Eco-Friendly and Sustainable: More Than Just Buzzwords

As part of its sustainability programs, the Raleigh Convention Center has installed a number of beehives.
As part of its sustainability programs, the Raleigh Convention Center has installed a number of beehives.

Making a meeting or event eco-friendly can begin with something as simple as replacing printed programs with online apps and resources, replacing individual water bottles with refillable or reusable ones, or finding ways to reuse event materials.

It can also be as involved as holding the event somewhere that emphasizes sustainability and ‘green’ practices. Fortunately, many venues throughout the South make this part easy with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, unique projects which are easy on the environment and other sustainable and eco-friendly activities.

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, (USGBC) LEED certification is used worldwide for all types of new construction and renovation and also covers building maintenance and management. In the past couple of decades since the certification program began, more than 60 convention centers across the U.S. have become LEED-certified, with many of those in the South.

Center-to-Table Gardens, located in the Orange County Convention Center’s (OCCC’s) West Building, have been very successful, according to Nadia Vanderhoof, the venue’s marketing and communications manager.
Center-to-Table Gardens, located in the Orange County Convention Center’s (OCCC’s) West Building, have been very successful, according to Nadia Vanderhoof, the venue’s marketing and communications manager.

Why Focus on Sustainability?

Some sustainable venues reduce costs with more efficient use of water and power, smarter purchasing decisions, and better practices in waste disposal and recycling, but money savings is not the only goal.

Mara Craft, director of sales for the Raleigh Convention Center, says the center’s sustainability is not just a feature of the building, but is a way of thinking to aid planners with events.

“Meeting planners are faced with making innumerable decisions throughout the event planning process, many of which not only need to align with the event goals, but the expectations of their organization, many of which now address sustainability,” Craft said. “That, in conjunction with a growing interest in how personal habits and behavior can impact the environment at local and global levels, adds a new level of scrutiny to events and meetings. Our embedded, sustainable processes, from the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) to catering to composting, give planners peace of mind when it comes to the sustainability of their events, allowing them to direct their attention and energy on the event itself.”

In Arkansas, which bills itself as ‘the Natural State,’ protecting the environment through sustainable events comes “naturally,” said Jessica Ledbetter, sales manager with Arkansas Tourism.

“It is becoming increasingly important to event planners and to the people of Arkansas that events planned in the state be sustainable: environmentally, socially, and economically,” Ledbetter said. “We must stay progressive in our efforts to not only minimize the negative impact events can have on our cities, but to maximize the positive effects the development of sustainable practices have on the health of a region.”

The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) has the largest solar panel array in the southeast U.S., with enough energy to power 200 homes a year.
The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) has the largest solar panel array in the southeast U.S., with enough energy to power 200 homes a year.

What cities and venues are doing to be green

By attending an event in Orlando at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), attendees help support one of the most innovative large-scale sustainability programs in the U.S., officials there say. The center’s programs are varied and include the largest solar array in the southeast U.S., with the ability to power more than 200 homes each year.

Center-to-Table Gardens, located in the OCCC’s West Building, have been very successful, said Nadia Vanderhoof, the venue’s marketing and communications manager.

“Through our food and beverage service partner, we harvest approximately 44,000 plants each year from 81 aeroponic towers which use 95 percent less water and 90 percent less land than conventional in-ground farming,” he said. “The plants and vegetables grown here are considered hyperlocal, meaning the food is grown, processed, and consumed on property.”

Another well-received program resulted in donations of more than $12 million in furniture, food, supplies, and other goods to local charities and non-profit organizations across the region.

“The generosity of our show and event organizers has made this program possible,” Vanderhoof said. “The OCCC has also been able to donate more than 144,000 square yards of carpet squares to local groups such as Habitat for Humanity from ongoing meeting room renovations.”

However, not every program works out as planned.

“Several years ago, we installed two food digesters in our kitchens, but they caused damage to the drain systems and had to be shut down,” she explains. “It was a great idea, but it did not work for the volume of food on hand. However, this helped open the door to our current composting program which generated more than 230 tons of food waste last year.”

