Debbie Wilson is the sustainability officer at Counties Manukau Health. She moved into the newly-created role in 2012 from a background as a senior nurse, becoming only the second sustainability officer in the New Zealand healthcare sector. Her responsibilities include minimising the impact that Ko Awatea’s annual APAC Forum has on the environment. Debbie is completing a doctorate in health sciences on sustainable healthcare practice through Auckland University of Technology.
Did you know that travel accounts for 90 per cent of the carbon emissions from an average conference? Or that an estimated one-third of the food produced for a conference is wasted?
Many conferences have a much greater impact on the environment than they need to. This article shares some advice on how to make your organisation’s conference sustainable.
Running a sustainable conference starts right at the beginning, during the planning phase.
Start with a rough idea of how many people are likely to attend your conference, and then think about a suitable venue. Assess the environmental credentials of possible venues. If the venue is already following a philosophy of minimising its environmental impact and has integrated that into its strategy and practice, you will find being sustainable much easier. For example, recycling bins are likely to be available, food suppliers are likely to be locally sourced, and an offsetting scheme may be offered. However, it’s important to check these things – don’t assume anything.
Consider the gifts and resources you intend to provide to delegates. Are they going to generate lots of waste paper and plastic? Consider the waste you may be generating, because not everybody will keep the gifts and resources they get. Gifts such as canvas bags are reusable and less likely to be thrown away. In addition, think about offering ethically traded gifts, such as those sold under the ‘Fair Trade’ label, to demonstrate a commitment to fair trade and equal opportunities.
Providing information and gathering delegate feedback and evaluations in electronic format saves waste paper. For example, at the 5th APAC Forum, Ko Awatea offered session information and evaluation, as well as avenues for connecting with other delegates, through an app which could be downloaded onto delegates’ mobile phones.
Think about your exhibitors, as well as your delegates. The information pack you send to exhibitors should include information about your commitment to cut down on waste and reduce the environmental impact of your conference. Ask exhibitors to consider what kind of packaging they will bring and to take it back with them once the conference is over. Set these things as expectations. Exhibitors can also be encouraged to provide gifts and handouts made from recyclable materials.
Your communication with the people who will attend your conference should aim to get them thinking about their own carbon footprint. If they intend to fly, for example, encourage them to participate in the carbon offset schemes offered by many airlines. Do your homework on these schemes beforehand, as they are not all created equal, and inform delegates of the most credible options. Similarly, provide delegates with information about public transports options in the host city and encourage them to use it.
Food and beverages are major potential generators of waste, but there are things you can do to cut it down. Supplying water in jugs and glasses creates much less waste than handing out water bottles. Use durable cups for coffee and tea that can be washed and re-used, instead of single-use cups. Similarly, washable napkins generate much less waste than throw-away paper napkins.
Consider also whether the food you serve is locally sourced. Avoid shipping food in from distant suppliers if possible and provide healthy, fresh meals and snacks instead of sugary, processed food.
Following these approaches, you should end up with as little waste as possible. While some waste is inevitable, aim to avoid sending it to a landfill if you can. Think about what your waste streams will be and offer recycling options wherever possible to deal with them.
Finally, seek out any opportunity to raise awareness of sustainability. When many individuals’ efforts are joined together, the impact of altering behaviour amplifies. Your sustainable conference may inspire your delegates to live and work more sustainably long after the conference itself ends.