Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, which took place in Boston during November 2017, had something for everyone in the realm of green buildings—education sessions with topics ranging from human health and net zero energy to innovation and technology. It also had an expo hall with roughly 700 vendors and impressive speakers such as former President Bill Clinton, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the US Green Building Council (USGBC) President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam. Greenbuild is the world’s largest conference and expo devoted to green building. It is owned by Informa Exhibitions and is presented by USGBC.
Zero Waste Events and Goals
Throughout the event, one thing that struck me was the commitment of the conference organizers to waste diversion. There were dozens of three-container bins split for recycling, composting, and trash. Each segment was marked with images to minimize confusion. In addition to the signage, a volunteer was stationed at each receptacle to ensure attendees put waste in the correct compartment. This strategy to reduce waste at Greenbuild was implemented in 2016 when the conference was held in Los Angeles, California, and it resulted in the highest diversion rate ever for Greenbuild. The collaboration of Informa Exhibitions, USGBC, the Los Angeles Convention Center, local haulers, and other partners led to a 90% waste diversion rate and an 18% increase over the convention center’s baseline conversion rate. Data on waste diversion from the 2017 Greenbuild conference is not yet available.
On September 16, 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12—announced the first US-based goal to reduce food loss and waste by half by the year 2030. Since the 1990s, cities have slowly started to set zero waste goals, with San Francisco, California and Oakland, California being two of many cities to set zero waste targets with the goal of having zero waste by 2020. Zero waste events can help cities reach waste reduction and zero waste goals, and this type of event might be required by some cities. Additionally, a zero waste event can attract sponsors that share the priority of reducing waste. Many companies, including Subaru, Sierra Nevada, Toyota, and Microsoft, among a growing list of others, have set zero waste goals.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The efforts of Greenbuild are impressive for a conference of its size. If every large conference prioritized waste reduction as much as this event, the amount of waste diverted from landfills would be significant. Beyond diverting waste from landfills, creating less waste initially—or reusing items—creates less waste that needs diverting. I watched as the booths were taken down and I was struck by the pure amount of materials it took to fill an expo hall of that size: banners, giveaways, tables, extension cords, yards of carpet, and more. While some things can be reused at future events and this is a component of a zero waste event, not all materials are reused.
According to the EPA, Americans produce an average of 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day. Reducing the overall materials needed at conferences or in daily lives can help the total waste that will end up in a landfill. All items, even those recycled and composted, require materials to make them and energy to break them down. Following the first of the R guidelines, reduce, can have an overall effect on the materials to be reused and recycled by lessening the materials to be reused and recycled. Reducing society’s overall consumption and working toward zero waste in events and in the average consumer’s daily life will not happen overnight, but are ultimately achievable with time and practice.