During Conference Season, Don’t Forget to ‘Go Green’

by Abigail Pickus

Summertime is conference time.

And for conference organizers and participants, the time is ripe to add another important item to the agenda: The Green factor.

“It is crucial to implement sustainability from Day 1,” said Holland-based sustainability consultant Irene Rompa.

Rompa, 28, was at a planning meeting for the popular TEDx conference in Amsterdam a couple of years ago when she realized with alarm that she and her fellow volunteers were drinking from plastic water bottles. While TEDx, the independently organized TED events, might stimulate conversation and inspire people to action, Rompa wondered how they could activate positive change and practice what they preach at the same time when it comes to the needs of the planet?

(Quick fact: Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, which requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce.)

This led Rompa to be tapped as the sustainability coordinator for TEDxAmsterdam and at the TEDxSummit in Qatar, where she served as an advisor on how to ‘Green Up’ their practices. This, in turn, prompted ROI, the global community of young Jewish innovators, to invite her to be their Green Guide at their recent Summit in Jerusalem.

eJP recently sat down with Rompa to find out some quick and easy ways to make conferences and events more sustainable.

1. Think Green from the Get-Go
If you’re organizing an event, start thinking about sustainability from the beginning – not once the event is in full swing, according to Rompa. Choose a venue that either already has a Green certificate or one that is willing to accommodate your requests to recycle, use sustainable suppliers, save on water, and more. Remember: You are the consumer. The more people request sustainable options, the more they will be incorporated into the mainstream.

2. Re-think the Swag Bag
Is it really necessary? Rompa wonders. If so, she suggests being proactive and giving participants options for donating or recycling whatever isn’t going to be used or taken home at the end of the conference. For example, ROI provided a station at the end of the Summit for participants to leave behind whatever they didn’t want that they would either donate or recycle.

3. Invest in Sustainable Water Bottles and Quench Your Thirst from the Tap
It takes nearly 20 thousand single-use plastic water bottles to quench the thirst of a 700-person conference. Even if many of those bottles are recycled, that is a tremendous amount of waste – not to mention polluting to the environment. A simple solution is to invest instead in sturdy, reusable, sustainable bottles and to keep filling ‘em up from the tap. (Studies have shown that bottled water is no healthier than tap water.) “The message you’re spreading is that using these types of bottles for tap water is cool,” said Rompa. An added perk is it’s possible to personalize the bottles, so organizations will also be investing in branding and marketing. But one warning: Try to use local vendors because it defeats the purpose to fly in bottles from far away and thereby leave a carbon footprint. There are trade-offs with everything, warns Rompa, so make the best and most efficient choices for your situation.

4. Re-use and Re-cycle
When Rompa was learning the in’s and out’s of out sustainability, she discovered that combining biodegradable materials with non-biodegradable materials ends up using more energy than if you didn’t recycle at all. That is why it is important to put thought into the recycling plan before the conference is in full swing. One solution is to provide clearly marked bins for people to drop their trash separated by type (paper, cans, plastic). This way, the recyclable materials are already separated. Don’t forget to arrange for the waste to be picked up and dropped off at the nearest recycling center. Food waste can be composted. Leftover edible food can be donated to shelters, depending on the pertinent health codes. When it comes to keeping things Green, Rompa says to constantly ask yourself, “What can I refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle?”

5. Use Sustainable Vendors
Everything from the printer to the coffee supplier should be considered and weighed for their sustainability when planning an event. Consumers have the right to say to a venue: we will choose you if you green up your practice, according to Rompa. Some suggestions are to request fair trade coffee, vegetarian food (or more vegetarian options), local and seasonal products and organic dairy products. “Work with your suppliers. If everyone does this the suppliers will be encouraged to be more sustainable,” said Rompa.

6. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Choose a hotel that is close to public transportation and try to board participants where the event is held, said Rompa. When flying is unavoidable, Rompa suggests choosing a sustainable airline. Some airlines will offer options to offset the carbon footprint caused by flying. Ways to neutralize carbon emissions include planting trees or investing in solar projects. ROI, for example, offsets the flights to and from the Summit in Israel by providing solar water heating for disadvantaged families in Israel through a social venture called Good Energy Initiative.

7. It Takes a Village
Another important step when it comes to treading gently on this earth is to not try to do it all alone. “The first thing you always need to do when you’re thinking of sustainability is to work with a team,” said Rompa. Only by working with your suppliers, hotel or venue, airline, and last but not least, a team of likeminded people, is it possible – and more realistic – to implement real and lasting sustainability.

8. Every Little Thing Counts
If Going Green seems daunting or if making these changes seem like a drop in the bucket, Rompa suggests heeding the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead who once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”