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Earth-Friendly Events: A Planner’s Guide to Going Green

By Anta K. Henry

In fact, the American Society of Association Executives’ Convene Green Alliance recently published an article dispelling myths surrounding green events. The organization’s director, Kristin Clarke, says the biggest untruth is that green events cost more to produce. “That’s just not the case anymore,â€Â Clarke says. “You don’t need a bigger budget to have a green meeting. The prices on many things, including recycling services and compostable products, have gone way down.â€

The key is to communicate to your host facility that you want to have a green event within your budget. If your current vendors don’t provide the kinds of services you’ll need to get there, explore using new ones.

Also, as planners, it’s important to keep in mind that people have become much greener in their attitude and habits.

“Seventy-five percent of people recycle at home, so why wouldn’t they do the same at a meeting?†Clarke says. Allison Beers, owner of event planning company Events North in Traverse City, agrees. “The expectation to produce greener events is becoming the norm,†she says. “About 50 percent of my clients inquire about green initiatives, but often times I just put the recycling services in place and clients are pleasantly surprised when I tell them it will be a zero-waste event.â€

Andy Gale, founder of Bay Area Recycling for Charities, says demand is helping his company grow. “In more and more places, recycling companies are popping up and doing things right,†Gale says. “Given the demand, we’ve expanded our services statewide, under the new umbrella Xero Waste Events.â€

Eating Green 

Going green isn’t just about waste management, of course: Meetings and events are able to reduce their carbon footprint by creating sustainable menus. “The whole farm-to-table concept is huge,†Clarke says. “Clients want local, organic and seasonable.â€

Events North takes advantage of the endless offerings from surrounding farm communities and makes recommendations to clients. It’s an area where earth-friendly rides the coattails of a major food trend.

“For our clients, it’s about being farm fresh, more than cutting down on trucking food in,â€Â Beers says. Regardless, it’s a win for everyone: The client, the planner and the environment.

The Devil is in the Details

The team behind Northern Michigan’s flagship event, the National Cherry Festival, boasts a very green program. “Our efforts started about five years ago,†says Kat Philips, the event’s operations director. “We wanted to be better stewards to the environment, and the city was strongly encouraging it, too.â€Â The festival now requires that all of its vendors follow suit. The event recycles about 60 percent of its waste, and its sustainability efforts include recycling stations, compostable products, food-waste recycling (grease water), refillable water stations, electric golf carts, paper-lite efforts and community green teams.

“Our biggest obstacle with our program has been signage at the recycling stations,†Philips says. “You need to make the directions at your recycle bins crystal clear, or your recycling plan won’t work.†The festival’s recycling, composting and trash bins have gone through several iterations, from written instructions to illustrated pictures. The festival also has a sorting tent, where staff members give the bags a once-over and pull out items that have landed in the wrong container.

Bay Area Recycling for Charities handles the recycling and waste-management programs for both the National Cherry Festival and Events North, and Gale says his team has struggled with the same communication problems at other events.

“‘Compostable’ tends to confuse people, so our bins now say, ‘Food Waste and Service Ware’ instead,â€Â Gale says. “And our trash bin is labeled ‘Landfill.’ That really makes people stop and think before just tossing their waste into the nearest container.â€

Let the Venue Do the Work

Another great way to go green is to simply book a green venue. “The Great Wolf Lodge and the Hagerty Center are leading the charge in Northern Michigan,†Beers says. “These sites already have many environmentally friendly programs in place.â€

Indeed, Great Wolf and Hagerty have been recognized for their efforts with the designations Green Seal Certified-Silver and Three-Star Certified Recycler, respectively.

Detroit’s Cobo Center is another green heavy hitter. In fact, it’s the largest green-certified venue in Michigan, having earned the Green Venues Michigan Steward certification from the Michigan Energy Office. Places like Cobo Center are going well beyond recycling and offering clients green solutions that may be less obvious to visitors but that have a significant environmental impact.

Thom Connors, Cobo Center’s regional vice president and general manager, says, “Our green strategy is 100 percent client-focused and we continue to investigate, validate and implement new and innovative green initiatives throughout the facility.†Specifically, the center focuses on energy efficiency, air quality, water conservation, paper reduction and, of course, waste management. The center is also always looking for ways to give back to the community. “We donate unserved, prepared food to Forgotten Harvest, an organization dedicated to relieving hunger in the Detroit Metropolitan community,†Connors says.

So, ready to give back? Aiming for a 100-percent-sustainable event right out of the gate might not be realistic, but even a small change in the way you execute your program can have a positive impact.

“We’ve made small, incremental changes every year at the National Cherry Festival,†Philips says. “And as technology grows, we’re happy to be able to do even more.â€

1) ASK UP FRONT. Put your green goals in your RFP so vendors understand that it’s an important part of the conversation. Advise them to provide specifics about their green initiatives and to come up with a program within your budget.

2) BOOK GREEN. Select a venue that’s already green-certified. This way you know that the site has green programs in place and can easily execute your sustainability plan.

3) BOOK NEARBY. Reduce travel by picking a location that’s close to the majority of your guests. You can still be off-site without having to fly everyone in.

4) WALK THE TOWN. Pick a venue that’s in a central location near hotels and restaurants. This will reduce the need for transportation and encourage guests to explore on foot.

5) SOURCE LOCALLY. The farm-fresh movement makes sustainable selections an easy choice. But it’s not just about local food: Consider buying all of your meeting and event supplies on location.

6) GO PAPER-LITE OR PAPERLESS. Reduce or eliminate printed programs, packets and agendas, and anything else that can be communicated electronically. Smartphones and tablets make it easy to stay connected, and planners can enrich content with mobile apps, videos and interactive elements.

7) RETHINK THE WATER. Bottled water is often a staple at meetings and events. Cut down on the recyclable kind and opt for a reusable bottle instead. Brand it with your color theme or logo to make it a desirable keepsake.

8) REQUEST REUSABLE. When possible, use reusable items for your event—linens, tableware and silverware. Or, at the very least, explore compostable options.

9) COMMUNICATE CLEARLY. Don’t assume everyone understands the differences between recycle, compost and trash. When it comes to explaining your recycling plan, you can never be too clear.

1O) GIVE BACK. If appropriate, add a community service event to your agenda. Organizations like Clean the World, which collects and recycles soap and shampoo products discarded by the hospitality industry and donates them to impoverished global communities, can accommodate large groups of volunteers for short-term projects.