Green Hotelier interviews the winners of the Cornell Student Sustainability Competition

Lilia and Quinn claim their prize

Lilia and Quinn claim their prize

Two students from Ithaca New York have designed a simple solution that helps hotels reduce waste and donate to charities at the same time.

Lilia Karimi and Quinn Cox who are students at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration (SHA) came up with The Giving Bag; a product that aims to save hotels money on items lost or left behind by guests.

The simple concept won the pair $2000 in the third annual Cornell student sustainability competition in October last year.

Green Hotelier spoke to the students about their design and their plans for the future.

GH: Tell us a bit about yourselves.

Lilia: I’m a junior in the hotel school and I come from Seattle, Washington. I worked for a sustainable hotel company this past summer called Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality which really exposed me to how hotels can be sustainable in all aspects. At Cornell I’m involved with Hotelies Serving Society, Mountains for Moms, and The Cornell Tradition Fellowship. I work on campus as an event coordinator and also teach spinning classes!

Quinn: I’m a junior in the Hotel School.  I’m originally from Iowa, but now live in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  I’ve worked at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, Four Seasons at Las Colinas, and for Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality (a company based in Costa Rica and Nicaragua).  At Cornell I’m a part of the Dean's Student Advisory Board, Phi Gamma Delta, Mountains for Moms, and The Cornell Tradition Fellowship.

GH: Can you describe for us the idea you entered into the competition at Cornell?

Both: The competition asked us to create a sustainable solution to a non-sustainable issue in hotels. The issue we found in hotels is that the lost and found system is wasting a lot of money with labour and storage expenses. Our solution is The Giving Bag. This is a small tote bag (of the hotel's choice) that can be placed in guestrooms. The purpose of The Giving Bag is to allow guests to place unwanted items in the bag throughout their stay. The items can then be donated to a charity of the hotel's choice. We found that 20% of guests leave items on purpose and instead of wasting space in the lost and found, The Giving Bag allows the unwanted items to go to a good cause.

GH: What inspired you to enter this particular idea?

Lilia: I went to a conference in Las Vegas this summer with my mom and the hotel gave us tons of gifts to take home like picture frames, lotions, snacks, water bottles, etc. We only had carry-on bags and didn’t want the items that much so we just left them in the room hoping someone would take them and use them. While it would be nice to think that the items were collected by someone to use, in most cases the items are just stored in the lost and found system for three to six months. I thought this was a waste of items, and after talking to Quinn about it we developed The Giving Bag.

GH: Why do you think would a hotel be interested in this idea?

Both: We think a hotel would be interested in this idea because it would reduce the amount of items in the lost and found. Housekeepers usually have to wrap up each left item, write who found it and where, and then someone has to enter it into the database. Without these extra items, housekeepers will have more time to utilize at work. We have found that donating to charity leaves people feeling happier and this could also affect the hotel's guest satisfaction scores.  Additionally, The Giving Bag can be a great marketing tool within the community. By partnering with a local charity, more locals would know about the initiative and gain a better image of the hotel.

The Giving Bag concept

The Giving Bag concept


GH: How much do you think it would cost to set up?

Both: The only cost related to The Giving Bag would be purchasing the bags. The initiative has low start-up costs with high potential for future returns and savings. Since the bag can be of the hotel's choice, a hotel could choose to use extra laundry bags and just add The Giving Bag logo. An upper-scale hotel could choose to purchase biodegradable bags, or find another sustainable material to use.

GH: What are the main sustainability benefits?

Both: The main sustainability benefits are to reuse items that would otherwise be thrown away. It is a great way to get the hotel involved in the local community while also reducing their own costs.

GH: Have you identified any particular challenges in implementing the idea?

Both: The only challenge we have thought of so far is getting guests to participate. The hotel would need a great marketing and training team to get the word out. Front desk agents would need to be highly educated on the initiative and inform guests upon check-in. There could also be an information note-card placed in a visible location in the room.

GH: Are you going to be implementing your idea?

Both: We are currently in the process of talking to a couple of hotels about running pilot programmes and implementing the idea. If you are a hotel reading this, we would love to talk to you about how we can implement it at your property!

GH: What do you plan on doing next in terms of your careers?

Lilia: I have a broad range of interests so I have not settled on one career path yet. However, I am starting to look into sustainable hospitality consulting as a future career.

Quinn: I am interested in technology and hospitality start-ups, emerging markets, and international business.  Before I graduate I would like to get an internship in another country so that I can expand my cultural knowledge.

Quinn and Lilia showcase their concept

Quinn and Lilia showcase their concept


The student sustainability competition is conducted in conjunction with the annual Sustainability Roundtable at Cornell, and is sponsored by Schneider Electric. The roundtable brought nearly three dozen international hotel practitioners and researchers to the school in fall last year to discuss current sustainability trends and strategies.

A spokesperson from Schneider said, "As a global leader in energy efficiency, Schneider Electric has been honoured to sponsor the Cornell University for Hospitality Research Center's student competition the past two years.  Sustainability and energy efficiency have become such an integral discussion in today's hotel operations, on a global basis.  It is a critical issue facing hotels as they seek methods of reducing the industry's carbon footprint on the environment. Energy management represents the greatest opportunity for a hotelier to reduce wasted energy and its associated high costs, in both their operations and design and build phases, to drive significantly increased profit margins and asset values. We are excited to see the future hospitality industry leaders from Cornell University taking such a strong lead in this discussion."

R. Sean O'Kane, director, hotel strategic alliances and thought leadership for Schneider Electric added, "Each year, these student concepts become more comprehensive. I can see any of these concepts being developed for implementation."

Two further concepts tied for second place in the competition and won $750 each. They were "Challenge of the Rising Cost in Food Waste Processing," presented by graduate students Mingjue Yin, Minjia Yang, and Xiaoyi Yin, whilst SHA undergraduates Nicole Andress, Rodney Harris, and Theresa Williams, presented their "Glocal Hospitality," idea.

The graduate student team looked at food waste, designing a system that includes guest feedback on portion sizes as well as identifying donation opportunities for surplus food, whilst ensuring timely purchasing and composting.

The undergrads’ "glocalization" concept involves increasing a hotel chain’s existing international development practices to incorporate local customs, practices and materials in its operations, with the aim of integrating the hotel into its local environment.

Six student teams presented their ideas to the Cornell roundtable participants who then voted to rank the three finalists.

The Center for Hospitality Research sponsors research which aims to improve practices in the hospitality industry. With the help of the center's corporate affiliates, students work closely with business executives to find new insights into strategic, managerial and operating practices.

With such a great support structure behind them and some innovative ideas at their fingertips, we’re certain these enterprising young people have a great future ahead of them in the industry.


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