Flushed With Pride, a Highway Rest Stop Embraces Sustainability

Sustainability is everywhere. Even in the men's room.

Drive about halfway from Washington, D.C., to New York along Interstate 95 and keep your eyes open for a building with a gently curving red roof and glassy facade, amid an asphalt moat crawling with cars. Inside is a 42,000-square-foot hall built with architectural niceties unusual for a highway rest stop. It's a low bar -- visiting most rest stops is as inspiring as crawling into a cardboard box.

Operated by HMS Host, a unit of Italy's Autogrill SA, the Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza offers fast food for whatever ails you and limited retail possibilities. The men's room was about halfway down the hall, a bank shot off the Starbucks hut.

The urinal, a waterless variety, was my first tip-off that something was up. The only other time I'd seen anything similar was in a display at the U.S. State Department at a meet-and-greet for journalists on Earth Day one year during the George W. Bush administration. They were showing off the model being installed in official men's rooms in U.S. facilities around the world. It was unclear how State Department women were supposed to save the environment.

I washed at a hands-free faucet and, curious, looked for the climate-control unit. It was manufactured by Trane, a subsidiary of Ingersoll Rand, which in recent years has embraced sustainability in its building systems equipment.

The piece de resistance was a sign greeting patrons on their way out. The first time I saw it was in August 2012. It read:

This facility has been designed and built as an environmentally friendly "Green" building.

We encourage the use of our high efficiency electric hand dryers as alternatives to disposable paper towels. By doing so, we reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on landfall capacity.

Thank you for your participation in sustainability.

Maybe social mores frown upon describing on a sign the most important issue in the sustainability of restrooms -- the separation of human waste from humans and its delivery somewhere else. Michael Jones, HMSHost Vice President of Business Development, said that informing patrons about water treatment and waste disposal wasn't a bad point, and that the company's communications work is still evolving.

It used to be that companies would make capital improvements to save money and provide a better experience. Sustainability encourages companies to make creative and expensive capital improvements and to boast about how great they are for people and planets beyond the legal boundary of the corporation. It’s never entirely clear if companies punch up the PR because of how great their capital improvements are, or if they’re undertaking the capital improvements because they want to be able to punch up the PR. It shouldn’t matter; the results are the same. Yet motivation is still kind of the only thing I want to know.

Most of the rest stop’s food franchises are privately held and fly below the sustainability trend gripping the world's largest companies. They tend to focus on community outreach. AFC Enterprises Inc., the owner of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, describes corporate responsibility within its business interests. Everybody else does, too, even if they’re not as refreshingly direct as this: "We develop meaningful relationships with each organization and involve ourselves in community service, board memberships and committee work assuring that our time and resources have a return of goodwill or increased sales."

HMS Host operates rest stops and airport food courts in the United States, including the Delaware service center. The company's sustainability page outlines its environmental, nutritional and community goals, emphasizing recycling and healthier food choices. Charging stations for Tesla electric cars were installed this year. An ominous issue for any roadside sustainability effort is the dependence of the transportation system on fossil fuels. HMS Host pursues its carbon and environmental goals without accompanying state or federal lobbying to address the system itself, according to Jones.

I was reminded of my favorite highway fast-food stop recently when circumstances found me in the paper-goods aisle of a Whole Foods searching -- in vain, I knew -- for My Little Pony-themed napkins for a six-year-old’s birthday party. I didn’t find them, but did see a shelf filled with Whole Foods-branded “sustainably soft” toilet tissue.

I’m so glad everything and everyone are so sustainable now. All we need is a sustainable climate and we’ll be all set.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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