Whether it's Chicago, Boston, or Phoenix, when the U.S. Green Building Council comes to town for its annual convention, it leaves a green legacy in its wake.

The Greenbuild International Conference and Exposition, the U.S. Green Building Council's annual convention, has been honored as one of the greenest meetings in the country, and its dedication to the environment extends to every vendor and partner. Greenbuild 2009, held November 11-13 in Phoenix, was a great example — from the cleaning-service worker who dived into the dumpster to make sure the recyclables were clean, to the chef who found locally grown produce, to the convention center staff who hired the composting haulers.

The 2009 conference also marked a new step for USGBC when it announced minimum green standards for its exhibitors, something unheard of in the meetings industry. The standards go into effect this year, November 17-19, in Chicago.

“We can come in and demand from cities and vendors, ‘Do this or we are not going to work with you,’ but it's more important to make sure everyone is in it together and there is a partnership,” says Kimberly Lewis. Lewis is vice president of conferences and events at Washington, D.C.-based USGBC, the organization that developed and administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification program. In addition, USGBC is the only organization to have received the IMEX-GMIC Green Meetings Award three times. Here's how Greenbuild came together in Phoenix.

Phoenix Promises and Then Delivers

Only seven years old, Greenbuild is a success story that reflects the booming interest in all things green. Greenbuild is the world's largest conference and expo dedicated to green building. The event launched in 2002 with modest results — about 4,000 attendees and 200 exhibitors. By 2007, it attracted 28,000 delegates, a show record. Show attendees include developers, architects, engineers, and builders, while the exhibitors include energy experts; construction companies; and the manufacturers of flooring, bath and light fixtures, paint, and windows.

In 2009 in Phoenix, Greenbuild had 27,373 attendees and 1,800 exhibitors. “It was a down economy and we would have been happy with 20,000. We got 27,373 — pretty much equal to the previous year — and we went from 1,400 to 1,800 exhibits,” says Lewis.

When USGBC selected Phoenix four years ago, the news that the expanded Phoenix Convention Center would be LEED-certified was a plus, as was the 20-mile light-rail system that was scheduled to open in 2009. “We're not going to sign a city unless they are committed to our mission,” Lewis says. “Phoenix said they were committed to the new building being certified, they were committed to light rail, and they came through.”

Ramped-Up Recycling

The city worked closely with Greenbuild to maximize waste diversion, especially at the Phoenix Convention Center. “We obviously recycle here at the convention center, but Greenbuild wanted to bring in their sorted-recycling program, which meant that we had to work closely with our event staff, our catering company, and with our public works department,” says John Chan, director of the convention center.

Specifically, Greenbuild brought in 152 four-compartment bins — with receptacles for recyclables and food waste or compost — and set them up in the facility, replacing the existing bins. Rubbermaid Commercial Products, an event sponsor, donated the bins.

“I walked the show in Boston [in 2008] and thought ‘why not give them a more standardized look with our recycling station, as well as give them something they can take with them from show to show,’” says Jarret Chirafisi, product manager and sustainability team leader at Winchester, Va.-based Rubbermaid. The bins were a sustainable solution for Greenbuild and great exposure for Rubbermaid.

To staff the bins, Greenbuild hired hundreds of college interns who assisted attendees with what to throw where. When the bins were full, convention center personnel sorted the commingled recyclables in the back of the house and sent them to the loading dock to be hauled away.

The cleaning-services vendor, United Services Co., had its employees dive into dumpsters to pull out recyclables that didn't belong. “Our job is first to make sure that when the bulk trash gets to the loading dock and it's ready to be thrown into the dumpster, it is separated by categories,” says Raymond Santos, senior vice president of national operations at United Services. Thirty-three tons of aluminum and plastic were recycled, plus 24 tons of cardboard.

“They basically made us look like the heroes,” says Jenny Burr, vice president, account management, at Champion Exposition Services, Boston, the general services contractor for Greenbuild. “They really stepped it up and they took it very seriously.”

Hotels Get Involved

The commitment to recycling extended to the convention hotels.

