Sustainable Conference Hosting
I do my best to go to many sustainability conferences (when the student registration price and travel expenses are acceptable) in search of inspiration and connection to the latest real life practices. Of course I couldn’t help but noticing and judging how sustainable the event hosting was each time, so I decided to collect my reflections
The biomedical conferences I used to attend during my undergraduate years in the States usually hand out a bag of random small crappy stuff at registration.There were often small USB drives, T-shirts, stationary, document folders, many flyers and booklets, branded with the sponsor’s trademark or message from the hosts. Most of them are frankly quite useless and really bothered me when I was trying to deal with them as responsibly as I could: recycling the paper, using the bag for grocery and gifting the USB drives to whoever wants them…
In comparison, the events in Europe are a lot less commercialized and often show a bit more consciousness of sustainability. Like a recent conference about sustainable cities I went to handed out a cotton bag (organic cotton!), a glass water bottles (so no plastic water bottles!) and an umbrella (just for the weather!) for everyone at the registration.
I have to say that I didn’t hate receiving these nice things. But on second thought, are they really necessary? Most people came with their own umbrellas, bags and water bottles. So now they just got extra things (as nice as they are) to carry and later extra things that are just lying around at home. I’m glad that one of the speakers brought up the issue during his talk, the point was that we are here for a conference about sustainable development, but the event hosts gave out these cheap umbrellas made in China… There appeared to be a disconnection between talk and action. It may seem trivial but actually reflected the uncomfortable truth about the overabundant materialistic lifestyle.
There is a lot of room for improvement that doesn’t require much effort but just a change of mindset: To stop trying to impress people with free stuff, but with minimum environmental impact. The event organizers probably have the power to determine how the event should be hosted and could have certain hard standards like “no waste” that their hosts have to adhere to. The venue hosts are also at a great position for they have the chance to adopt the circular economy principles: putting value on usage instead of ownership. They can provide certain things with their advertisement and messages only for use of the conference period (like umbrellas, waste bottles, stationary and etc). Afterwards, delegates have the option of giving these things back to the venue who can store them for the next batch of delegates to reuse. Hardly any value degradation happens this way.
Previous studies (also see related post) taught me that catering is a big source of waste due to fixed food serving portion and common use of disposable (commonly plastic/paper) plates and utensils.
But I recently got quite inspired by a conference in Basque country.
Thanks to the special local food, pinxtos (basque tapas) served at the venue for lunches and dinners. There was barely any food waste. Yes, partially because they are delicious, but more importantly because they come in small bite sizes. No plates or silverware were used. Everyone was just standing around chatting while holding a napkin with a small piece of yummy food. Some found it annoying that they had to hover around the food tables or servers once a few minutes for their next bite but honestly that’s just a perfect excuse to break away from a diminishing conversation and to network with a new person. Though I have to admit that finger food do get messy at times, but there are no lack of good solutions. There are so many innovations of edible plates and utensils nowadays. When can we start to see them being used in these events?
There is always room for improvement in more environmental friendly catering. Especially when it comes to the food that’s being served. Can there be more local vegan options? To what extent? And again, how to deal with the whole issue about lifestyle? If it were up to me, I would just make the menu organic, vegan, local as default, while offering the option of “special dietary requirement for meat and dairy” at registration, because why not? It has been done in events in the States.
Cough cough, they are often officially known as “workshops”. I am personally not too critical about this because I usually really enjoy what I could learn from actually going to the sites and the opportunity to bond and connect with other delegates through these events. But I do think more thoughts can be put into these from the organizer’s side in the planning phase: for example, matching the size of vehicle to the number of registration to a more detailed level, which requires a bit more human labor but would definitely have positive results…
I will keep updating this post as I get inspired by other conferences or if I get some interesting comments…