“Tourism is about to become the world's largest industry, and it will attract the same intense media scrutiny as mining and forestry,” says Rick Antonson, Tourism Vancouver president and CEO. “We will be held accountable for environmental behavior as leaders, meeting goers, and travelers. If we're not responsive, others will force us into best practices that make political sense, not business sense.”

But where to begin? The issue of what to do about waste at meetings can be overwhelming, if not paralyzing, for a planner to deal with. A good place to explore the issue and one's options is the recently released recommended guidelines produced by the Convention Industry Council. (See “Resources,” page 27.) This online resource provides a baseline measure and business proposition for planners and suppliers to follow.

“States like California and cities like Portland, Oregon, have passed laws requiring buildings to be sustainable, but without defining what that means. It could be difficult to live with the new laws if the industry didn't help define sustainability,” says Mary E. Power, CIC's president, explaining the genesis of the project. “What's doable and practical? It's better for more planners and venues to do something green, rather than just a few do a lot.'

She offers examples from the guidelines: “It's just as easy for meeting planners to order reinforced paper cups, rather than Styrofoam, when one is biodegradable and cheaper and the other isn't. And if you do box lunches, where half of attendees will walk just across a hallway to eat, why not put food out on trays? It's less intrusive on the environment and less labor intensive.”

Industry organizations are trying to lead by example. At the annual convention during Antonson's term as chair, the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus eliminated delegate bags, drastically limited handouts, printed on recycled paper, set up recycling bins, and invited attendees to raise the issue within their own communities.

As for donation of excess food, planners for years have turned to Network for the Needy, an initiative of the Professional Convention Management Association, for assistance with the logistical management of community service at their conventions and meetings. The recent merging of CharityDirect into Network for the Needy expands the food program to include excess goods.

PCMA also practices what it preaches. At its recent meeting in Indianapolis, 137 pounds of shrimp and 90 pounds of cookies were redirected to Second Helpings, a local food rescue and hunger relief organization, and extra leis from the closing banquet sponsored by the Hawaii CVB brightened the day for nearby nursing home residents.


The convention facility's infrastructure is key to a meeting's waste production. Questions in a request for proposal and decisions made in the site selection process can result in an “incredible” savings, says Nancy J. Wilson, CMP, partner, Meeting Strategies Worldwide Inc. And a center can easily get behind recycling efforts if these lower its waste bill.

However, “if a city doesn't recycle, it is unlikely to do so because we ask. But if programs are in place, we can say what we want,” says Ellen R. Cardwell, CFRE, meetings manager for the Ecological Society of America. As a result, ESA has had mixed success on the environmental front with its $4 million event.

The RFP is the place to get specific. Planners should include environmental requirements as a standard clause and give preference to suppliers who align with those priorities. Does the convention center have an active recycling program? What's being recycled? Are there local centers where waste is taken? Can food waste and excess goods be donated to charities and the homeless, and is there an established process to follow?

Cost will always be an issue. “The convention center will not do anything for free,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO, National Solid Wastes Management Association. “But most large centers today have recycling programs, and I can't imagine that the additional cost on a prorated square footage basis will break the bank. After all, it costs a lot more to dispose of a ton of garbage than to recycle it.” Virtually every state in the United States mandates recycling, he says, with some as high as 40 to 50 percent of total waste. The national average has risen about 4 percent in the past few years to 28 percent today.

In just the first year of the center's recycling program, more than 90 percent of events at Moscone reduced compactor use to fewer than 10 per show; one show went from 27 to seven. Each 30-cubic-yard compactor now costs $1,200 to be emptied, so the savings are considerable. Commonly generated materials — cardboard, paper, cans, and bottles — are high volume and bring the best response from attendees, while metal, carpet padding, signs, and crates recycle well behind the scenes.


Convention centers traditionally have been “dark rectangles” designed for drayage. The lag is typically long (in this case, about 15 years) between when a movement like recycling takes root and the building of facilities architecturally designed to be friendly, Parker explains.

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh is a prime example. It took more than a decade to replace a center that was “no longer competitive. We also wanted to make a large statement that we're ‘green’,” says Joseph McGrath, president, Greater Pittsburgh CVB. Site selection, water and energy efficiencies, and use of nontoxic and recycled building materials led to the center's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Because studies show that natural lighting improves sales by as much as 40 percent, 75 percent of exhibition space is naturally lit. “That could mean millions of dollars at a trade show,” McGrath points out. Meanwhile, airflow from the Allegheny River helps cool the building. Together, savings from the use of natural light and ventilation are projected at more than $500,000 annually.

Clearly, the more systems in place for use with every meeting, the lower the costs for waste handling. The contract should spell it out. If pre- and post-show cleaning is the association's responsibility, a certain number of dumpsters will be included as part of the agreement. “Extra waste may cost more dollars, so there's an incentive to reduce what's shipped in, such as boxes of literature, that becomes waste,” says says John Patronski, executive vice president, industry development, GES Exposition Services.

Sometimes it's up to the center. The Georgia World Congress Center incurs additional costs to handle recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Yet “we want to accommodate a customer who wants to do a great thing for the environment, so we never charge the customer extra,” says Mark A. Zimmerman, assistant general manager at the Georgia World Congress Center.

What facilities must not do is “lie about what they have and what they can do,” says Cardwell, leaving planners to discover the real situation on site.

Maxine Golding has covered the meetings industry for years as both a writer and editor.

Small Steps Bring Big Results

Request basic recycling (paper, plastic, glass, and cans) and visible bins at hotels and convention centers.

Require a linen and towel reuse program at contracted hotels and encourage attendees to use it.

Curb energy use by asking facilities to moderate air conditioning and heat and to turn down lighting.