Vanderhoof said the OCCC is currently working to replace the roof on the North-South Building with a high-efficiency surface which will generate more electricity without increasing in size.

“As the second largest convention center in North America, the OCCC uses its unique position in the community to have long-lasting positive impacts on the residents and visitors in the area,” she added.

In Chattanooga, meeting visitors appreciate high-tech sustainability, including service from EPB, the city’s super-fast fiber optic network, with speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).

There is also “day lighting” technology at the Chattanooga Convention Center, the first convention center in the U.S. to incorporate the lighting technology that allows natural sunlight to complement artificial light in the exhibit halls.

Marissa Bell, public relations manager for the Chattanooga Tourism Company, also noted many of the city’s 2,500 downtown hotel rooms and attractions are located on its free zero-emission electric shuttle system route.

In October 2019, the International Placemaking Week Conference in Chattanooga was powered by EPB’s Solar Share community solar installation, making the conference carbon neutral with the equivalent environmental impact of displacing the CO2 emissions from 1.4 million charged smartphones.

In a statement, EPB director of environmental stewardship and community Elizabeth Hammitt, said, “Using Solar Share to power conferences and events is an easy way to support clean energy generation. It is a great option for event organizers who are passionate about the environment and want to communicate their commitment to their attendees.”

Additionally, Green Spaces Chattanooga, a non-profit which works toward regional sustainability, offers a Green Light Conference Package with an “integrated and holistic plan that supports an organization’s sustainability brand, offsetting event emissions and impact with local community solar, zero waste, and much more.”

The Austin Convention Center (ACC) is a LEED-certified facility powered by 100 percent renewable energy from Austin Energy’s Green Choice Program.

“Not to mention, 50 percent of all waste generated is diverted from landfills through our extensive recycling, reuse, and composting program,” noted Derick Hackett, senior public information specialist at Austin Convention Center Department. “We are focused on positively impacting our community in all we do, including how we interact with and affect our environment.”

Over the past four years, the ACC has diverted 2,200 tons of waste from landfills, had a 750,000-watt reduction by using efficient lighting fixtures, and recycled more than 205,000 pounds of old carpet. In 2019, the center’s catering partner composted more than 242,000 pounds of food waste and donated almost 31,000 pounds of food to homeless shelters.

The ACC’s downtown location also helps reduce individual transportation needs with stops for the city’s MetroRail and MetroBus lines right next to the venue.

The George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBC) in Houston, which first began efforts to reduce its carbon footprint in 1998 and gained LEED Silver status in 2011, regularly partners with local organizations to recycle, reduce, and reuse waste from events. Green programs at GRBCC include initiatives to reduce or recycle waste of all kinds, from paper, toner cartridges, plastics, and food waste to electronic equipment including computers, monitors, copiers, televisions, and refrigerators to demolition waste from building renovations or additions.

In a 2019 article in Green Lodging News, GRBCC sustainability manager Wanda Adams said the center’s successes are from a team effort.

“We make sure we are purchasing products that meet green standards, and also try to come up with innovations around sustainability,” Adams said. “The most important part of our meeting is planning education programs that engage our staff on recycling and discussing how to be more environmentally friendly.”

She noted meeting planners considering the center ask about green initiatives about half of the time.

“We are excited to inform our potential clients we have a LEED building and are leading the way in green meetings,” she said.

The Raleigh Convention Center has introduced beehives to its array of sustainability programs. “We like to say that in many ways, we keep Raleigh buzzing,” said Mara Craft, director of sales. “We partnered with a Raleigh-based beekeeping non-profit to bring honeybees and a custom-built hive to our gardens and one to our sister venue, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

“The hives were built by a Raleigh-based design and furniture company tasked with creating an attractive hive with a design which improves the health and wellness of the colony of pollinators downtown,” he said. “Our in-house caterer, Centerplate, will feature the fresh honey that is produced on-site in cocktails, snacks, and dishes.”

