Sustainability in Events: Beyond the Plastic Borders

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Sustainability has become an increasingly important term over the past decade, and I’m genuinely impressed to see how seriously people are taking it. As a non-European living in Europe for the past 2.5 years, I’ve observed not only a greater awareness of the environmental impact of European individuals and organizations but also a significant shift towards actions that support and align with this awareness.

These events offer incredible opportunities for thousands of people to gather in person and exchange ideas on their shared interests. Huge events like Vivatech in Paris, Intelligent Health in Basel, and the World Summit AI in Amsterdam attract crowds ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 attendees. That’s a lot of people, and it also means a lot of consumable goods being, well, consumed. After attending Tech Events both big and small, here are my takeaways on the sustainability factor:

The Single Use Lanyard

There seems to be a general consensus that we need to minimize single-use plastic across the board. For the most part, I haven’t encountered many single-use plastic items at these events. Single-use signage is made from high-quality cardboard or displayed on digital screens whenever possible. Apart from the usual marketing goodies like branded pens, the only single-use plastic that still persists is found in sweet wrappers.

However, and this is what inspired this post, after attending all these events, I now have enough lanyards to decorate a Christmas tree. Despite the name tags themselves being printed on paper, each event provides its unique lanyard for attendees to wear and take home. The problem is, I don’t want to take them home because where else am I going to use them?

Visualising my collection of event tags, courtesy of DALL-E

Typically, these lanyards are branded for a specific year’s event, all in the name of marketing, making them unusable for the following year. There are no stations to drop off your lanyard upon leaving the event, and they’re not made from easily recyclable materials.

So, how do we address this lanyard issue?

I’d love to see alternative solutions for attendees, like a QR code on your phone or some futuristic options like facial recognition software or scanning an NFC chip (microchip implant, anyone?). The only obvious advantage of having a physical, wearable tag is that your name and status are easily identifiable, making networking with strangers slightly less awkward. However, lanyards continue to be my biggest annoyance at events, and I hope to see them added to the list of reusable items soon, branded with an undated event logo and lanyard drop-off stations at every exit. This is arguably a better solution than the fate of the 10,000 Vivatech lanyards that will likely end up in a landfill by 2024.

Catering, Catering, Catering

My second source of inspiration for this post comes from my experience at WSAI 2023. The event’s catering system was based on entirely reusable plastic, with a brilliant system for stacking and organizing used plastic cups and plates. They also had clear recycling containers for used fine wood cutlery, tissues, and food waste. I wish I had taken photos of this at the event because I was thoroughly impressed with the level of reusability proposed by The Food LineUp. Their plastic cups are far superior to the trending alternative, cardboard coffee cups, which are still widely used.

Not only were the meal options either plant-based or sustainably sourced, but the coffee was exclusively made from oat milk, and honestly, you couldn’t taste the difference – that’s how great it was. Even while feeding 3,500 people at the event, not a single plastic cup was discarded, and all plates were reused. In fact, their catering stands don’t even provide paper receipts as an option; all receipts are digital, and you can take a photo of the receipt with your phone. It’s genius, a pure circular-system genius.

The stand itself is made from reusable cardboard – how cool? – 📷 The Food Lineup

QR Code = The New Business Card

A noteworthy feature at every large event is the networking platform apps used by organizers to enhance networking among attendees. This digital platform also serves as an alternative to printed business cards, actively discouraging exhibitors and attendees from bringing them to save trees. The idea ties back to those pesky lanyards with their QR codes. Participants can scan the QR code and be directed straight to someone’s event attendee profile within the event app. From all the events I’ve attended so far, this hasn’t proven to be a widely adopted solution. Participants often resort to searching for each other on LinkedIn instead.

However, Inspired Minds seems to have mastered this solution best at both their Intelligent Health and WSAI event, where many exhibitors would scan the QR codes of event attendees to build an email list of potential clients they could contact post-event. I still believe there’s room for improvement in this space.

Sustainability and Strategic Palnning

My third observation from events comes from a remark made in our recent podcast episode with Eerika Savolainen, regarding the efforts of massive events like Slush in considering their environmental impact. Coined as “slushtainability,” Slush is known for embedding sustainability into every aspect of the event, from simple actions like planning signage and decorations that favor reusable materials for the next year’s event to larger strategic planning. For instance, booth exhibitors are required to plan waste management for their booths, and all catering options are plant-based. Additionally, participants are encouraged to use buses and trains whenever possible.

Elimintating the plastic water bottle with water fountains at Slush Events – 📷 Thoreau

To conclude

This organizational approach to incorporating sustainability is a prime example of how big event organizers can and have been integrating sustainability into their annual events. I’ve been impressed to witness a growing trend and consciousness regarding the sustainability of events, particularly in consumable goods and catering. The biggest trend seems to be shifting the focus to reusables across the board, from food items to decor.

On the whole, I look forward to seeing sustainable practices expand in the events sector, starting with that pesky lanyard…

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