Have we gone astray on sustainability? On the surface, it doesn't look like it: we have an international standard for sustainable events to comply with, there are dozens of sustainability managers and teams throughout the industry helping to drive down waste, increase reuse and facilitate more recycling.

Almost every event is talking about its sustainability credentials and making sustainability promises somewhere in its literature.

Compared to 30 years ago, we’re ‘greener than green’...

…but I think there is so much more we can do, and need to do if we want to call ourselves a sustainable industry. As the new chair of the AEV/AEO/ESSA Sustainability working group, and together with my vice-chair, Lucille Ryan, we know that there's a huge appetite for change amongst the public and the industry on this topic, but as an industry, I think we need to rethink a few sustainability matters.

First of all, all the lip service to sustainability promises has to stop.

Executive decision making can take an organisation to ISO 20121 compliance, but when an event manager won’t sign off on self-dissolving toilet paper, just to save £200, you know there’s a disconnect that makes those executive promises ring a little hollow. I’m not saying this is widespread or common, but I’ve experienced this kind of thing on more than one occasion. I’m always a bit gobsmacked because the ‘green’ measures being knocked back on cost grounds are so often going to save money, time and trouble in the long run.

Secondly, we have to get wise to what’s available out there.

Every council administration seems to have its own, unique, waste recycling facilities, and venues and organisers need to understand the differences between them. It’s no good claiming all your food waste at an event will be recycled if the facilities aren’t there to do it. You may successfully manage to collect all your waste plastics in one place, but if the municipal or nearby private waste facilities can’t sort them into HDPE, PET, PP and the rest of the alphabet soup, then they’re likely to get incinerated or buried.  Awareness of the recycling and reclamation facilities available and the record keeping responsibilities of every stakeholder should form part of the sustainability assessment for any event.

Sustainability is complicated, and there are competing issues that draw you in different directions.

Just as there are food miles, so there are ‘waste miles’. Some plastics are valuable enough to make sorting them from general or mixed plastic waste worthwhile, and others are not. On the show floor, you can encourage visitors to use separate bins, but you may end up with green, blue, brown and black bins all full of the same mixed waste. Wood skips at the breakdown will fill up with MDF and shutter board, and people will think it's all being recycled when in fact both those products should be incinerated.

This is why we need to make it much simpler for everyone involved in event sustainability, from visitors to venues, organisers to suppliers.

Keep It Simply Simple (KISS) is a long-standing and successful principle we can all put to good use here. For example: let’s decide on standardised waste bin colours and signage to help visitors. At the moment, a brown bin can be for paper at an event in Birmingham and for plastic at a similar event in Edinburgh. Let's not blind visitors with too many choices and too much information. They just want to know where to toss their paper coffee cup or plastic glass.

Most of all, let’s design sustainability into our events by default.

Reuse everything, and only use things that can be reused. If it can’t be reused, it should be worth recycling. If it’s not worth recycling, then find an alternative. This industry is ingenious, inventive and agile, and whilst a ‘zero waste’ event may impossible, there’s no reason not to see just how close we can get to real sustainability if we practice what we preach, keep it simple, and design it in.

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Disclaimer:
The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ESSA, its members, board or staff. Our members represent a broad range of views within the event industry, and we have provided this section of the website for their opinions to be openly heard and discussed.

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