At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Jeff Chase, vice president of sustainability at Freeman, asked some of the event’s big exhibitors what would happen to their exhibits when the show closed. The answer from many, including Audi, with its 5,000-square-foot booth, was that they were destined for the dumpster.

He told that story to an audience at the Green Meeting Industry Council’s Sustainable Meetings conference in May, when he shared a stage with Tom Bowman, green business consultant and author of The Green Edge, to talk about practical strategies to reduce the environmental impact of exhibitions.

Chase and Bowman aren’t anti–trade show, but they are anti-waste. When you consider the packing materials, plastic sheeting, signs, and brochures used in a typical show, not to mention environmental impacts of shipping, personnel travel, and sometimes disposable booths, they’ve got a lot of ground to cover to improve the industry’s sustainable practices. Here are six of their best ideas.

1. Solving the Abandoned Booth Problem
One of the biggest environmental problems for trade shows is abandoned booths, says Chase. International exhibitors are often the culprits, building one-time-use structures that get thrown away after a show. One solution is to follow the U.S. Green Building Council’s example and require that exhibitors either pack out all their booth materials or use a rental booth. Alternatively, Chase suggests creating a donation and recycling program. When he learned that Audi, Sony, Samsung, and many of the other big exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show planned to throw away their booths after the show, he arranged for 22 trailer loads of materials to be donated to Habitat for Humanity and several other charities. The exhibitors, Chase said, were delighted with the option, but didn’t have the initiative to organize it themselves. “They’re looking for the show organizer, facility, event planner, or general contractor to provide solutions.”

2. Make Donations a Priority
“Ask your convention facility if they have relationships with local organizations that can take wood, metal, signage, or plastics,” Chase says. He points to the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas for its success recycling Visqueen—the plastic that keeps the floor clean before a show. The Sands has developed a partnership with local organic farms to reuse the material. Chase also tips his hat to the Orlando Orange County Convention Center for creating a list of organizations that exhibitors or show organizers can work with to recycle and reuse booth materials.

3. Small Is Beautiful
“It’s a myth that lightweight exhibits cause less pollution on the road. The analysis is that the weight is meaningless because the truck already weighs so much—30,000 to 50,000 pounds,” Bowman says. “The difference between a lightweight booth and a normal booth isn’t enough to make a difference in fuel economy.” What’s most important, he says, is to pack trucks as full as possible. The smaller your exhibit packs, the more the truck can carry, which translates into a need for fewer trucks on the road overall. Space-saving strategies include designing a booth with compact crating in mind, renting elements of the booth locally, and using stretch fabric materials for booth walls. 

4. Signage: Give it New Life
On-site signage that includes the show location, dates, and year is immediately obsolete. But once attendees are at the show, do they really need to be told where they are or what year it is? Let’s hope not, says Chase, who suggests rethinking the wording and graphics on your signage to make it more evergreen.

Alternatively, reuse your signs by layering new event graphics over last year’s signage, Bowman says. That keeps the signs’ substrates out of the landfill and allows you to customize the graphics for each event.

5. Skip the Literature
Shipping boxes of literature to trade shows, says Bowman, “is an extraordinarily expensive way to take trees and turn them into landfill waste with a lot of pollution in between.” From his experience, the materials are printed at the last minute and sent by air to the show in order to include the very latest information. The flights pollute and are expensive. When the boxes arrive, there’s a cost to get them to your booth on the show floor. And in the end, companies distribute a very small percentage of these printed materials and often the rest ends up in the landfill. “On top of that, 90 percent of what you do distribute ends up in the trash in attendees’ hotel rooms.” The smart alternative: eliminate paper and convert to electronic brochures.

6. Cut the Flights!
If you want to shrink the environmental footprint of your booth, consider your exhibit personnel’s air travel. A trade show is a great place to do business, but is there value in every person scheduled to attend? Could the numbers be cut? Is it possible for an East Coast employee to stand in for a West Coast employee when the show is on the East Coast, and vice versa? When staff do have to fly in, pay the extra for nonstop flights, says Bowman. Jets cause much more pollution when climbing to altitude than when cruising, plus non-stops are likely to take people hundreds of miles out of their way.