A company set up to reward households for recycling might hold the key to one of the meetings industry’s most serious environmental challenges.
Meetings and events generate the second-highest volume of waste of any industry. Only construction produces more. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculated that the average meeting churns out 20 pounds (9.1 kilograms) of waste per person, per day. By contrast, the typical North American generates four to five pounds of daily trash at home or at work—nothing to be proud of, but far less than on site.
For its Million Tons of Trash Challenge, the Green Meeting Industry Council guesstimated that meetings pile up 10.5 million tons of garbage per year—a staggering 21 billion pounds—in the United States alone. (Disclosure: I’m in my second year as co-chair of GMIC’s conference programs committee and recently joined the Council’s board.)
In California, organic materials and paper make up the majority of the waste flowing from meetings and meeting facilities. But waste recycling rates were only 23 percent for hotels and 29 percent for events.
Enter RecycleBank, a company with operations in the United States and Britain that devised a way to compensate members for recycling waste. Through a growing network of partnerships with municipalities and waste haulers, the company records the volume of material a household recycles and translates it into reward points that can be redeemed at more than 2,400 local and national retailers. The service began with curbside waste and recently expanded to include cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players.
“Gconomy” is the trademarked term that RecycleBank coined for an economy “that rewards you for your positive green actions.” In April, the company was designated a Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Program.
So far, corporations have participated in RecycleBank strictly as reward partners. But what if a single meeting facility, a cluster of local hotels, or an entire chain could sign up as participants, increase their recycling rates, generate reward points, reduce their waste-disposal costs, and watch the savings roll in on both sides of the ledger?
Spokesperson Melody Serafino said RecycleBank’s service is limited to households. “We’re working on ways to include businesses,” but at this point, there would be no way for a hotel or convention center to sign up.
But what if a facility approached its municipality and asked to join the program? “I can’t see why [RecycleBank] would object,” Serafino said. “We want to recycle and divert as much waste as possible, so whatever helps us meet our goals, we’re happy to think of ways to make it work.”
Most North Americans are familiar with the three arrows in a continuous loop that have become the symbol for local recycling programs. But RecycleBank helps close a circle that may be even more important for meetings.
There’s a popular misconception that the route to sustainability—for a meeting, a meeting facility, a municipality, or an industry—means throwing good money after bad. That view may be widely held, but it’s very often wrong.
When a hotel or convention center replaces conventional lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs, the initial investment pays back so fast that there’s barely time to add it up.
When hotels finally begin genuine linen-reuse programs—where guests are given a real choice about replacing their towels and sheets, rather than a glossy promotional card that most housekeepers ignore—they’ll save on water consumption and on energy for water heating.
And those financial gains won’t begin to match the branding benefits to facilities that figure out that real sustainability begins with the plant and engineering department, not the public-relations office.
The hidden secret of sustainability is that saving energy and water, and reducing waste can be great for the financial bottom line. RecycleBank is an elegant way for households to turn trash into treasure. Bringing the same solution to meetings and events may be (almost) as simple as asking the right questions.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to email@example.com.