“Waste? At my meeting? It's not even on my radar screen!” Those words from an experienced association meeting planner underline just how tough it is to raise awareness about the tremendous volume of waste trade shows and meetings produce every year. Part of the problem is that there are no figures available for how much waste the industry as an aggregate produces in the United States. More is known internationally; a survey by the Union of International Fairs cited an average of 2,934 tons of waste produced at fairgrounds in 2001, ranging from a low of 60 tons to a high of 12,000 tons. Meanwhile, the annual cost of the waste produced at the United Kingdom's 823 major exhibitions in 2001 clocked in at nearly $73 million.

Individual groups and properties offer a glimpse at just how much trash our industry produces — and how much recycling efforts can both cost and save. Take, for example, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which has become very proactive about recycling in general and at its 63,000-attendee international exhibition, held every three years. Over more than a week, 334,975 pounds of pre-consumer scrap plastic that Chicago landfills won't accept were removed from the one-million-square-foot show floor at NPE 2003. All of it was recycled in 36 truckloads for further reprocessing, with SPI bearing the “not inexpensive” cost, says Jordan Morgenstern, vice president, trade shows.

San Francisco's Moscone Center has a full-time recycling manager, Kathleen Hennesey. She outlines the magnitude of the issue: About 70 events (with an average attendance of 13,000) in 1996 to 1997 produced 2,000 tons of waste for which Moscone was billed more than half a million dollars for disposal. In the years since, the center has slashed the weight of its trash by 50 percent and volume by 75 percent, at the same time the garbage company's rates skyrocketed by 70 percent. Consequently, Moscone estimates that its waste reduction programs save show organizers in excess of $500,000 in garbage disposal costs.

Indeed, the good news is that there is solid evidence that associations can save hard dollars, appeal to constituents, and gain public-relations value by making just a few simple changes to their events. Greening a meeting is not an all or nothing proposition, nor does it entail a price premium. Today, meeting planners can take incremental, high-impact steps to consume less, reuse product and food, and recycle much of the waste that conventions produce — and save money in the bargain.

Convergence of Trends

It finally makes good business sense for an association to rethink its convention's contribution to the waste stream. That's because the industry is at the confluence of some significant trends:

  • Over the past decade, state, county, and municipal regulations have educated consumers to recycle and compelled convention facilities to divert tons from the waste stream.

  • More members are demanding environmental responsiveness in their associations' missions and activities — including meetings.

  • The economy's downturn forced exhibitors, attendees, and show sponsors to tighten convention spending. This has been good for the bottom line and a boon to the waste stream: Produce less, ship less, toss less into landfills, and spend less at each point.

  • And a groundswell among associations to leave a community better after their conventions come to town has spurred the “reuse” of leftover food and products to benefit charities, homeless shelters, and schools.

“As organizers and delegates, we should be embarrassed every time we leave behind garbage in a host community and don't deal with it in a responsible manner,” says Tourism Vancouver president/CEO Rick Antonson.

One piece of good news: From 20 percent to 50 percent less is being shipped into shows, and that is tied to better management of production, shipping, and distribution expenses by exhibitors, says John Patronski, executive vice president, industry development, GES Exposition Services. “They're looking at value, and if there's also a positive effect on the waste, well, that's a good thing.” GES is doing its part by contributing equipment and labor to assist customers' recycling and reuse programs, but Patronski believes the level of activity is nowhere near where it should be.

Many within the industry are disappointed at the slow movement of change. “There's a tendency to put off the expense and training and think about it mañana,” notes Joseph McGrath, president, Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “With other things on people's plates, this movement hasn't grown as much as we would have liked.”

Who's Making the Case?

Organizations with sustainability policies, such as the Ecological Society of America, are at the forefront. The 3,000-plus attendees at its annual meeting are very conscious of recycling and “green” linen policies. “They insist we hold meetings in ‘green cities,’” says Ellen R. Cardwell, meetings manager, “and they are very vocal about the priority they place on resource conservation and wise use practices.”

The U.S. Green Building Council's Greenbuild International Conference and Expo was even able to expand beyond its current practices and calculate the meeting's actual environmental impacts and economics. (See page 20, “How Much Energy?”) That's because the 2003 event was held at Pittsburgh's new David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the first facility of its kind to be certified through USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System.

Only in the past several years has the American Society for Healthcare Environmental Services, a professional group under the American Hospital Association umbrella, begun to take action on waste. “The bottom line is there is no ‘away’ when you throw away. There's just a landfill somewhere,” says Patti Costello, executive director. “We're doing what's environmentally appropriate because it's the right thing to do. And we'll cut a corner somewhere else to adjust for costs.”