Plan to use china and serviceware at your food functions, and not disposables.

Ask exhibitors to limit printed materials and giveaways, instead providing those by mail or electronically.

Don't overprint paper and convention materials, and ensure that they are properly shredded and disposed of.

Arrange for beverages and condiments to be served in bulk dispensers during food breaks, minimizing individual servings.

Ask attendees to reconfirm their attendance at banquets and food functions.

Consider including foods that will keep longer or that can be donated as excess.

Rethink the Usual

It doesn't take much to reduce waste. Planners and suppliers alike simply need to rethink the usual. Here's how the Ecological Society of America and the U.S. Green Building Council do it.

Paper and printed materials: ESA always uses recycled paper, preferably chlorine-free, and it has turned to communicating through its Web site and CDs, in lieu of printing. It even went so far as to not print and mail a 200-page preliminary program to 16,000 prospects, instead sending CDs stuffed with registration, housing, and membership forms. Savings: $65,000. Still, most recipients couldn't figure out how to use the CD, so this year, ESA directs its 8,000 members to its Web site only, where 99 percent of registrations are done.

According to a Meeting Strategies Worldwide case study, USGBC places attendee lists and speaker bios online, and speaker presentations on CD; promotes the conference electronically; prints name badges on recycled paper, and recycles badge holders; uses bags made of recycled materials; and prints all pre-conference materials and final programs with post-consumer paper and soy-based ink.

Food and beverage. ESA under-orders food, with little complaint. It also specifies that leftover food be delivered to local soup kitchens and feeding programs. And while it's returning to the practice of giving attendees mugs with registration so they don't use Styrofoam or paper at coffee breaks, ESA finds that coffee runs out because people drink more coffee with the mugs. “It's expensive per person, per cup,” says Ellen R. Cardwell, CFRE, ESA meetings manager.

USGBC serves no water bottles at meals, saving 1,045 gallons of consumable water at its last conference by not prefilling drinking glasses; serves condiments, juice, and tea in bulk rather than individual servings; places desserts as centerpieces; and replaces paper with cloth napkins and disposables with china, which eliminated the use of 2,614 pounds of plastic. More than 376 pounds of leftover food was donated as well at its last conference.

The facility: ESA seeks out environmentally designed facilities and specifically asks that the use of air conditioning be reduced and lights be turned off or down. Exhibitors at USGBC were offered a “green” booth alternative from the decorator, and attendees were housed in hotels within walking distance and with access to public transportation. USGBC also recycled 4,580 pounds of cardboard; 650 pounds of cans/plastic; 360 pounds of paper; 1,680 pounds of magazines; 540 pounds of glass; and all pallets.
Maxine Golding


  • Best Practices for Green Meetings were just formulated by a Convention Industry Council task force and approved by the CIC board of directors. Minimum and “strongly recommended” best practices are outlined separately for planners and suppliers. Find them and links to other green meeting resources at www.conventionindustry.org.

  • Green Meetings Policy, developed and adopted by the National Recycling Coalition in 2001, presents guidelines on how to include recycling and waste prevention in requests for proposal, plus contract addendum on green meeting policies. Go to www.nrc-recycle.org/resources/resources.htm or www.bluegreenmeetings.org.

  • The recently formed Green Meetings Industry Council (www.greenmeetings.info), still in development, aims to provide a single base of information to help planners source their reduction, reuse, and recycling needs, and to develop a certification process for planners, meetings, and suppliers.

  • The nonprofit Oceans Blue Foundation promotes initiatives for environmentally responsible tourism and hosts www.bluegreenmeetings.org. The site features tips on getting started, an assessment tool, resources, and links for planners and suppliers, plus case studies on successful initiatives. Its activities are temporarily on hold due to the departure of its president, but the Web site is still active.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency's Green Meetings/Conference Initiative was developed and is supported by the agency's Pollution Prevention Division. Access www.epa.gov/oppt/green meetings for a checklist for minimizing the environmental impacts of meetings; contract language for obtaining “greener” conference planning/support services; and links to related initiatives. Among EPA's 26 Partnership Programs (www.epa.gov/partners2/comments.htm), the most applicable to the meetings industry are Energy Start, Green Lights, Green Power, Waste Wise and Water Efficiency.

  • “How Green Are You?” is a resource and reference guide produced in January 2000 by Meeting Professionals International. It outlines activities that support green meetings, 10 easy ways to be green, and recommendations for accommodations, transportation, food and beverage, facilities, exhibitions, communications, and general office practices (www.mpiweb.org/village/greenmeetings/)

  • With the recent merging of CharityDirect (www.charitydirect.com) into Network for the Needy, the Professional Convention Management Association (www.pcma.org) brings surplus product, equipment, and materials donation alongside food donation to meetings and exhibitions. The program also raises awareness about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which counters donor concerns about liability.

  • With its the Green Hotel Initiative, The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies helps businesses integrate environmental stewardship into their core strategies to improve profits. Planners can use CERES' “Best Practice Survey,” which develops a sketch of a property's environmental management practices, with other criteria in the procurement process.

  • Since 1995, Green Seal (www.greenseal.org/greeninglodge.htm) has promoted environmentally responsible products and practices within lodging properties. It has developed a purchasing and operations guide, “Greening Your Property,” and initiated a certification program to help travelers, planners, and government and corporate travel buyers identify environmentally responsible lodging properties (www.greenseal.org/certproducts.htm#lodging).

  • The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Conventions was formed to promote environmental best practices at the 2004 political conventions. More than 150 volunteers from 50 local organizations in Boston are working towards greening the Democratic National Convention. “5 Easy Steps to Making Your Hotel Greener” and a Green Events Guide help properties and event hosts prepare (http://www.cerc04.org).
    Maxine Golding