of desert-appropriate native plants make it an environmental steward of sorts, Mack noted.

“The fact that the resorts very early on adopted more water-smart outdoor landscaping already reduces how much water they would consume,” he said.

Most of the water used by the Strip, Mack said, is for the cooling systems that keep hotels and casinos air- conditioned for more than half the year.

“Think about the footprint of the buildings; they’re huge,” he said. “And you have the slot machines giving off heat, and you have the people giving off heat. So there is a constant cooling process that has to happen within the casinos.”

And although that water gets recycled back into the system, it takes a significant amount of energy to pump the water back into Lake Mead and to clean it, Mack said. So instead, properties have adopted ways to reduce indoor water use as well, including installing low-flow showerheads, educating employees about ways to conserve water and setting overall water-use goals.

Caesars Entertainment, for example, which operates Caesars Palace, the Linq, Bally’s, Harrah’s, Paris and the Flamingo, set a goal for all its properties worldwide: reduce its 2008 water consumption levels by 20 percent by the year 2020. The company surpassed that goal in 2017 and is now aiming to reduce water use at all properties by 25 percent of 2008 levels by the year 2025, said Gwen Migita, global lead for social impact equity and sustainability at Caesars.

At Caesars, the company is constantly looking to limit grass and turf on its properties and to upgrade toilets and showerheads using the latest water-saving technologies. Because it owns many properties, these types of small but systemic changes can have a big effect on overall water use.

“A lot of it is about retrofitting systems,” Migita said.

The Las Vegas Sands Company, which owns the Venetian, Palazzo and Sands Expo, has also set a water goal: to reduce water consumption at all Sands properties worldwide by 3 percent on a per-square-foot basis by 2020, based on 2015 water-use levels.

When it comes to Sands properties on the Strip, the Palazzo is particularly water-efficient because of its nano water filtration system, whereby water is collected from a well below the hotel-casino. This allows the resort’s entire horticulture system to operate outside the Valley’s water grid, said Pranav Jampani, executive director of sustainability at Sands.

Water collected from the aquifer is also used for the hotel’s cooling system, cleaning and for one of the largest fountains on the property. It’s then filtered and reused on-site. In addition, Sands has invested in pool-cleaning equipment that uses glass filters instead of traditional sand filters to further reduce water use, Jampani said.

The Palazzo is one of several properties on the Strip that relies on underground well water, which limits its impact on water levels at Lake Mead. Others include the Wynn, owned by Wynn Resorts, and Bellagio, owned by MGM, which uses exclusively well water for its legendary fountain shows.

All about waste

With so much food produced and consumed on the Strip, it’s no secret that hotels and casinos create a lot of waste. But from composting to recycling to donating leftover food, properties have established ways to manage that waste as efficiently as possible.

In addition to recycling, Wynn Resorts sends its food waste to an agricultural farm rather than a landfill, and composts landscaping and plant waste.

More recently, the company eliminated plastic straws and is transitioning to providing compostable, environmentally friendly to-go containers rather than plastic ones, said Erik Hansen, chief sustainability officer at Wynn.

“We were the first ones of the resorts to get rid of all the plastic straws in our facilities,” Hansen said. “We replaced them with a PLA corn-based straw that can organically compost in 90 days.”

Although some studies have shown that PLA, or polylactic acid, plastic substitutes can still damage the environment, the company only gives the straws out upon request.

Caesars and Sands have enacted similar no-straw policies, only providing one if a guest requests one.

When it comes to food waste, MGM recently adjusted its policy of sending leftover food to a nearby pig farm. In 2017, the company decided to look for a more efficient way to dispose of untouched leftovers from banquets and catered events, said Cindy Ortega, chief sustainability officer at MGM.

“We were scratching our heads to say, ‘What can we do to repurpose that food in a safe way for our needy population in Las Vegas?’” Ortega said.

To answer that question, the company partnered with local food bank Three Square, which collects and freezes leftover, untouched food and serves it to the homeless and the hungry.

Since 2017, MGM has served more than half a million meals in Las Vegas, utilizing rescued, uneaten food, Ortega said.

“We set up a system that can be replicated across the country,” she added.

Energy efficiency and emissions

For all that Southern Nevada lacks in water, it makes up for in sunshine. And some of the resorts and casinos are taking advantage of the readily available sunlight by installing solar panels on their properties or building solar farms off-site.

MGM led the charge on solar when it built a solar array on top of Mandalay Bay in 2014. Today, the company is in the process of constructing a solar farm in St. George, Utah, which will allow it to power virtually all electricity needs at its Las Vegas properties on warm, sunny days by 2021, Ortega said.

Wynn follows close behind in the solar energy department. As of June, when the company completed a new off-site solar array, Wynn has enough solar power to offset about 75 percent of its energy consumption in the summertime. The company is also building a new convention center that will feature rooftop solar, Hansen said.

Both Sands and Caesars are exploring future solar endeavors. Sands already has solar panels on the employee parking garage at the Venetian as well.

When it comes to energy-efficient buildings, Caesars has been a Strip leader. The Octavius Tower at Caesars Palace and the Linq Promenade are both LEED silver certified—a program that recognizes sustainable buildings worldwide—and the planned Caesars Forum is expected to meet LEED silver standards as well.

Greening: A growing trend

While major hotels and casinos are making strides in sustainability, all four resort companies interviewed for this story—Sands, MGM, Wynn and Caesars—said they always ensure that sustainability doesn’t come at a cost to guest experience. In fact, sustainability initiatives are often hidden in plain sight.

For example, most of the properties from these companies conduct all their recycling at the back of house, having found that it’s easier and more efficient to have staff or contractors sort trash and recyclables than to give guests the option to recycle. That’s why there are no recycling stations in public areas of many resorts.

“Maybe as populations get more and more educated on how to recycle and which bins to [put trash] in, maybe we’ll adjust that in other places, but not so far,” Ortega said.

Similarly, while all rooms in Wynn and Encore are lit up by energy-efficient LED lights, the lighting fixtures aim to look just like other lights, even down to the expensive LED vanity lights.

Hansen explained that the company won’t implement sustainability measures that negatively affect guest experience. At the same time, it is responding to a growing interest from customers who want to stay at a sustainable resort.

“We make sure we’re doing what our guests want,” he said.

MGM is similarly realizing that more and more customers are looking to support businesses committed to addressing environmental issues such as climate change—and businesses are responding.

“There’s a very strong understanding and embracing by the public about global warming and climate change,” Ortega said. “I believe that businesses of all kinds are really serious about doing their part.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.