The sustainable drumbeat has been so loud for so long, the industry is starting to go deaf.
But here’s the thing: Meetings still produce a ton of waste. It’s been a few years since the EPA deemed the meetings and events industry the second most wasteful in the U.S., and major strides have been made since then, but to say the industry is anywhere close to being where it should be is dangerously naive—and moving forward is going to take a whole lot more than putting out recycling bins or banishing plastic water bottles.
The most recent EPA statistics, from 2010, reveal that Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash but recycled and composted only about 85 million tons of it—just a 34.1% recycling rate. Of the primary waste generators, many, including aluminum soda cans and glass containers, are everywhere at most conferences and meetings. In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations revealed equally startling statistics about food waste, also common at F&B-heavy meetings; for instance, per-capita waste by consumers is between 209 and 254 pounds a year in North America. Add in the energy-sucking impact of guest and meeting space lighting and A/V generation—not to mention all the transportation to get to and around the conference—and it’s not a pretty picture.
In other words, the industry may be going deaf, but there’s still plenty of reason to listen.
The good news is this: Even as indifference creeps in, an army of CVBs, hotels and meeting planners are making important strides to thwart meetings from generating epic waste. “We’re so tired of having another conversation about going green. We don’t have time. We need to fast-forward and move forward,” says Karen Solomon, CEO and founder of Opportunity Green, an annual sustainable- business conference in Los Angeles that draws 850–1,000 attendees from around the world and recently became the first U.S. meeting to earn official third-party sustainability verification from the Global Reporting Initiative.
Those on the fast-forward track are dreaming up truly groundbreaking ideas. We’re not talking linen reuse and composting here, helpful as those are, but energy-generating treadmills, tours through waste facilities, solarpowered DJ booths, front desk uniforms made of recycled bottles and other outside-the-box concepts. These ideas, some of which are listed below, provide the inspiration the industry needs to keep moving forward.
1. Tours of trash sites
Want an engaging team-building activity that inspires attendees to get serious about reducing waste? A tour through the steaming, stinking world of waste management should do the trick. Both Oahu and Maui offer free Tour de Trash tours that reveal the inner workings of garbage control.
Oahu’s selections include a wastewater management tour, with pit stops to see how sewer pipes are serviced and sewage sludge is processed into fertilizer pellets, and a recycling and waste processors tour to view a waste-toenergy plant and the mechanizations of curbside mixed recycling processing (got that?). Maui’s tour includes stops at a composting plant, recycling centers and—perhaps most memorably—Pacific Biodiesel, the first biodiesel plant in the nation, where recycled cooking oil provided by 60% of Maui restaurants and 50% of Oahu restaurants is converted into clean energy for vehicles.
2. Music spun by a solar-powered DJ
Music at the Opportunity Green conference last year came from a 100% sustainable, solar-powered sound system featuring energy-efficient LED lighting. The company behind the concept was Focus Entertainment EcoBoom RV, whose clients also include restaurants, clubs and hotels in the L.A. area.
3. Sustainable flowers in sustainable vases
The Opportunity Green conference also integrated flowers certified by Veriflora, a leader in horticulture eco-certification. The sustainable foliage was placed inside recycled and repurposed wine, coke, beer and liquor bottles, including ones for Absolut vodka, Jagermeister and Bombay gin, produced by the innovative company Bottlehood.
4. Pillow-recycling vacuum
They may seem innocuous, but pillows can add significantly to the waste stream. Enter Pillow-Vac, developed by Harris Pillow Supply of Beaufort, S.C. When pillow stuffing inevitably loses its necessary bounce, Pillow-Vac is used to sift out dust, clean the filling and restore fluffiness. Recycle the pillowcases as well, and old pillows no longer need to be dumped.
Meeting-friendly hotels that use this nifty eco-friendly system include Hilton Concord, about 30 miles outside San Francisco; The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the Beverly Hills Hotel in California; and Hyatt Regency Dallas.
5. Electricity generation + burned calories
Want to feel good about your body and the environment? Then jump on one of a growing number of hotel treadmills that generate electricity as you work out. The Hotel Grand Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, offers electricity-generating stationary bikes and elliptical machines in its gym. And Element Hotels, located throughout the U.S. and Canada, have introduced stationary bikes that can recharge personal electronic devices. The bikes were unveiled this March at the grand opening of the Element Miami International Airport.
6. Wine that’s even greener than organic
The concept of biodynamic agriculture began with Australian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who advocated for a holistic approach to agricultural production back in 1924—long before organic became trendy. With the arrival of the green movement, an increasing number of North American wineries have started adopting his commonsense principles, not only by producing wine that’s completely free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but by taking such additional steps as producing their own compost.
The leading barometer for biodynamic production is certification from Demeter Association Inc., which assesses the sustainability of such elements as cleaning agents, packaging and pest control. Meeting-friendly wineries that are certified include Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif.; Summerhill Pyramid Winery in British Columbia, Canada; and Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery in Freeport, Ill. Go to demeter-usa.org for more information.
7. Full-time greenologists
At this point, most hotels and CVBs have staff members well-versed in sustainability measures. But some have upped the ante by hiring full-time employees singularly devoted to all things green.
Last November, the Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., made headlines when it introduced a green concierge who provides information on the nearest farmers markets, available hybrid taxi services and other local green services.
Prior to that, Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe Hotel & Ski Resort hired David Hansen as director of engineering, a role devoted to significant back-of-thehouse green measures. Within seven months, by introducing such initiatives as a web-based energy management system and an ozone laundry technique, he cut electricity usage by 30% and fuel by 50%, all while saving the hotel $322,000. (For an interview with Hansen, see Smart Talk in our October 2011 issue.)
The latest news comes courtesy of Tourism Vancouver. In April, the bureau hired a full-time Tourism Energy Specialist, believed to be the first position of its kind in the world. The bureau’s hire, Gwendal Castellan, has worked as a residential energy adviser and completed an intensive one-year program in energy management at the BC Institute of Technology.
In this new role, Castellan says, “I’ll be working directly with the roughly 1,000 members of Tourism Vancouver and approaching them with a value proposition to reduce their energy consumption by working with me.” To help, he will assist members with everything from energy analysis to navigating the complex world of energy incentives.