Think about the last time you attended a professional conference or trade show. Were meals provided, or was it mostly coffee and light snacks? Were breaks catered by the host hotel or conference venue, or an outside company that transported pre-prepared foods? Were coffee and other refreshments served in ceramic mugs and plastic or glass tumblers, or paper and foam cups? Did meals come with actual reusable silverware and plates, or disposable forks and knives?
Walking yourself through the answers to these questions may bring to mind the numerous times difficult-to-recycle food and beverage disposables are thrown in the garbage bin at conferences. By and large, used tabletop disposables and food packaging containers are not accepted by municipal recycling facilities due to their size, mixed material and contamination from contact with organic matter (aka leftover food). Also difficult to recycle are articles of the convenience packaging and single-serving food configurations that are ubiquitous with on-the-go environments like conferences or all-day meetings.
Account for the hypothetical three cups for water or coffee a person might throw in the trash per day (assuming they don’t hold onto the same disposable cup). Add to that plastic cutlery, empty chip bags and other examples of difficult-to-recycle food packaging, then multiply that by the number of days in each conference, by the conservative number of at least 100 people attending, times the over 300,000 annual conferences in the U.S. that occur each year, and the reduced cost of labor and logistics associated with disposables is eclipsed by a large volume of avoidable waste that these events generate.
Conference organizers can take responsibility for the unique volume of disposables created by these organized meetings by supplementing the largely insufficient waste management systems of host venues with custom solutions. For example, the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco kicks off Jan. 18-20 with seminar sessions and interactive workshops dedicated to food production and supply chain sustainability and the impacts of food and packaging waste.
By working with TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box division, the organizers at the Sustainable Foods Summit will outfit Parc 55 San Francisco with recycling boxes for shipping and transport materials on the backend, and front-facing boxes for single-serving food and chip bags and plastic Solo cups on the show floor. Displaying them prominently alongside garbage receptacles and where refreshments are distributed, SFS walks the walk of its mission in a practical sense, allowing conference attendees, speakers and personnel to do their part in the capture of these disposable, yet valuable, material resources.
Another conference that recently demonstrated a commitment to achieving zero waste in a big way is Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). For the third annual gathering of the Students for Zero Waste Conference, conference organizers actually requested that attendees “bring-your-own everything” (mugs, plates, silverware and napkins), and about half of the 400 attendees did, sporting everything from mason jars to camping gear to use for their lunch and snacks. A tub of reusable silverware from Goodwill took care of the rest of the attendees, and a washing station for people to clean their utensils between meals was also provided. By the end of the event, only two pounds of trash were headed for the landfill.
Zeroing in on the unique logistical and waste management needs of conferences and large meetings acknowledges that every problem we have with waste comes down to two things: economics and planning. By taking the initiative to create custom solutions for these distinctive situations, conference and meeting organizers can work sustainability into the event format and add zero waste values to their programming.
Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, published a book called "Make Garbage Great" in July 2015 and is the star of the television show "Human Resources" on Pivot TV, now in its third season.
See a host of new ideas in sustainable packaging at WestPack 2017 (Feb. 7-9; Anaheim, CA). Register today!