Participants at the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) conference in Pittsburgh last week adopted a big, audacious challenge.
The gathering of 150 or so meeting professionals called for a million tons of trash (or a million metric tonnes, outside the United States) to be diverted or recycled from the meetings and events that take place in 2009.
Whether or not the industry hits the target, whether or not it’s realistic, the challenge could transform the way meeting professionals think about the programs we organize and supply, and about the place of meetings in the wider community.
A million tonnes of trash is either a very large number or quite a small one, depending on the context.
When you consider that the average meeting disposes of 20 pounds of waste per participant per day, you realize that it takes only 10,000 participants (5,000 over two days, 2,500 over four days) to generate an unimaginable 100 tons of trash. But it’s more than likely that most meetings and meeting facilities will respond to the challenge with small, comfortable, manageable steps, which means it will take a great many meetings to reach the target.
Yet a million tonnes is only the tiniest percentage of the meetings-related waste that finds its way to landfills and incinerators each year. Reliable statistics are hard to find (more on this in a moment), but MPI’s Canadian economic impact study found that 70.1 million participants attended 671,000 meetings in Canada in 2006. An equivalent impact study for the U.S. is just taking shape, but we generally assume in Canada that we can get a rough estimate for the U.S. if we multiply our economic data by 10.
Adding the two countries together gives us a conservative calculation of 7.38 million meetings and 770 million participants. The Canadian study never teased out an average number of days per meeting, but a very cautious estimate of 1.5 days would give us 1.155 billion participant days onsite, generating 23.1 billion pounds (10.5 million metric tonnes) of waste.
And that’s just for the more northerly two-thirds of North America. Whether or not a million tonnes is achievable, it’s certainly no more than a first step to address a very large, very global problem, and one that can help meeting planners and facilities build the financial bottom line when they face up to it: A participant in Pittsburgh shouted out some very encouraging figures that compared the cost of composting or recycling with the tippage fee for waste disposal.
GMIC is being clear that this is a grassroot challenge that originated with participants in the leaders’ track that convened during the 2009 Greening the Hospitality Industry Conference last week. With ACTION=SUSTAINABILITY as the theme, organizers hoped to see some kind of follow-up agenda emerge, but the details, scope, and audacity of that challenge were in participants’ hands. (Disclosure: As co-chair of the conference program committee, I played a part in developing and framing the action challenge.)
The challenge is rolling out quickly, and there will be no resources or effort to verify participants’ claims or track the double-counting that might occur, for example, if a planner and a convention centre report the same saving twice.
But those concerns are secondary for an initiative designed mainly to build awareness and momentum toward a long-term solution. Although every unit of waste carries an environmental, economic, and human cost, this is one instance where the numbers aren’t crucial, at least not for now. Whether the final tally December 31 is a million tonnes, 10,000 tons, or somewhere between, GMIC’s support for this effort will have pulled, pushed, encouraged, and cajoled our industry to a better place.
For you to judge whether this is a disclaimer, a boast, or a bit of both: At this writing, the Green Meetings Portal that our firm is developing in partnership with GMIC will be a primary online tool for publicizing the challenge and gathering data. The Portal is expected to launch by the end of the month, and the challenge opens on Earth Day April 22.