Can We Plan Green Events During the Pandemic?

April 6, 2021

Julia Spangler

Julia Spangler is the owner of Ecosystem Events, a sustainable events consultancy company. Julia helps organizations and event professionals reduce the environmental impact of their events in order to preserve our planet and deliver powerful sustainability stories. 

As hotels, restaurants and venues begin to reopen, we’re all imagining what post-pandemic events will look like. Many businesses and trade associations have publicly released reopening plans to inspire public confidence and help other businesses learn best practices.

At the same time, thought leaders in many industries, including in meetings and events, are calling to use this global reset as an opportunity to imagine and create a better future.

While I admire an attitude of radical improvement, I’m also sensitive to the hardships facing event professionals, many of whom are out of work or struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Event professionals will already bear the incredible burden of ensuring our gatherings are safe and healthy. How are we supposed to reinvent everything else on top of that?

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t innovate — far from it! I applaud everyone who has used this time to sharpen their skills, update their business plan or work toward their vision of a better industry (or world). But to those eventprofs who have been struggling, I want to reassure you that it’s okay if you didn’t solve world peace during lockdown.

What We Can Do

All that being said, one way that eventprofs can work toward a brighter future is simple: don’t take steps back on progress we’ve already made.

For example, our industry has largely acknowledged that single-use plastics are detrimental to the environment, and many planners have taken steps to reduce or eliminate single-use items at their events. However, early in lockdown, prohibitions on reusable grocery bags and BYO coffee mugs sent the erroneous message that reusable items pose a higher risk of coronavirus transmission than single-use items.

According to guidance from U.S. government agencies, this is not the case. Both the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through their guidances, assume that reusable dishes, utensils and other serviceware will be in use.

It’s also important to remember that coronavirus can be found on both disposable and reusable surfaces. In practice, single-use items are typically not cleaned or sanitized before use, in contrast to reusable surfaces and materials, which are frequently cleaned and sanitized. Both the FDA and CDC provide guidance on how to clean and sanitize food and beverage surfaces adequately.

Caterers utilizing reusable dishware already have to adhere to stringent health department codes for cleanliness and sanitation. Assuming your caterer is compliant (which I encourage you to verify), the potential sanitation concern with reusables lies not in the vessels themselves, but in the service method.

Many F&B stations involving reusable dishes are self-serve: buffets, beverage stations, coffee breaks, etc. These formats involve many guests touching the same serving utensils and beverage dispensers to serve themselves. The CDC recommends that these types of high-touch surfaces be frequently cleaned and sanitized. To further reduce risk and provide peace of mind for guests, planners can dramatically minimize contact with these surfaces, in addition to sanitizing them.

Rather than converting those surfaces to single-use items, caterers can convert from a self-serve format to staffed service. Assign members of the catering staff, wearing appropriate PPE, to serve guests and operate beverage dispensers. In this way, guests will completely avoid contact with F&B surfaces other than their own dishes and utensils, and staff will touch a limited number of surfaces as well.

Looking Forward Without Stepping Backward

Avoiding single-use plastic is just one example of a sustainable best practice that planners can maintain in their post-pandemic events. I have yet to see any official coronavirus-related guidance that would necessitate reversing common sustainable best practices.

While you may feel like your events are less sustainable in the near term due to higher volumes of waste from sanitation products and PPE, this relatively small amount of unavoidable waste is just a small part of your event’s overall footprint. There are many things you can do to continue your sustainability progress without compromising safety.

Here are five more ways you can continue to produce sustainable events in post-pandemic circumstances:

1.     Reduce waste through planning and design up-front. Minimize food waste through precise ordering and overage tracking. Make promotional giveaways optional. Design signs, banners and major fixtures to be reusable for multiple years.

2.     Request clean energy from your destination or venue where available, and consider purchasing carbon offsets to minimize your event’s impact on climate change.

3.     Continue to provide recycling and composting. Check with local service providers and adhere to any pandemic-related guidelines they may have. Do not recycle or compost gloves, masks, sanitizing wipes or other PPE unless explicitly approved by your service provider.

4.     When communicating your new health, safety and sanitation procedures, choose display methods that are digital(event app, in-venue screens), reusable (sign frames with paper inserts) or recyclable (signs direct-printed on cardboard).

5.     Continue to plan hybrid and/or virtual events as a safe, accessible and sustainable alternative to in-person events.

Sustainability and sanitation are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they go together. By maintaining sustainable best practices alongside our new sanitation practices, event professionals will give guests peace of mind that their event is both safe and sustainable, and that our industry’s solution to one crisis is not contributing to another.

 

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