Our society has become increasingly dependent on plastic – even though it is one of the most harmful materials to our environment. It is deadly to animals, polluting marine life and filling up landfills around the globe. Although some inroads are being made, when it comes to plastic usage, responsible disposal practices are key.
In July 2019, the organisers of AMSA, Australia’s foremost professional marine science body, hosted a nationwide conference in Perth, with the theme ‘Marine Science for a Blue Economy’. The conference hosted 570 delegates, consisting of marine science professionals, academics and students. What set this conference apart from the rest? It was entirely free of plastic.
The conference focused on science that will contribute to safeguarding the health of our oceans and marine life, while also sustaining the economic and societal benefits that accompany a growing nation. So, how did the organisers manage to host an entirely plastic-free conference, with single-use plastics being such an integral part of our everyday lives? From shopping bags to water bottles, take-away containers to food packaging, plastic in all its many forms has become an ingrained part of our existence.
Plastic-free conferencing – it is possible
The organisers started planning every aspect of the conference 12 months in advance. They were resolute in their undertaking to eliminate all forms of plastic from the event – from ordinary plastic catering waste to the corporate gifts and trinkets that are so often given away at corporate events.
The team of planners started out by selecting a like-minded event organiser, to assist them in achieving their plastic-free goals. They then set about finding non-plastic alternatives to replace all the usual conferencing items.
They came up with the following plastic-free solutions:
- Hard cardboard name badges without plastic pockets.
- Lanyards made from bamboo, with metal clips.
- Conference tote bags made from 100% natural materials.
- No printed envelopes for registration packs and no printed conference abstracts.
- All essential printing was done on sustainably sourced paper, by a printing company using a solar-powered printer.
- Delegates were requested to bring their own reusable water bottles and coffee cups to the event. They also had the option to pre-register to buy a reusable coffee cup at the conference.
- Coffee carts were stocked with returnable cups that could be washed and reused.
- Glass water jugs were available at the back of each presentation room.
- No packaged sweets were on offer.
- Sustainably sourced pencils were used instead of pens, with sharpening stations supplied.
- Crockery, silverware and glassware were used for catering purposes.
- All exhibitors, workshop organisers and additional functions (such as the student night and public lecture) committed to reducing their plastic waste (for giveaway items, catering and more).
Amazingly, the organisers managed to deliver all of the above without increasing their budget – or impacting the bottom line. However, no matter the amount of planning, it is impossible to control every aspect of operation and “hidden plastics” will remain in the supply chain. It is hard to influence the choices of the conference venue, their suppliers (food, linen services, waste removal) and the other hotels used by delegates (who may provide guests with items containing plastic in rooms and elsewhere).
According to the planning team, getting all service providers on board with the objective of going plastic free early in the process is the ideal, but ultimately, the goal is to change people’s attitudes towards waste, not to reinvent the entire events industry in one conference. In parting, the conference planning team shared what they learned through the process of planning a plastic-free conference:
Steps to plan a conference without plastic
Plan early. Doing things differently from the norm can take a bit of work, but there are usually plastic-free options available. It will be time well spent and alternative solutions can be applied to your next event.
Get everyone on board. Create a shared goal with the entire team: venue, event organisers, caterers and exhibitors – more ideas create better solutions. This also creates a ripple effect, not only for the event, but also in developing more sustainable practices for events going forward.
Do a site visit. Visit the conference venue in order to identify potential problems – and devise solutions well ahead of time.
Don’t make assumptions. Ensure all suppliers and relevant parties are knowledgeable and informed about what plastic-free and zero-waste really mean.
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