Start with One Change to Create a Sustainable Meeting

Reducing your carbon footprint is a defining characteristic of undertourism; infuse this thinking into your event by starting with a pilot.

Going green for your next meeting or event doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Choose one aspect of your meeting where you can aim for sustainability. The next year, choose a new area to add to your efforts and so on and so on.

“Make one change, learn from your experience and start building a practice,” says Julia Spangler, a sustainable events consultant in Indianapolis. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from the start. There are plenty of changes you can make that still make a difference. Your meeting does not have to go from zero to perfect.”

Creating sustainable meetings is intrinsically linked to undertourism, which highlights more low-key travel that leaves a minimal footprint. The adage “reduce, reuse, recycle” is stated in order of priority. First consider how to reduce the materials and energy you use, then how to reuse items. Recycling is the last resort of the three, says Spangler, who was honored this year with the Young Professional Achievement RISE Award from Meeting Professionals International (MPI) for her work on MPI’s World Education Congress in Indianapolis last year.

How to Reduce and Reuse

Reducing and reusing often go hand in hand. Signs and banners is a great area to focus on. Instead of thinking of your signs as a one-time deliverable, think of them as part of your ongoing supplies. When possible, eliminate your event’s branding, instead focusing on your organization’s branding. That allows you to leave off the event location, dates and year, so you can reuse the signs for multiple events. You can even create signs that have a type of window on the front that you can update with the information that changes from event to event.

The Indiana Sports Corp Corporate Challenge event followed these sustainability best practices last summer, Spangler says. The organization had rebranded and printed new signs for the event—but it left off the event details. “This will allow them to use the banners for years to come, and it ultimately kept more than 200 pounds of banners and signs out of the landfill,” Spangler says.

Another option is to focus on event swag. Again, leave off event- and year-specific branding, so you can use the same giveaways again. But go a step further and consider cutting back or eliminating swag altogether. Or, at least make it an option for attendees. Don’t fill registration bags with promotional items from your organization and vendors—a lot of that material gets thrown away, especially as your guests pack their suitcases for the trip home.

“It’s cost-saving for everyone who is giving items away, as well as less of a burden on your guests, so it’s a win-win all around,” Spangler says.

“Organizations can also plan to design most of their booth space using all reusable materials,” says Carrie Logie, vice president of client services at Ignition DG, a design agency in Indianapolis that specializes in creating exhibitions and events.

“Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do,” Logie says. “In the exhibit space it comes down to custom modularity. This means designing a beautiful custom booth out of completely reusable components. That not only is environmentally friendly but is also a huge cost savings to our clients and an efficient execution of exhibits.”

An Ignition pharmaceutical client recently exhibited at the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ annual conference in Indianapolis. Ignition repurposed an exhibit booth the client had already used at two other conferences, reconfiguring it into the right size and scale for the Indy event. “Not only was there a reduction in expense to the client and elimination of waste, but we also supported brand messaging by keeping the look and feel consistent,” Logie says.

Aim for Zero-Waste Meals

Food waste is another area where you can make a big impact. As you plan your meeting’s meals, talk through the amount of food, cookware and service ware certain menus will require. Consider switching up meals. For example, serve finger foods—no utensils required—as appetizers or at a reception.

Go a step further and use compostable service ware. That initiative helped the event Corks & Forks 2019 achieve the highest waste diversion rate of any event held at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which is home to the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever basketball teams. Corks & Forks is a fundraising event for Second Helpings, a food rescue, hunger relief and culinary job training organization in Central Indiana. Second Helpings rescues food from supermarkets and restaurants and turns it into nutritious meals for the community. The organization distributes over 100,000 meals a month.

Approximately 25 restaurants took part in the fundraiser; all were provided with compostable service ware. “The addition of composting to the event was the linchpin in going from a relatively green event to a zero-waste event because we were able to divert all of the dishes and all of the food scraps into the compost,” Spangler says. “That left a minimal amount of trash left over.”

Zero-waste stations—each with a recycling bin, compost bin and trash bin—were scattered around the event. Signs helped explain what each container was for, but Spangler’s staff also moved items if they were thrown into the wrong bins, ensuring clean waste streams.

Meeting planners can also promote the low- or zero-waste goal to attendees, showing your organization supports sustainability efforts. By using compostable service ware and recycling beverage bottles, Corks & Forks succeeded in keeping 93% of the event’s waste out of the landfill.

Indianapolis has been leading the way in sustainability efforts in other ways, as well. The city has been recognized as one of the top cities in the world doing the most to combat global warming. Indy has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s also a leader in solar power: the Indianapolis International Airport is home to the largest airport-based solar farm, while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is home to the largest sports facility-based solar farm. The city also boasts the nation’s largest all-electric car-share program, and its bikeshare system is expanding. Plus, in September 2019, Indy will launch the country’s first all-electric bus rapid transit system.

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(The Siners Photography)