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Making Events More Sustainable –
What We Can Do Right Now?
By Carrie Logie, COO, Ignition (www.ignitiondg.com)

The pause button created in our industry by the COVID-19 pandemic has given us time to think about and reconsider all aspects of our business. As we start to re-emerge stage by stage, one aspect we should now get right, for our longer-term shared benefit and business resilience, is sustainability.

According to the World Bank Group’s ‘What a Waste 2.0’ report, North America, though home to less than 5 percent of the global population, still generates 14 percent of the world’s waste, reflecting our high-income status and related economic activity. Although North American landfills are highly regulated, only one third of all waste is currently recycled and we know that the exhibition, event and congress industry is high on the list of industry sectors producing the most waste. Sustainability may well now be on the agenda, but there’s still a long way to go.

Who among us should be driving change? Clients, trade show organizers and regulating bodies? Or service providers, such as designers and suppliers? As one of the latter (Ignition designs and manages exhibits, events and brand experiences), we believe that change needs to come from all parties and start with a strategic, cultural shift. Designers, however, should certainly be taking the lead in spreading awareness of what more can be done. In that spirit, here are ten ideas we believe could be implemented industry-wide right now:

1. Demand More of your Venue
If you’re responsible for reserving a venue for an event, use your purchasing power to demand more. Does the site have LEED Certification, for example? Or a BREEAM Green Building rating? Let venue owners know that sustainability is not only a concern for you, but a key criterion of your selection process.

2. Set a Sustainable Policy for Exhibitors
If you’re an event organizer, you can’t afford to be too prohibitive when enrolling participants. Business is business after all. But you can set out a clear sustainability mission and still maintain your business focus. Why not ask exhibitors to submit a sustainability statement for the event’s website, for example? The potential for public scrutiny can be enough to get people thinking.

3. Demand Zero Landfill
Although many companies who exhibit regularly have great intentions when it comes to building more sustainable stands, short-term, cost-based agendas often mean sustainability gets pushed lower and lower on the list of priorities. A ‘zero landfill’ or high-cost penalty policy by event organizers would certainly focus minds and help force the pace of change.

4. Push for Modular Exhibition Stands
Multi-use modularity for stand designs is another route to improved sustainability. Encourage those commissioning or designing stands to create designs that will last and champion the advantages of modularity. These include quicker assembly and disassembly, as well as flatter packing and lower transportation costs.

5. Re-think Ticketing & Badging
Fossil-based plastics are leaking into our oceans, ground and water supplies. Estimates suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic by weight than fish in our oceans. If it’s not possible for all your event ticketing and badging to be done digitally, here are some alternatives (either coming to market now or already launched) that aim to replace traditional, single-use plastic badge holders and lanyards:
• The Georgia Institute of Technology has created a fusion of cellulose nanocrystals from trees and chitin from crab shells and fungi cell walls to create a flexible, transparent, completely compostable film to replace plastics, while algae and seaweed are also currently being explored as viable substitutes to non-biodegradable plastics.
• In Sweden, train operator SJ is offering the option of a biometric implanted chip under the skin as an alternative to paper tickets, linking to an app. While it’s hard to imagine anyone signing up for that for a single conference use, should such chips become widespread, they could certainly be adapted for event use. In the meantime, app-based ticketing is a viable, accessible and familiar medium for event organizers’ consideration (consider airlines’ mobile boarding passes).

6. Use Locally Sourced Food Producers
Using local suppliers for your food and beverage hospitality service can create a unique location-specific story for your event marketing team and simultaneously provide a sustainable narrative by minimizing your carbon footprint.

7. Ban Single-use Plastics from your Hospitality Providers
Many major brands are making pledges to reduce single-use plastic right now. Starbucks and McDonald’s plan to phase out plastic straws and are joining forces in a new, open challenge to find a worldwide recyclable solution to disposable cups. There are also completely new innovations emerging. New York-based start-up Loliware, for example, has raised nearly $60k to date for its project to use seaweed to manufacture edible, compostable and marine-degradable straws. Cutlery and flatware made from sustainably harvested bamboo or corn starch are readily available to caterers nationwide and can be easily composted.

8. Surplus Food
When it comes to unsold fresh produce, rising food bank requirements provide an obvious answer to perishable unsold food items, facilitated by donations to redistribution charities such as Copia.

9. Food & Drink Waste
In terms of leftovers, there’s plenty of attention being paid to improving food waste recycling right now. Innovations include the FoodCycler, a Canadian technology that composts food waste (including animal products) almost instantly.

10. Rewarding & Acknowledge Achievements
Everyone likes their efforts to be recognized. If you’re running an event, why not create your own awards system that acknowledges sustainability achievements, large and small? Extra accreditations could highlight improvement in percentage terms from year to year. Encouragement is a powerful driver for all people – individuals, SMEs and large businesses alike.

The final results of poor waste management and unsustainable practices are not just greenhouse gases of course. The World Bank Group’s report sums up the complex and catastrophic picture perfectly: “Poorly managed waste is contaminating the world’s oceans, clogging drains and causing flooding, transmitting diseases via breeding of vectors, increasing respiratory problems through airborne particles from burning of waste, harming animals that consume waste unknowingly, and affecting economic development such as through diminished tourism. Unmanaged and improperly managed waste from decades of economic growth requires urgent action at all levels of society.”

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