(Travel + Leisure) -- As I write this, I'm in a hotel room on the Vegas Strip, looking out my window at the construction site of what will be the largest green hotel in the world, set within MGM Mirage's $7.4 billion City Center.
The hotel is pursuing certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, which sets standards for environmentally sustainable construction. Among the measures it's taking: recycling 80 percent of construction waste and building a monorail to the Bellagio. But if you check in when the hotel opens in 2009, you might not notice it's green; a loophole allows it to be LEED-certified even though guests can smoke in the casino (it is ventilated, however).
What does "green" mean?
Unless you stay in an eco-lodge, you're not always likely to see a property's efforts to reduce its impact on the environment. Sure, you might be asked to recycle towels and use a key card that controls your room's lights and climate. But subtler measures, such as building with recycled materials and landscaping to use less water, aren't so apparent.
You can look for some proof of certification, but dozens of countries, several U.S. states, and a number of industries have their own labeling programs with varying standards, so it's difficult to know just how green your hotel really is. (See five of the most reputable programs.) To complicate this scenario, many properties are bypassing accreditation in favor of developing their own sustainability plans. The Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C., for instance, uses renewable wind electricity and purchases organic food whenever possible.
Eco-construction is a growing phenomenon. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, there are now 118 hotels that have registered for LEED certification. So far, only one hotel -- the Gaia Napa Valley -- has earned the Gold certificate (the highest level). Striving to be the second Gold winner, the Proximity Hotel, in North Carolina, will use rooftop solar panels, install elevators that generate a portion of their own power, and use an air-exchange system to reduce its energy consumption. And LEED is expanding to international hotels. Easter Island's Explora Rapa Nui, set to open in December, seeks to obtain Gold status.
What can you do?
Every property in T+L's "Favorite Green Hotels" filled out an eco-questionnaire to ensure that they're meeting high environmental standards. You can put the same questions to a hotel before booking: What has it done to reduce carbon emissions and waste? How does it conserve energy and water consumption? And does it have programs that support its community? You'll be doing the environment a favor. E-mail to a friend
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