Big Events With Small Footprints
America's multi-billion dollar convention industry adopts new sustainability standards in a growing effort to reduce the enviornmental impact of large meetings and events.
In January this year, over 140,000 people converged on Las Vegas, Nevada for the annual International Consumer Electronics Show. Reputed to be one of the largest conventions in the United States, the event involves the transformation of a vast, empty space into a medium-sized American city of booths, eateries, meeting spaces, theaters and more. The 158,000 square meters of carpeting would cover 35 American football fields.
Fifteen years ago, events like these generated massive waste that went straight to a landfill, such as all that carpeting. But growing awareness of and action on sustainable practices has brought substantial reform to the meetings and conventions industry. After a lengthy and rigorous consensus process through standards-setting organization ASTM International, new universal standards on green meetings will soon be released in partnership with the Convention Industry Council. Due to the sheer size of the meetings industry, the potential impact is huge.
A report by the Professional Convention Management Association, based on data from 2009, revealed that over 1.8 million business meetings, small and large, took place in a single year in the United States, with an estimated 205 million total participants. Direct spending associated with meeting activity that same year was estimated at over $263 billion.
The new standards cover nine areas of sustainability, offering a common scorecard for measuring green practices, according to Karen Kotowski, CEO of the Convention Industry Council. “Previously companies each set their own practices, but now we’ll all be measuring in the same way. The new standards are a huge leap for developing more sustainable practices across our industry.”
According to the U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency, the biggest wate-generating activities at meetings and conferences have historically included:
Event marketing and registration
Mailings, event programs, name badges.
Travel to and from events
Carbon emissions from planes, trains and other vehicles.
Water use for laundering, material waste with single-use toiletries.
Food and beverage
Disposable cups and plates, surplus food, and non-sustainable farming practices.
Landfill disposal of carpet, booths and excess giveaways; energy use in event space.
Carbon emissions and other pollutants
from taxis or rental cars.
Photograph © Getty Images
She notes that while the standards offer a concrete way to measure ecofriendly conventions, the process and the industry continue to evolve. “We developed these to be flexible, so that people who are just starting out in sustainable meetings will find a good jumping-off point and not be overwhelmed. They may just be trying to achieve level one, with no or low cost to implement. The entry point may be as basic as simply having recycling bins at meetings, and from there they can work on what is needed to get to the next level.”
While more and more meeting planners seek to create greener events, some convention centers are hiring dedicated staff to support sustainability efforts for their clients and venues. Brittin Witzenburg, sustainability coordinator at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, recognizes the real challenges that event organizers face when it comes to adopting sustainable practices in the process of transforming a vast, empty space into a showcase. “The planners are starting with basically four walls and a concrete floor. They have to bring in things to have everything looking great. A decorator can maybe reuse the carpet four or five times but when you have thousands of people walking over it, and it’s cleaned with a ride-on cleaner, wear and tear is significant. We have to keep in mind the balance between reuse of items, and a level of hospitality and customer service that events seek to provide.”
Considered one of the greenest locations for hosting an event, Portland continues to lead the way in setting standards for sustainable practices in America. “In the past, conventions were typically very waste and impact heavy,” explains Witzenburg. “About 10 years ago, a contingency of conservation-minded people here in Portland began to work on the issue, and their combined impact was significant enough to make changes.” Measuring the amount of diverted waste over time helps show organizers understand and benchmark the impact of their efforts. Last year, the Oregon Convention Center recycled over four tons of carpet, in addition to 35 tons of metal, 87 tons of cardboard and 138 tons of organic waste.
Witzenburg suggests that event organizers looking to go green should start small, focusing on things with immediate results like recycling opportunities and food choices. Eventually, improvements can be made in areas like transportation between the airport and convention site, water and energy usage during the event, and exhibitor participation in sustainable practices. Current areas of focus in the industry include more consideration of sourcing of materials—everything from paper and signage made from recycled products, to serving locally-grown, seasonal foods. Green events are also looking to reduce the number of trade show giveaways, including the ubiquitous tote bag.
“How many reusable grocery bags do we really need?” laughs Witzenburg. Instead of handing out new bags, one organization encouraged attendees to bring back a bag from a previous year and get a complimentary drink ticket. “Free stuff doesn’t make you want to come back to a meeting each year. In the end, people are coming for the human connections—the community. That’s the social aspect of sustainability we can all support.”
Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.