“All of the facilities we use — the convention center, the hotels — must sign minimum green contract language,” Lewis says.

It was more challenging to get all the hotels to comply in Phoenix than it was at the sites of the previous two meetings — Chicago (2007) and Boston (2008). Chicago had made a big push to have hotels achieve their “Green Seal,” which is a national program that awards a seal of approval to all things green; Boston has a state certification for green hotels that many properties already had earned.

“All cities are different,” Lewis says. “For many Phoenix (hotels), this was their first step in sustainability. We would love to see that legacy continue afterwards.”

And it is happening at one of the hotels in the room block, the Arizona Biltmore. For Greenbuild, Biltmore placed recycling bins in the lobbies and common spaces on all floors, and the initiative has become permanent, says Becky Blaine, Biltmore's public relations and marketing manager. The property also donates about 600 pounds of food scraps per week to the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which uses it to feed reptiles.

Careful Composting

Prior to Greenbuild, the convention center did not have a composting program in place, so to meet Greenbuild's requirements, facility staff came up with a plan.

First, they found a local farm that would take the compost. Then they worked with the city's public works department to ensure that the contracted trash hauler took away the compost and brought it to the farm, Chan says. Greenbuild diverted 12.3 tons of compost.

There were increased labor costs for separation and for the compost hauls, but “the composting program that we put in place for the event is something we'd like to look at long term,” Chan says. “At a minimum, we at least have a greater awareness of those things we can be doing to be more sustainable.”

Local, Organic Food

While the convention center worked with Greenbuild to reduce waste, the food service vendor, Aramark-owned Aventura, exceeded Greenbuild's requirements for locally grown and organic foods.

“We want to have at least 25 percent local and organic food,” Lewis says. “But this year the chef, Jesus Cibrian, was unbelievable. He came into our pre-con meeting and said he was committed to going beyond the minimum requirements.”

Next Page: New Exhibitor Rules

Overall, 41 percent of the food was grown locally, which is one of the highest percentages Greenbuild has had. Lewis acknowledges that it's easier to source local food in a warmer climate like Phoenix; 41 percent would be extremely difficult to reach in many states.

Cibrian, who works for Aramark-owned Aventura, began preparing for Greenbuild well in advance. Cibrian and his staff had relationships with local farmers but never had been asked to generate this much locally grown produce. Cibrian reached out to growers within a 100-mile radius and told them exactly what he needed them to grow, and how much. “The growers knew ahead of time that they had to plant more organic lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce,” Cibrian says. “And the people that baked organic bread for me, they secured organic flour way in advance.” All of it was ready and fresh for Greenbuild.

“We had a lot of compliments about the food from attendees,” Cibrian says. “That's important to us, because it doesn't matter how much you plan, the important thing is to make sure the people who consume the food are happy.”

“Greenbuild made a tremendous impact on our operation because we established a lot of good relationships with different farmers in the Phoenix area to bring fresh, local produce to the convention center,” Cibrian says.

New Exhibitor Rules

At the 2009 show, Greenbuild announced the Greenbuild Mandatory Exhibition Green Guidelines — green standards that exhibitors in the future must meet if they want to exhibit at the show. It was a bold step that could cost the show some exhibitors, but Lewis knows the success of the show and its long waiting list of exhibitors gives the organization leverage.

Shawna McKinley, project manager at MeetGreen in Portland, Ore., has not seen standards for exhibitors anywhere else. “It's quite revolutionary,” says McKinley, whose company serves as a green meetings adviser to Greenbuild.

The guidelines, which will be mandatory at this year's expo in Chicago, require that exhibiting companies

  • have a sustainability policy,
  • submit a booth-materials usage report,
  • use sustainable elements in signs, and
  • reduce the use of printed pieces.

There are guidelines also for shipping of materials, air quality, and water reclamation as they relate to booths.

Chirafisi of Rubbermaid has an eco-friendly Greenbuild booth that already meets many of the requirements, and he welcomes the new guidelines. “We want to show attendees that we are not just talking the talk, we're actually walking the walk,” he says.

