Myths Venues Waste Management

Meeting Mythbusters: Waste at conventions

When it comes to waste from conventions and trade shows I often hear two statistics cited:

  • Tradeshows are the second most wasteful industry
  • Event participants produce 20 pounds of waste per day

Searches to find the source of these claims seem to lead in a circular fashion and not typically back to a primary source.  So in today’s Mythbusters, rather than keep going in circles, I want to learn if we can confirm or deny how much waste is produced by conventions?

First: a disclaimer! I’m not asserting to be conducting an exhaustive or rigorous study via this blog post. My hope is this may spark dialogue about the need for recent and reliable conference impact data. I would welcome a diligent post-graduate student with interest in this topic to contact me if they’d like to do something more thorough and fully scoped. I’ve based this initial estimate on information I have collected and analyzed from events I’ve been involved with recently, and reports from others that are publicly available and have been verified by industry peers who have experience in auditing and analyzing event waste.

Second: a plea for help! The event industry appears to be very eager to develop sustainable event management systems now that we have an international standard that provides guidance. Given the increasing mention of “zero waste” in this context, the wider disclosure of consistently scoped and rigorously analyzed waste stream information could be very valuable to many seeking to make their events more sustainable by better managing waste. As someone working in this space I think it would be incredibly helpful if we started collaborating to devise consistent methods of measurement for waste, and share our reports to improve knowledge. Think of how much more effective we all could be if we share in the benefits of open-source methods and data! With that in mind, hats off to those brave enough to share and report and gratitude for your generosity in adding to our industry’s pool of knowledge.

To clarify a response to the “myth” then, here is what I learned from looking at data from 17 different conference events:

A conference participant produces 5.23 pounds of total waste per day


It’s not perfect, and is limited in scope (see below), but I feel it’s a fair estimate to start from. Moving forward from here helpful research projects could:

  • Review and propose an appropriate scope and methodology for conference waste measurement.
  • Test the validity of this guess against additional real-world event data.
  • Analyse the nature of conference waste streams in order to assist with planning and purchasing decisions that minimize waste.
  • Compare and contrast waste profiles between types of conferences, perhaps by program type, subject matter, or audience type.
  • Project how variables like event length and location may impact waste.
  • Verify the effectiveness of different ways to reduce waste, including attendee education, signage, waste receptacle design and positioning and waste monitoring.
  • Explore changes in overall waste, landfill, and diversion in response to “green” event programs.

For samples and information about sustainable event reporting please refer to the helpful work of MeetGreen, MCI, EWEA, IMEX, Oracle, Symantec, UUA, and USGBC.

Important notes about scope and limitations: I’ve limited this analysis to examples that are conference and meetings specific. That means that in this first pass I’m not talking about festivals, concerts and other kinds of events. I’m talking about conferences. Specifically, ones that have reported waste impacts within 2011 and 2012. Data analyzed only includes down-pipe waste recorded at event venues. Meaning, materials that are discarded from an event between move-in to move-out at the venue. Waste includes total material landfilled, donated, composted and/or recycled. This does not include waste that might occur before arriving onsite at the event, or waste that might happen at hotels providing room block during the event, or items attendees and vendors may dispose of at home or work. Also important to note is that those events considered have established sustainability programs or an organizational mandate for sustainability in all cases. This means that statistics are likely to be skewed to the “greener” side of the spectrum and should not be considered typical of an event that did not plan for or report on sustainability. Venues, events and planning agencies without sustainability plans in place should anticipate higher waste footprints. Other scope notes of relevance: 17 conference events were analyzed, all of which had a tradeshow element. 12 occurred in various cities in the USA, while 5 were international (Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America).

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