That means printing on recycled paper with soy ink, which increases costs, but as a countermeasure halving to 10,000 the number of brochures ASHES mails, with an exact duplicate posted on the Web site. Recycling bins are everywhere during its three-and-a-half-day meeting of 600, and even plastic badges and the paper from badges are recycled.

Organizations without defined environmental policies appear to be moving in this direction, too. “We're seeing more traditional shows becoming mindful of ecology and looking to benefit groups with items the shows no longer need,” says Mark A. Zimmerman, assistant general manager at the Georgia World Congress Center.

Learning about ASHES' actions, The American Hospital Association is considering broadening environmental activities beyond the food recovery programs at its annual meetings of 3,000 and 2,000 (Washington, D.C., and the West Coast). “Green meetings haven't had the high visibility they used to,” says Robert J. Donovan, AHA's vice president, meetings and travel services. “This is a chance for groups within AHA to take advantage of the expertise ASHES has gained.”

Hotels Get It — Innovation Is the Name of the Game

Environmentally sound practices in hotels have been shown to lead to lower operating costs and make the properties more marketable. For these reasons, linen reuse, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and low-flow showerheads and toilets are making their way into properties. But some hotels are going even further in curbing waste.

“Many things will be extremely cost-effective for hotels, but they need the impetus from the customer,” adds Tedd Saunders, president, EcoLogical Solutions Inc., and executive vice president, environmental affairs, The Saunders Hotel Group. One 200-room Saunders hotel pulls 50 tons of food waste annually from the waste stream; barrels collect food cuttings and trimmings, and then are sealed for pick-up.

“Composting is a great way to close the cycle and regenerate resources at the same or greater level,” Saunders points out. “It's less costly to haul than trash because it has value for resale.”

Corporate management and an active team within the hotel or convention facility must be committed to a recycling, reuse, or reduced consumption program to make it successful. That's been the case for the Hilton San Francisco, now in its ninth year of recycling discarded supplies on the hotel loading dock. Jo Licata, community projects manager, San Francisco Hotels/Non-profit Collaborative, spearheads the Hilton program and helps expand grassroots efforts among other hotels in the area. Today, hundreds of thousands of tons are harvested annually and redirected from the landfill to the surrounding community.

With city-mandated 52 percent waste diversion and 75 percent a few years from now, “it is in the best interest of properties here to keep as much out of compactors as we can, especially with garbage collection very expensive,” Licata notes. “Every convention that comes in knows we will take anything they don't want to ship home. At least 10 percent of groups take some action, and I see more every year.”

Community groups receive everything from toiletries to a water tank, from foam core to iron, while local schools make use of binders, tote bags, and signage that remain behind. About 800 pounds of cardboard are recycled daily, 5,000 pounds of glass, plastic, and metal weekly. And the Hilton San Francisco enriches its own herb garden by recycling 3,500 pounds of organic waste to its compost yard — eliminating almost five tons of waste a week and cutting the hotel's garbage in half.

Find the Measurables: Attendees Will Respond

It's understandable that much of an association's focus needs to be on ensuring the financial viability of its convention. Sustaining attendance and exhibit square footage are more pressing issues for most groups, and the issue of the quantity and cost of waste are not front and center. Yet others argue that groups should be driven to manage waste because the savings can be substantial.

“If a meeting or trade show is not viable and attendance suffers, all discussion about being environmentally responsible is moot,” agrees Kathleen M. Ratcliffe, president, Jacksonville & The Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. “However, if you look at a trade show floor after attendees are gone, you see the tremendous amount of waste left behind — brochures and collateral material, tchotchkes that people take and toss, signage, and food and beverage.” She says there are savings to be had.

While waste “measurables” are sometimes hard to find, some groups do manage to gather concrete numbers. In place of bottled water at a conference of 1,300, Meeting Strategies Worldwide Inc. utilized thermos-type containers and bulk dispensers. Conservatively estimating one bottle a day per attendee, the planner saved $12,187 — not counting the plastic that wasn't consumed.

Meanwhile, at its recent show in San Francisco, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade donated exhibitor goods and recruited 100 volunteers who collected and packed leftover, nonperishable food. Moscone Center staff delivered the goods to Under One Roof, a local nonprofit that raises more than $125,000 annually from goods collected at the center.

While waste and consumption “measurables” such as these are hard to gather, they are key to promoting waste-management efforts within the association as well as to attendees.

“It's easy to afford two extra hours of labor required to handle service ware instead of disposables if an association has saved thousands of dollars by serving water in bulk dispensers,” says Nancy J. Wilson, CMP, partner, Meeting Strategies Worldwide Inc. The decision gets harder when the debate is over sourcing local, organically grown produce, for example, since many hotels and convention centers want to charge more for this and less for produce from national providers.

