For planners new to organizing green meetings or who want to start adding sustainable elements to their events, the message is simple: Start small but start somewhere.
Sustainable meetings are complex. Planners often think it’s too much work and stop before they even start, said Nancy Zavada, founder and president of MeetGreen.
“They don’t consider it a journey,” she said.
But if they pick one thing and try to do it well, “it makes it so much more approachable to go to your stakeholders with future sustainability efforts,” said Chance Thompson, senior manager, sustainability and public relations for SMG at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.
Location, Location, Location
Choosing a destination is the most important way to start. Knowing where attendees will be coming from can help narrow down destinations so you can choose one that most people can reach by driving — maybe even carpooling — to reduce emissions from flying.
It’s also important to look for cities that have mass transit from the airport to the venue. When selecting a site, look for one in a walkable area so attendees can walk to restaurants, stores and attractions without having to rent a car or get a cab.
“The more you can eliminate the need for vehicles to be used, the better,” said Courtney Lohmann, director of culture for PRA South Florida and chair of the Events Industry Council Sustainability Committee.
Planners can also give attendees local transit passes. For one recent event, Visit Salt Lake worked with the Utah Transit Authority to have kiosks at the airport to give attendees passes to ride the light rail to downtown, Thompson said.
Planners should also look at the city’s infrastructure for waste collection, recycling and composting and choose a community that has a robust program.
Transit, walkability and recycling: “Those three things are going to reduce your carbon footprint right from the start and make a big difference,” Zavada said.
Beyond the Building
Choosing a LEED-certified facility is a great way to cut energy and water use, but LEED facilities aren’t always available — or affordable.
“You do not need the LEED facility to make a big impact,” Lohmann said.
In the past, much of the focus has been on holding events at LEED buildings, but shifting efforts to the operational side of things can allow planners to do even more.
Some venues have their own in-house sustainability programs and initiatives. The Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, for example, has its own donation program. The center works with over 80 nonprofit, faith-based and art organizations to donate and reuse materials left over from events, Thompson said.
“Leave it behind, let us compile it, and our staff and crew can find a home for it,” he said.
Planners can also look for lodging that uses LED lighting, has low-flow toilets and encourages guests to reuse linens.
In the United States, food waste is estimated to be 30 percent to 40 percent of the food supply — the equivalent of 133 billion pounds and $161 billion of food a year. And it’s not just food that goes to the landfill; it’s the energy, resources and emissions that went into growing, harvesting and shipping it.
If planners have to pick one area of focus, Thompson recommends food waste because it’s relatively easy and because it can save money.
To start, planners should rethink the old industry standard of ordering 1.5 times the amount of food they anticipate needing. Lowering that to 1.25 or less will immediately reduce waste. Planners who work for an organization can also look at past events to analyze the group’s food needs and historic consumption.
Opting for at least one meatless meal and trying to source local ingredients also cuts down on carbon emissions.
If planners usually preset salads for a formal dinner, Lohmann suggests presetting only 80 percent of the seats. Not presetting water, tea or coffee cups reduces water waste.
Rather than automatically refilling the buffet, have attendees notify staff if they want more of a particular item. Doing so ensures that food stays properly heated or cooled and that it is not contaminated so it can be donated after the event.
Planners should work with partners or venues that have a vetted donation partner authorized to handle and serve donated food. The fear of liability issues when donating food is really a nonissue, Thompson said.
A “clean plate challenge” encourages attendees to take only what they’ll eat. When they’re done eating, they go to a scraping station and get a reward if their plate is clean.
Waste management is really materials management, Thompson said, and “it’s my favorite realm.” That’s because it’s so broad and allows planners to be creative. It can range from items directly under the planner’s control, such as registration materials, lanyards and giveaways, to larger partnerships with exhibitors to donate their exhibit materials.
When the Salt Palace hosted a carpet and flooring trade show in 2017, it worked with the producer to reuse thousands of carpet samples from the event. The convention center tapped a local artist who turned 4,200 carpet samples into a 20-foot-tall mosaic of Utah’s first female senator and the first female state senator in the U.S.
Eliminating individual plastic water bottles cuts waste and saves money. Instead, set up water stations with glasses. Using event apps helps reduce paper, “but the trouble is, people are starting to think you cut out plastic water bottles and paper, and you’re done,” Zavada said.
Eradicating single-use plastics like straws and service ware is important and can give the event a more elegant feel.
Giveaways are another area planners need to rethink. Attendees don’t need — and often don’t want — a lot of the swag that gets foisted on them. For one event, attendees could choose between a conference bag or an extra drink ticket on the registration form, “and sure enough, the drink tickets won out,” Zavada said.
If there will be a promotional item, try to make it elegant, relevant and long-lasting, like a glass water bottle or a reusable cotton bag.
Signage is another big area to tackle. Foam board is the industry standard, but “we’ve got to get rid of it,” Thompson said. It’s not recyclable, and it’s difficult to donate or repurpose. He recommends transitioning to Falcon Board or honeycomb board for fully recyclable paper-based signage.