Save Money and Trees: How to Run Sustainable Events


May 1, 2019


How to Run Sustainable Events

Events can be a great way to expand brand awareness, educate an audience on a given topic or even form important connections within your industry. But if you aren’t careful when planning your event, it can also lead to unanticipated environmental harm.

According to MeetGreen, the average conference produces 4.17 lbs of waste per attendee, per day (3.53 lbs of which will go to a landfill). Compounded across a three-day event with 1,000 attendees, this adds up to just over 12,500 lbs of waste – roughly equivalent to the weight of four compact cars.

With attention to detail and an open mind, it is possible to run a more sustainable event without blowing your budget on pricey “green” alternatives. Here’s how to do it.

Familiarize Yourself With Different Waste Streams

Before you can figure out where to make eco-conscious swaps, it’s important to understand the types of waste events produce. As Shawna McKinley notes in an article for the Event Manager Blog, “Even with a good composting and recycling program at the venue, a mid-sized corporate trade show with around 5,000 attendees will still go through tons of waste.”


breakdown-of-waste-768x432 (Image Source)


McKinley also suggests becoming aware of the carbon footprint generated by event-specific activities, writing, “Using the same mid-sized national association conference tradeshow with around 5,000 attendees we can see the breakdown contributing to an event carbon footprint.”



(Image Source)


Keeping these distributions in mind as you plan your event will open up opportunities to select more environmentally-friendly alternatives at every stage.


Planning a Green Event


Use the graphics above as a guide for making changes. For example, if you know that most event waste is sent to landfills, any of the following strategies could enable you to divert event items to more sustainable alternatives:


  • Limit your usage of paper signage, brochures and other print materials, as attendees often toss these into the garbage – even if designated areas for recycling exist. A mobile event app or electronic files can communicate much of the same information without the need for paper.
  • Where possible, work with vendors who are committed to diverting event waste for recycling or reuse. If these options aren’t made obvious by your vendors, ask. They may have eco-friendly solutions available, even if they don’t publicize them.
  • Choose refreshment options that require fewer waste products. For instance, a coffee bar with porcelain mugs will reduce waste from disposable cups, while a buffet-style meal will produce less trash than providing boxed meals for attendees.
  • Identify options to reduce food waste. The more accurate your attendee counts are throughout the registration process, the closer you can get your order to what you’ll actually use. In addition, ask about options to donate unused food or to send it off for composting, rather than throwing it away.


Similar choices can be made in order to reduce your event’s greenhouse gas emissions:


  • Choose a central location that minimizes travel requirements for attendees. Holding your event in a major conference center, rather than a more rural or suburban market, ensures more attendees will be able to take direct flights instead of carbon-generating multi-leg journeys.
  • On a related note, try to book your event at conference centers that are well-served by public transportation. Ideally, this will minimize the number of attendees that will need to drive or take cabs to the event .
  • Affiliate your event with hotels that have their own sustainability programs in place. Hyatt, for example, is committed to “a 2020 Environmental Sustainability Strategy focusing on stewardship, waste and water reduction and stakeholder engagement.”
  • When possible, insist on LED light bulbs in both conference center rooms and in any booth rental equipment used by stakeholders. Not only do these bulbs use less energy to produce the same output, but they should also help the venue save on its utility costs.
  • Look for vendors whose meals and refreshments are locally sourced. Transporting out-of-season produce or foods that aren’t available locally results in the production of greenhouse gasses. Serving organic, vegetarian meals helps as well, as both commercial farming practices and the production of commercial meat are associated with higher rates of carbon emissions.


Not only will many of these steps help make your events as environmentally-friendly as possible, they can also help keep your costs low.


  • Forgoing print materials saves both print costs and the costs of the labor required to design, print, distribute and clean up print materials.
  • Getting as close as possible to your actual attendee counts won’t just reduce the waste associated with overbuying. It’ll also reduce the costs these overages add to your event bills.
  • Booking a central location – preferably one that’s close to home for your team – reduces not just your team’s carbon footprint, but their travel expenses as well. Flights are nearly always cheaper heading into major metropolitan areas than they’ll be if your staff are forced to journey through multiple cities to reach your venue.


Educating Attendees on Sustainable Best Practices


Of course, as noted above, you can take all the steps in the world to make your event as environmentally-friendly as possible, but if your attendees aren’t aware of their role in making the event sustainable, they may unintentionally hinder your efforts.


That’s why running a green event requires a commitment not just to sustainability best practices, but to attendee education as well. The following tips may help:


  • Make it measurable. Depending on the capabilities of your venue and vendors, see if it’s possible to quantify your green initiatives. For example, if you’re able to measure the amount of waste generated at the end of the event, set a goal that’s lower than a previous, similarly-sized event by a specific margin.
  • Be vocal about your goals. People love to feel like they’re part of a project or movement. So don’t be shy about announcing your efforts to make your event as sustainable as possible. If you’re trying to reduce your waste by 50% compared to another event, share this number as a part of your event announcements and encourage every participant to do their part.
  • Integrate reminders into your event app. Use any built-in notification or event FAQ features you have access to in order to share not just your goal, but the specific activities attendees can take to be a part of the effort.


If you’re trying to reduce waste, it may be advantageous to limit the number of places where trash can be disposed of versus recycled and to staff a team member near the receptacles to help remind guests of your goals (paper signage doing the same would be undesirable for obvious reasons!).


Managing Shortfalls


Having said that, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are no waste-free or perfectly sustainable events. Attendees will toss items into the trash and forget to turn off the lights in meeting rooms not out of malicious intent, but out of habit or because environmental consciousness may be the last thing on their minds in hectic event environments.


Trying to make environmental friendliness fun can help. Vicky Martín of ACCIONA Producciones y Diseño shares one example of having done so at a past event with the Active Sustainability website. “For the ‘Día de la Música’ festival, we encouraged the audience to exchange used plastic cups for books and magazines under the slogan ‘turn your waste into culture.’” She also writes about using, at a different event, “an iPad application which enabled guests to know about their carbon footprint or C02 emitted according to the means of transport they had used to go to the event.”


If all else fails, you can estimate the total carbon emissions produced by your event and purchase carbon offset credits through companies like Terrapass. Not only will doing so help to mitigate the damage associated with conferences and other events, it may allow you to advertise your event as being “carbon neutral.”


Start Small for Sustainability


You may not be able to make all of these changes at once. But every step made in the direction of environmental-friendliness matters.


Take a look at your upcoming events, and see which swaps will be the easiest to make. Talk to your venue and vendors about the green options they offer. As your sustainability program grows in sophistication, add more and more of these practices until you’ve created a truly green event.


What steps have you taken to create environmentally-friendly events? Leave us a note sharing your experiences in the comments section below:

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