“Did you know that the meetings and conventions industry is one of the largest producers of waste in the world?” asks Julie Larson. “The first time I heard that, I found it to be really staggering.”

Larson, project manager of meetings and events at McDonald's Corp. in Oak Brook, Ill., knew that her company was a big contributor, with 100 events a year and one of the largest conventions in North America. The 2008 Worldwide Convention, held in April at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, brought together nearly 13,000 franchisees and used 750,000 square feet of space.

For Larson, that meeting was the perfect target. Why not start greening where it would have the most impact?

Think Big

About a year before the April 2008 event, she spoke with her boss and began to set the wheels in motion. It was not a tough sell. “It was really a grassroots effort,” says Larson. “We were starting at ground zero. We didn't have a blueprint to base this on, so it was basically a self-taught journey, with all of us going through the process together.”

The team started by identifying several areas they believed they could improve upon. The first was energy expenditure. Looking at past energy consumption, they learned that the 2006 event had used 675,000 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy. “We thought that we could reduce our energy footprint with this show, and then explore options for offsetting the rest.”

Working with the OCCC, the team created an aggressive air-conditioning and lighting schedule for the hall, turning lights on only when they were truly needed and raising the temperature on the show floor at various times to conserve energy. Then she worked with the Orange County Environmental Protection Agency and Progress Energy, a Raleigh, N.C.-based energy company, to help set up a rebate fund for homeowners in the Orange County area who purchase solar-powered water heaters. The energy conserved when homeowners replace their traditional water heaters with solar-powered units will offset the convention's carbon footprint three times over the life of the heaters, says Larson.

Another area ripe for reduction was the amount of materials used and distributed at the convention by the 255 exhibitors. This meant taking a look at paper handouts, show giveaways, booth construction, and menu selection to eliminate items that were not essential and to introduce environmentally friendly options wherever possible. “We really wanted to make sure that everyone was thinking about this and being smart about the decisions they were making.”

She then went to work on the show vendors. She asked that the food service provider, Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, supply organic menu options and use only biodegradable containers and utensils. She also arranged to place water coolers on the show floor, reducing bottled water consumption by nearly 25 percent over previous years.

She also worked closely with Dan Hoffend, vice president of sales and corporate accounts at Freeman, Dallas, to promote environmentally friendly booth design options to exhibitors, such as recycled carpet and reusable panels and backdrops. The choice to use sustainable booth materials was purely voluntary, but getting buy-in from the exhibitors was not difficult, notes Hoffend. “It was a matter of asking, ‘How can we improve upon this together?’ Ultimately, people wanted to get involved. It seems simple, but without someone driving the effort, it just won't happen.”

Lessening Landfills

Then there was the waste. Containers were set up for attendees to dispose of bottles and cans in recycling bins, while all other trash was disposed of in separate bins. “The Orange County Convention Center sorts its waste off-site, so anything recyclable that ended up in trash receptacles would be separated at the waste center,” Larson explains.

During exhibit breakdown, Freeman assisted exhibitors with recycling all PVC, Plexiglas, aluminum, wood, paper, corrugated cardboard, and carpet from the booths. They also tracked their progress. “We had a 70 percent diversion rate,” says Larson, “which accounts for 244 tons of trash that we were able to keep out of landfills as a result of our recycling efforts.” While the team had not tracked its diversion rates at the 2006 convention, Larson says the 2008 figure was much higher than they expected for a first-time effort.

McDonald's uses coaches to shuttle attendees to and from hotels and on convention center grounds, so Larson worked with the center to secure two hydrogen-fueled buses, which emit fewer greenhouse gases than traditional gas- or diesel-powered vehicles.

For upcoming conventions, she is looking into increasing the number of host hotels within walking distance to the convention center and working with McDonald's preferred transportation providers to incorporate alternative fueling options in their fleets and reduce the amount of time coaches spend idling.

Spread the Word

McDonald's got attendees engaged in the green effort throughout the event. The event Web site included updates on green efforts at the convention and served as a portal to educate attendees on recycling before the start of the event. It remains a central place of info for attendees to check McDonald's progress in continuing the green meetings effort.

Even the on-site child-care program, Camp McKids, incorporated environmentally conscious activities into its agenda. Children were informed about the importance of conserving the environment and had an opportunity to learn about nature during daily field trips. They also participated in green activities, such as crafts with reusable and recycled materials.

Larson's team also wanted to make sure that the event would make a positive contribution to the Orlando community long after the convention wrapped. Working with the Orange County EPA, a small group of corporate employees and supplier volunteers planted trees to help reforest an area that will be used as a wildlife rehabilitation site.

Food service provider Levy Restaurants donated unused food from the event to America's Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization that distributes donated food to food banks across the nation. Beverage suppliers Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper also made contributions to Second Harvest.

Even furniture and décor used in the green rooms — the areas where speakers relax and freshen up before presenting at the general session — didn't go to waste. After the event wrapped, the items were donated to Green Oats Orphanage in Orlando. Nearly new items such as towels, lamps, furniture, pillows, hair dryers, and ironing boards, which had been provided for VIPs and speakers during the event, were offered to the orphanage.

Attendees also joined in the effort. “We asked them to gather any unused bath amenities from their hotel rooms when they checked out. On the last day of the convention, we collected all the little bottles of shampoo and lotion and donated them to the Orange County Coalition for the Homeless.” The action served double duty. Not only did attendees help to prevent thousands of amenities from ending up in landfills, the items were used in the coalition's spa day event, where homeless people in the community are given haircuts, health checkups, hygiene assistance, inoculations, and job tips.

An Ongoing Effort

While she is pleased with what her team and the company were able to accomplish at this convention, Larson is quick to acknowledge that her work is far from over. “We set the bar really high our first time out of the box. But now it's, ‘How do we do more, how do we do it better, and what else can we do to help?’”

One way that they are continuing the effort is by developing an “environmental scorecard” for hotels they are considering for meetings — a system for quantifying data on a hotel's green efforts and ranking them.

Larson also plans to set standards for all meetings — big or small — that take place at the company. “As a department, we're trying to make the green meeting part of our culture, our brand, and our image, and we're really seeing these efforts pop up every day in the meetings that our planners are doing” — everything from recycling name badges and eliminating disposable products to building philanthropy into the agendas.

“This isn't about McDonald's going green; it's about changing the industry in which we work. If we can inspire another organization to do a little more, to think before reacting, then we are truly effecting change.”

Going Green Companywide

“McDonald's has a long history of integrating the environment into our business,” says Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald's, Oak Brook, Ill. Here are a few steps being taken at HQ:

The McDonald's “Green Team.” This group of employees is focused on organizing and participating in green initiatives and philanthropic activities. Larson's team is part of this effort and participates in volunteer activities during the company's annual “environmental week” in June.

“No-Cup Friday Rule.” Every Friday employees are encouraged to use only reusable drinking cups, to eliminate waste from disposable cups.

Energy Conservation Efforts. In 2007, the corporate office was recognized with an Energy Star Award for “Partner of the Year in Energy Management,” given to businesses and organizations for their contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency. The company is also working to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for its office building.