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Big Changes For Small, Plastic Hotel Toiletries In Santa Cruz County

Erika Mahoney
To help reduce plastic waste, Santa Cruz County has banned single-use plastic toiletry bottles from the local hospitality industry. Some places, like Sand Rock Farm (bathroom pictured here), made the switch to bulk dispensers years ago.

Santa Cruz County was one of the first to ban plastic bags and straws. Up next, big changes for small hotel toiletries.

Jen Hagglof walks up an old, wooden staircase to the top floor of Sand Rock Farm. It’s a bed and breakfast she owns with her husband. The farmhouse is surrounded by giant Redwood trees. It’s located just a few miles from the ocean in Aptos.

Hagglof has worked in the hotel industry for years. She says the amount of waste it creates is upsetting.

“You see all the single-use supplies of not just lotions and soaps, but shower caps and wastebasket liners. I mean lots of things that we all kind of glance over,” Hagglof says.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, plastic takes hundreds even thousands of years to break down. And in the hotel industry, millions of tiny toiletry bottles are thrown away every year.

So at Sand Rock Farm B&B, they don’t use single-use plastic toiletry bottles. Upstairs, in one of the room’s quaint bathrooms, large refillable bottles of shampoo and conditioner sit in the shower.  

“It makes me happy that we're not contributing to the Pacific Garbage Patch or the landfill,” says Hagglof.

Credit Erika Mahoney
Jen Hagglof runs Sand Rock Farm B&B with her husband. In addition to using bulk dispensers for personal care products, she provides pitchers of water instead of plastic bottles in the rooms.

Sand Rock Farm’s approach will soon be the norm in Santa Cruz County. A new ordinance bans single-use plastic toiletry bottles in hotels, motels and vacation rentals in unincorporated areas like Aptos. Instead, the county encourages bulk dispensers. Hosted rentals and ADA rooms are exempt from the ordinance.

Santa-Cruz based non-profit Save Our Shores came up with the idea. The organization advocates for clean waterways. Executive Director Katherine O’Dea stands on a dock at the Santa Cruz harbor. The harbor opens up to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  

“We now have this crisis in our oceans of potentially more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050 if we don't start really doing something about it seriously,” says O’Dea.

Credit Erika Mahoney
The Santa Cruz Harbor opens up to the Monterey Bay, a nationally-protected marine sanctuary. The bay is home to all sorts of marine life. Plastic threatens their survival.

While plastic is a durable and useful material, it can be harmful to marine life. Whales, fish, birds and more can mistake plastic products for food and eat them.

“At some point they become so full of plastic they just feel full and they don't eat any real food and get any nutrition and so they literally starve to death,” O’Dea says.

O’Dea sees the new ordinance as a win-win. A win for the environment and a win for hotels, motels and vacation rentals because it will save them money in the long run.

Some local places like Sand Rock Farm have already made the switch on their own. Even large-scale hotel chains are moving in this direction. Marriott is in the process of switching to wall dispensers. A Marriott spokesperson says for its average-sized hotel, the change is expected to save up to 2,000 dollars and eliminate 23,000 tiny toiletry bottles a year.

But not everyone is excited. Gary Leff is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas. He writes the View from the Wing blog, which covers airlines, hotels and good travel deals.

“I do actually worry about what other guests might put in them. So, you know, it's what might be in them, it's whether they're refilled and it's the germs they attract,” Leff says.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend always expects some pushback with new plastic product bans. The county has taken a lead before. 

“From a plastic bag ban that became statewide to a plastic straw ban that's now become nationwide with Starbucks signing on,” Friend says.

Now with the ban on small hotel toiletries, he hopes other communities will follow.

"We think that if the local mom and pop type hotels and motels here can show an example, I think that there will be places across the country that will follow this lead," says Supervisor Zach Friend.

“We think that if the local mom and pop type hotels and motels here can show an example, I think that there will be places across the country that will follow this lead,” says Friend.

For now, the ordinance applies to about 30 hotels and motels and about 75 vacation rentals.  It will take effect at the end of 2020 to give the hospitality industry time to make the switch and use up the small plastic bottles they already have.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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