Whatever they decide, planners must tout what they're doing on behalf of attendees, and that means running the numbers. “Attendees get really excited at the measurables,” so Wilson used a presentation during the walk-in to a general session at a technology conference, itemizing that “62,000 cups are being kept from the landfill while you're here.”

Maxine Golding has been writing and reporting about meetings and conventions for more than 20 years. Part two of this series on waste will appear in the June issue.

EPA Makes Its Case

Russell Clark, a specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, works closely with the meetings industry on environmentally responsible initiatives, participating most recently with the Convention Industry Council in developing best practices.

Association Meetings: How did the EPA target the meetings industry to become more environmentally responsible about the waste produced at events?

Clark: We realized only recently that dispersed sources of waste have, in the aggregate, a major impact on pollution. Meetings are a good example. An incredible amount of energy, products, and resources goes into a meeting from beginning to end. With a factory or car, you see the pollution; it's hidden behind the scenes at meetings. Rather than regulate, we want to take voluntary, incentive-based approaches to eliminate or reduce waste, with government as a stakeholder alongside others. I've never seen things come together with the right attitude and openness as they have with the meetings industry.

AM: What are the objectives of EPA's Green Meetings/Conference Initiative?

Clark: The initial hope in 1997 was to consolidate information about recycling and energy- and water-saving at meetings in one place online (www.epa.gov/oppt/greenmeetings). Fortunately, we came across Meeting Professionals International's white paper and started collaborating. Rather than organizing material by environmental issue, it made far more sense to divide information by destination selection, lodging, meeting space selection, and food and beverage. While we envisioned ours as the central site, I think the newly created Green Meetings Council, a collaborative industry group, will become the one-stop shop. [A full list of resources will be printed in part two of this article, in the June issue.] It's better that a multi-stakeholder organization exists outside of government, and we want to defer to that.

AM: What areas of meeting management can benefit from reduced consumption, reuse, and recycling?

Clark: The Convention Industry Council's recently released list of best practices (www.conventionindustry.org) is an attempt to narrow down the broad and numerous recommendations in the online tool that Oceans Blue Foundation created using EPA grant money (www.bluegreenmeetings.org). The best places to start are those with the greatest environmental impact at the lowest cost and with the greatest savings. While a trade show or exhibition may not be a component of all meetings, it is one of the most overwhelming examples of extreme waste. While a lot of materials are packaged up and taken away, live trees, plants, carpeting, and one-time use items go into the trash. Much could be donated, but it must be planned ahead of time. Here's one example: The National Marketplace for the Environment had a huge “Office of the Future” display with 70 different projects featuring green materials, outside landscaping, and furniture. We learned that everything was going to be thrown out; it wasn't built to take apart, transfer, and rebuild. They were thrilled when we asked to break it down and give it to a local initiative.

AM: What is the thorniest issue?

Clark: The lack of standardization of any kind. For example, what does it mean to be a green hotel? CIC's best practices are pushing things in that direction. In Canada, in the absence of accepted national standards, Green Seal is playing that role. But many people don't understand that actual procedures and processes need to be followed to gain credibility and national or international acceptance. Since we're hung up sometimes on the term green, maybe we should call them “smart” meetings.

AM: What are the responsibilities of facilities and venues?

Clark: So much of the ability to hold a green meeting has to do with the host facility. We're seeing more openness in responding to requests from people holding meetings, yet too many hotels and convention centers are not proactive and can't provide information easily. While linen reuse programs are offered almost across the board at hotels, staff too often do not follow through. If you only create appearances, you don't get the ultimate environmental benefit or cost savings. It comes down to training and commitment internally. There is always some cost for going from where we are today to somewhere new.

AM: What does EPA hope to bring to the table, beyond collaboration?

Clark: We're trying to make the connection between the demand and supply side. It's that “chicken and egg” thing: “If our customers aren't asking for it, we're not changing anything, even if it saves money.” EPA has been focusing on generating demand through associations like the American Hospital Association, which is taking a serious look at environmental issues. There is also incredible interest on the part of government initiatives in greening their own meetings. The biggest challenge in getting started is a lack of standards. And the biggest tripping point is that we can't clearly make the claim that we've saved gallons of water and kilowatts of energy.
Maxine Golding

How Much Energy?

The U.S. Green Building Council calculates that its Greenbuild International Conference and Expo of 5,256 attendees last November consumed 476,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity; used 23,000 therms of natural gas; used 215,000 gallons of kerosene for more than seven million air passenger miles; and required 27,000 gallons of gasoline for 578,000 vehicle miles.

Plastic vs. Flatware?

Using 1,000 disposable plastic teaspoons consumes more than 10 times more energy and natural resources than manufacturing one stainless steel teaspoon and washing it 1,000 times, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.