|April 29, 2013|
Las Vegas: the reinvention of Sin City as a sustainable city
Can Las Vegas, where wastefulness is part of the business model, reinvent itself as a sustainable city? Photograph: Jan Butchofsky-Houser/Corbis
The Las Vegas strip, home to the world's best known casinos where wastefulness is not just encouraged but is a key part of the business model, has been reinventing itself over the past few years as a model of sustainability. But is it really possible for the infamous strip, that according to legend is so lit up it can be seen from outer space, ever be truly green?
Las Vegas (Spanish for "the meadows") was founded as a city in 1905 because, ironically, the cluster of water springs in an area that was mostly desert made it an ideal rest and refuelling stop. But this water supply which was more than adequate to support the 800 residents that lived in Las Vegas just over a century ago soon dried up when the gaming industry caused the population to explode. Now the city is struggling to meet the water and energy demands of its over 500,000 citizens, never mind the 40 million tourists who visit the city every year, most of whom come to enjoy the Strip's excesses.
The greening of the strip, which can now boast one of the highest concentrations of LEED certified buildings in the world, is a very recent phenomenon. In 2005 the Nevada state legislature passed a green building incentive package that was criticised for being overly generous to developers who quickly jumped on board when they realised they could get up to $3 for every $1 spent meeting LEED requirements. The programme was tweaked two years later, but by then the number of LEED projects in Nevada had jumped from 14 in 2005 to 97 in 2007.
Two of the biggest profiteers from the scheme were MGM Resorts International and the Las Vegas Sands Corp who own more than half the strip between them. Both companies got millions of dollars in tax breaks for construction of the new CityCenter Complex and the Venetian Palazzo tower respectively. But flawed as that scheme may have been from a budgetary perspective, environmentally it may ultimately be a big win for the state.
The Sands Corp achieved Gold LEED certification for retrofitting several existing buildings and Silver LEED certification for the Palazzo and 17.2m of MGM's CityCenter Complex's 18m square feet are Gold certified. "Before 2005," says Chris Brophy, VP of corporate sustainability for MGM, "there weren't that many LEED certified square feet in existence." More importantly, however, from a long term environmental perspective, in addition to building green, the gaming companies have begun putting admirable sustainable practices in place so that their buildings can live up to their green promise.
Waking up to water scarcity
One of the first things Brophy drew my attention to when showing me around Aria, CityCenter's signature building, is a scale model of the Colorado River by the artist Maya Lin, that snakes through the mostly naturally lit lobby. Nevada is one of seven states that depends on the over-burdened Colorado River for its water supply, so honouring it in such a way is not an insignificant gesture. More practical methods of respecting the river and the water it provides are also in place in all of the casinos I visited.
According to Gwen Migita, VP of sustainability at Caesars, one of the oldest resorts on the strip, water conservation is one of the core elements of their Code Green environmental strategy. Some of the innovations include installing aerators in the sink and shower heads to minimise water flow and low flush toilets that use just 1.28 gallons per flush compared to the standard 1.6 gallons. They also installed a giant washing machine tunnel to wash the towels and linens that they say saves up to 30 gallons of water per room.
The Palazzo have gone a step further with their water conservation efforts by tapping into the underground stream that still runs beneath Las Vegas Boulevard. The water in this stream is so close to the surface it is not pure enough to be safe for human consumption. Most properties along the strip simply collect the water and pump it out to a sewer. The Palazzo decided it was worth trying to make use of this water so they put it through a nano-filtration system that makes it safe to use for irrigation purposes on the property. According to Rishi Tirupari, sustainability project manager at the Palazzo and other Sands properties, this measure has helped save around 5m gallons of water a year.
Another area in which the casinos are attempting to reduce their rather deep set carbon footprint is by finding ways to recycle and repurpose waste. The casinos generate nearly 500,000 tons of waste a year most of which until fairly recently went straight to landfills. But now most casinos have back of house sorting efforts in place to recover some of this waste.
Plastic, paper and aluminium products are retrieved from the rubbish and compacted into bales which are then sold on the open market. Food waste is either sent to a nearby pig farm or composted. The oil that is used in cooking is collected and sold on to be converted into biofuel. Caesars has an "asset recovery" programme that involves rescuing spoons and glasses and other items that found their way into the trash which saves the company approximately $800,000 a year.
The companies estimate that these various recovery and reuse efforts help them divert approximately 55% of their waste from landfills. That still leaves a lot of landfill waste, however, but the companies are reluctant to directly involve their guests in waste reduction or recycling efforts.
"Our high-end gaming customers are not interested in green issues," says Tirupari. He has a point. When people go to Vegas they tend to be more focused on vice than virtue. It remains to be seen if the casinos' back end efforts will be enough to make that vice sustainable.