The honey produced by the hive and used in the dishes is just a small piece of the center’s local food efforts, Craft noted.

“Centerplate usually uses china for events; however, when guests request single-service items, we provide 100 percent biodegradable products that break down in less than 180 days. Together with Centerplate, we have diverted more than 150,000 pounds of food from the landfill thanks to a partnership with Raleigh-based CompostNow,” she continued. “The compost is then donated to Camden Street Learning Garden, which is operated by a local non-profit dedicated to ending hunger. At the garden, plots are given to families to grow food, free of charge.”

The LEED-Silver certified center in Raleigh was constructed on a former brownfield site and 100 percent of the 350 tons of steel used in construction was from recycled sources. The roof features a 2,000-panel solar array which produces enough energy in a year to power 100 homes.

“We were able to build something green from property that once was the opposite of what we consider to be sustainable today,” Craft said.

At the LEED Gold-certified Savannah Convention Center, ‘going green’ means a comprehensive plan covering many areas, according to a statement from the center.

“From timed lighting systems and motion-detecting sinks, to recycling all applicable used materials and implementing an active food donation program, it is our goal to leave the smallest environmental footprint possible,” the statement noted.

Noteworthy green initiatives include using certified sustainable fish and seafood, donating used frying oil to be recycled and converted to animal feed and bio-diesel fuel, and recycling plastic, aluminum/tin cans, paper, and cardboard products in a single stream program throughout the entire facility.

Recent energy savings projects at the center include installing a dishwasher that is 82 per cent more water efficient; installing 65 new exterior light-emitting diode (LED) light fixtures that use only 40 watts, a total reduction of nearly 9,000 watts; and replacing existing indoor bathroom light fixtures with energy-efficient LED panels and installing eco-friendly bathroom ceiling tiles to prevent mold and mildew.

Solar panels at the LEED-certified Austin Convention Center (ACC) in Austin, Tex.
Solar panels at the LEED-certified Austin Convention Center (ACC) in Austin, Tex.

Events can make it easy to be green

There are many things planners can do, many at little to no extra cost, to make events greener and more sustainable.

For example, replace printed programs and schedules with online resources or apps, do not supply bags full of promotional material and let attendees take only what they really want, encouraging event participants to use public transportation or making events walk or bike-friendly, prohibiting single-use plastics, and providing clearly marked bins to collect recyclable materials.

In Virginia, the state’s department of environmental quality has a ‘Virginia Green’ event certification program to help planners organize events which minimize environmental impacts and increase environmental awareness. At a minimum, the program expects organizers to provide recycling, minimize the use of disposable food-service products and printed materials, reduce overall waste, and post signage to inform participants about the event’s green attributes.

Hints on the department’s website include developing a ‘green team with multiple event staff members, letting the team take ownership of the new environmental programs, developing a policy statement defining goals, and clearly communicating the event’s efforts to the public.’

Caitlin Schmelz, sales and sports development manager for Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge said it is easy to see the value of green events when they take place in beautiful outdoor spaces.

“Virginia’s Blue Ridge is a metro-mountain destination with more than 1,000 miles of hiking, biking, and paddling trails, so we understand just how valuable yet fragile the environment is,” she said. “Encouraging responsible outdoor recreation and sustainable meeting practices is important to us to keep our region clean so we can continue hosting these wonderful events.”

The Arkansas Cornbread Festival, an annual fall event in Little Rock, has worked with a community organization, Plastic-Free Little Rock, to create a five-year plan to become a standard for low-waste, plastic free events. In November, participants can expect to see “a preference for paper over plastic, refillable water bottle stations, and a refreshing absence of Styrofoam,” according to a statement.

Moving toward zero waste requires everyone’s attention and dedication, the statement continued. “We know the task seems daunting… We will educate festival goers both before and during the event to ensure our mutual success. We want this to be an opportunity for practice and education for all to take to their homes or businesses and continue them: see what it means and how it can fit into their lifestyle.”

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