“Waste? At my meeting? It's not even on my radar screen!” Those words from an experienced 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 no figures are available for how much waste the industry 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, both 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 1 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.

The High Price of Trash

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 have leaped by 70 percent. Consequently, Moscone estimates that its waste reduction programs save meeting planners in excess of $500,000 in garbage disposal costs.

Indeed, the good news is that there is solid evidence that organizations can save hard dollars, appeal to their constituents, and gain public-relations value by making just a few simple changes to their meetings. 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.

Convergence of Trends

It finally makes good financial sense for an organization to re-think 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 organizations' 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.

  • A groundswell among organizations 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 and CEO Rick Antonson.

One piece of good news: From 20 percent to 50 percent less is being shipped into meetings, 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 [exhibitors are] 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 to encourage the trend by contributing equipment and labor to assist customers' recycling and reuse programs, but Patronski believes that the level of activity is nowhere near where it should be.

Who's Making the Case?

Organizations with sustainability policies, such as the Ecological Society of America, are at the forefront of the green movement. The 3,000-plus attendees at the society's 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. 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 3.5-day meeting of 600; 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.

Finding a Starting Point

“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. A good place to explore the issue and options is the recently released recommended guidelines produced by the Convention Industry Council. (See “Resources,” page 39.) This online resource provides a baseline measure and business proposition for planners and suppliers.

“States like California and cities like Portland, Ore., 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 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.

Start with the RFP

The convention facility's infrastructure is the key to a meeting's waste production. Questions in a request for proposal and decisions made during 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 percent to 50 percent of total waste. The national average has risen about 4 percent in the past few years, to 28 percent.

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 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.

The Building Counts

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 such as recycling takes root and when building of facilities designed to be friendly begins, Parker explains.

Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center 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. The site, water and energy efficiencies, and the use of nontoxic and recycled building materials led to the center's 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 lighted. “That could mean millions of dollars at a trade show,” McGrath points out. Meanwhile, airflow from the Allegheny River helps to 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 that are in place, the lower the cost of waste handling. The contract should spell it out. If pre- and post-show cleaning is the organization's responsibility, a certain number of trash containers will be included in 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 become 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 of 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 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 meeting industry for years as both a writer and editor.

Small Steps, 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, not disposables.

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

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

  • Arrange for beverages and condiments to be served in bulk dispensers during food breaks, minimizing the use of individual serving packaging.

  • 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 to local food pantries.

Rethink the Usual

It doesn't take much to reduce waste. Planners and suppliers alike 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 CD-ROMs 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 specifies that leftover food be delivered to soup kitchens. And while it's returning to the practice of giving attendees mugs with registration so they don't use Styrofoam at coffee breaks, ESA finds coffee runs out because people drink more coffee with the mugs.

USGBC serves no water bottles at meals, saving 1,045 gallons of consumable water at its last conference by not pre-filling drinking glasses; serves condiments, juice, and tea in bulk containers; places desserts as centerpieces; and replaces paper with cloth napkins and disposables with china, eliminating 2,614 pounds of plastic. More than 376 pounds of leftover food was donated 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 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 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.


  • Best Practices for Green Meetings have been 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 RFPs, 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 because of the departure of its president, but the Web site is still active.

  • The EPA's Green Meetings/Conference Initiative was developed and is supported by the agency's Pollution Prevention Division. Access www.epa.gov/oppt/greenmeetings for a checklist for minimizing the environmental effects 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 meeting industry are Energy Start, Green Lights, Green Power, Waste Wise and Water Efficiency.

  • With its the Green Hotel Initiative, The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies helps businesses to 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.

  • 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 identify environmentally responsible lodging properties (www.greenseal.org/certproducts.htm#lodging).