Sustainable Event Management: Moving Beyond the Number of Recycling Bins

There was a time when rating an event on its sustainability efforts was based on the number of trash bins that were put out. One receptacle for all trash: bad. Two for regular and recyclables: good. Three to include all of the above and composting: excellent.

Nowadays, that’s just the beginning.

For its upcoming SB’17 Detroit event, Sustainable Brands has partnered with numerous companies aimed at lowering the overall environmental, economic and social footprint of the conference – an effort known as “sustainable event management”. From venues & accommodations, to food & beverage, to transportation, to audio visual & décor – Sustainable Brands is working with partners, vendors and all stakeholders to focus on these high-impact areas for sustainable event management.

Among the sustainability goals for SB’17 Detroit is Waste Reduction & Diversion. Waste is a major contributor to the impact of any event. Sustainable Brands focuses on first reducing the waste produced overall, and then works to divert as much of the waste produced from the landfill through recycling, composting, and donation and repurposing. Part of this effort will involve working with TerraCycle, a recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste. Through these efforts, Sustainable Brands hopes to divert at least 80% of the waste produced by the event.

“Any time we can help lower footprint that’s a great thing,” said Lauren Taylor, Global Director of Public Relations at TerraCycle. “Conferences are traditionally very heavy on waste, the more things are easily recyclable the better. For us, it’s an opportunity to showcase how a conference can make a difference by having zero-waste boxes.”

TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box platform makes it possible to recycle almost any type of waste, from coffee capsules to complex laboratory waste. Customers who work with them can choose the waste stream they’d like to recycle, purchase a preferred box size, collect their waste, and send it to TerraCycle to be repurposed. For Sustainable Brands conferences, the waste stream will be focused on traditional waste from large events, such as plastic packaging, candy boxes, corks from wine bottles, etc.

“We are a sustainability partner with Sustainability Brands for five events this year,” said Lauren. “And through putting those zero-waste boxes at events, SB can reach previously unreachable rates of waste diversion. This is trash that would’ve gone to landfill and can now be recycled by having these boxes onsite for these events. We’re excited about what TerraCycle is doing, and we’re excited about what SB is doing. It’s a good fit.”

To help with the sustainability goal of being Energy Neutral, Sustainable Brands has partnered with the South Pole Group, a top-notch provider of a complete suite of sustainability solutions for climate change and renewable energy. The energy used during the event will be 100% offset by Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) provided by the South Pole Group.

“How we see ourselves is enabling Sustainable Brands to go one step further in their mission to organize sustainable events,” said Nadia Kahkonen, Communications Manager for South Pole group. “SB is not only making sure electricity for events comes from sustainable sources, but they’re going beyond that. A lot of renewable energy projects we have worked on directly go toward the Sustainable Development Goals, and as a partner, Sustainable Brands is also contributing to that effort.”

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) refers to the United Nations-led initiative in which countries adopted a set of goals in 2015 to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all” as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.

“We’re both fighting the good fight,” Nadia said in relation to partnering with Sustainable Brands. “We’re very purpose-driven, for profit but for purpose. SB is one of the leading networks or platforms in bringing together these thought leaders, so they are a natural ally in that sense.”

Nadia says the South Pole Group is working on powering numerous SB events with renewable energy in 2017 as part of its event series. Beyond ensuring that the events are powered by renewable energy, Sustainable Brands’ RECs will also support specific SDGs with renewable energy projects that have an additional eco-label attached to them.

“SDGs provide a good framework to start this conversation of sustainability at events and the future of them because they outline the focus areas: access to water, climate change, etc.” she said.

In reference to the Sustainable Brand conference theme of “Redefining the Good Life”, Nadia says the SDGs are the starting point. “We see in the broader sense, we see the SDGs are a good framework to view topic of redefining the good life. Through this partnership we’re enabling a better life through activities of the projects.”

“It’s still a pretty good life,” said Lauren with TerraCycle. “In redefining it you can do even better. In terms of TerraCycle, think about what you’re purchasing. To tell people to stop buying things is unrealistic. We all buy things, whether needed or not. But make a decision: Can you purchase a product that has recyclable content? You can make a choice about a product to show what’s important to you – the packaging, the content, can you re-use it? Can you give it away afterward? How is the product made? Instead of throwing it away afterward what are your options? These can all be a part of redefining the good life.”

In addition to the sustainability goals that TerraCycle and the South Pole Group will be focused on, Sustainable Brands has partnered with numerous companies to help with the other goals, which include: Carbon Neutral, Water Neutral, ISO 20121 Compliance, and Local Food Sourcing.

Helping to bring all the moving parts together is Lindsay Arell, president of Honeycomb Strategies, who was brought on to manage the event’s sustainability programs as a whole. Arell is seen as a leader in the sustainable event management space, heading a company based in Denver that focuses on helping events and conferences prepare and execute greener practices. In addition to her roll as sustainable program manager for Colorado Convention Center and City of Denver Arts and Venues facilities, her diverse roster of clients include the Philadelphia Eagles, Natural Products East and West Expos, VISIT DENVER, Vancouver Convention Centre, Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre, and Incheon Convention & Visitors Bureau in South Korea, and of course, Sustainable Brands.

“There’s definitely an increase in sustainability in events in general,” she said. “More events are looking at this impact, and beyond that, attendees are expecting their events to have some of these sustainability components in it. If they’re an exhibitor, they want to know what the event offers in terms of sustainability. So there’s an increase in demand and an increase in sophistication in what groups are doing and looking for.”

A demand for metrics is also increasing, according to Lindsay. “People are going beyond asking for a recycling bin. They also see they have plastic wrap that can’t be recycled. What happens to that? They’re trying to get more metrics on what is our carbon impact, how much water is being used, energy, etc. So we’re looking for ways to do that.”

This year, Lindsay and her team are working with 203 grad students from the University of Michigan to do lifecycle analysis work, tracking the impact of events. In the past, Lindsay says they measured things like waste diversion, carbon, water from venue and hotel, percentage of food that’s sustainable. “Now we’re going a step further,” she said. “We’re also looking at how the event is engaging with the local community in Detroit. We’re expanding the things we’re tracking. It’s just a much more sophisticated space.”

So sophisticated, in fact, that Cobo Center, the venue for SB’17 Detroit, will play an active role in the overall efforts of reducing the event’s footprint. “We’re working closely to establish event procedures that will be employed during SB’17 to achieve a minimum 80% overall diversion of waste during the event,” said Claude Molinari, General Manager at Cobo Center.

According to Claude, measures include using a large volunteer force, recruited locally, to help customers use composting and recycling receptacles correctly and sort waste prior to pick up to ensure material integrity. The Center will also work with Lindsay and her team to measure impacts. For example, energy consumption tracked will include electric, natural gas, steam, water. In addition, waste diversion tracked will include recycling, composting, donated materials, and landfill.

Cobo Center’s commitment to environmental stewardship in the Detroit community has garnered several awards, including the 2014 EcoWorks Sustainable Communities Champion Award, 2015 Keep Michigan Beautiful President’s Plaque, and the 2015 Detroit Free Press Green Leader Award. As part of its many innovative green initiatives throughout the facility, waste that is not recycled or re-used is converted to steam by Detroit Renewable Power making Cobo Center 100% landfill-free. The entire facility is air-conditioned by pumping grey water from the Detroit River through chillers that then send the cool water to various air handlers, providing cooling to zoned areas in the Center. This system uses considerably less electricity than conventional air conditioning units. And My Green Michigan provides complete composting services to Cobo Center.

“We’re all working together to help meet SB’s goals for this event,” said Lindsay.

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