Before having the mandatory standards, Greenbuild provided exhibitors with a voluntary opportunity to green their booths — the Green Leaders Program. Exhibitors received points for complying with green initiatives — about 30 of them in five categories (booth construction, printed materials, transportation, community partnerships, and shipping).

One of 2009's winners was Cambridge Architectural of Cambridge, Md. “Our team stepped forward and said every decision we make is going to be from a green perspective,” says Heather Collins, director of marketing at the company. Cambridge used repurposed materials to build its booth, hired a fuel-efficient “Smartway Hauler” to haul supplies, and bought carbon offsets.

We Are the Champion

The Phoenix event was the first time Greenbuild worked with Champion as its general services contractor. For the first seven years of the show, Stetson Exhibition Services was the contractor, but the growing show required a larger company to handle it.

“We were very committed to Stetson Exhibition Services, because they changed their entire service model to be a green GSC seven years ago when no one else would,” Lewis says. Champion had to meet all the requirements that Stetson did to win the contract.

“The biggest lesson we took away from Greenbuild was the need to track everything,” says Champion's Jenny Burr. “We can't just say, ‘Yes, we recycled this or used that material.’ We have to document it.” That means knowing what materials are used in everything that's built for the show, how much is recycled, what can be reused, and what gets thrown away.

Burr discovered that Champion already was doing a majority of the things Greenbuild required, such as using sustainable graphics and signs. “That's something we started doing six years ago,” says Burr, who heads up Champion's internal green committee.

One thing they weren't doing was using sustainable structures built exclusively for the show. For Greenbuild, Champion had to use recyclable materials. “That was brand-new for us,” Burr says.

While Champion integrated green initiatives — like low-energy light bulbs, recyclable shrink wrap, and energy-efficient hauling — into all of its shows, not all of its clients are committed to green events. “It depends on the show and it depends on the item,” Burr says. “There are some things that are standard green practice, like graphics, but there are other things that really require us to partner with our clients.”

Leaving a Legacy

With the LEED-certified convention center and rooftop solar panels, Greenbuild 2009 probably used less water and energy than past shows. Also, Phoenix likely had a lower carbon footprint than Boston because Phoenix had light rail, fewer taxis, and convention facilities that were in close proximity to each other, McKinley says. Every city is different, she adds, so there is not one standard measure of success. But Greenbuild 2009 is evidence that the meetings industry is evolving.

“When you see a company like Champion starting to change to provide green solutions, hopefully as more of a standard practice, that's a sign that it's becoming more mainstream rather than fringe,” McKinley says. “It does seem to me that green meetings are gaining more and more traction.”

For Lewis, Greenbuild is all about leaving something good — something green — behind. “We want to leave a legacy.”

Sidebar #1: Meeting the Rigorous BS 8901 Standards

The U.S. Green Building Council is one two U.S.-based associations (Meeting Professionals International is the other) certified by the British Standards Institution's BS 8901, a standard for planning sustainable events. Certification means that every event USGBC runs, including Greenbuild, meets the rigorous BS 8901 requirements for sustainability.

BS 8901 is designed to ensure that green solutions are integrated into every aspect of planning a convention, and a third party audits the process. The hope is that with the processes in place and audited, sustainable meetings will become ingrained in the culture and mission of conforming organizations, no matter who the meeting planner is.

Is BS 8901 certification for everyone? Shawna McKinley, project manager at MeetGreen in Portland, Ore., says it's invaluable if an organization's mission and mandate include sustainable meetings.

In the U.S., the Convention Industry Council began releasing the APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange) Green Meetings and Events standards in February 2010, which apply to individual meetings. The standards cover nine aspects of planning a meeting: audiovisual, communication, destinations, exhibits, on-site office, transportation, accommodations, food and beverage, and meeting venue. ASTM International, a standards-setting agency, is in the process of approving the standards. The Environmental Protection Agency, which was involved in writing the standards, is also scheduled to adopt the standards for its meeting-purchasing policies.