The new normal
At the moment of writing (January 2021), due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 event organisation has been either banned or severely restricted for nearly a year. The world of events has moved over to the internet. Often we do not ask ourselves the question about the environmental impact of internet activities – other challenges have become so intense that we do not have enough energy left to attend to this aspect as well. Currently, there is still no good language or sufficient data to categorically indicate better or worse solutions associated with online events. For this reason, most suggestions included below will refer to the world we have known so far – meetings, lectures, concerts, performances, exhibitions and conferences which happen in non-virtual rooms and non-virtual environments. The topic of virtual events and their impact on the environment will definitely require further research and revision.
In person or online? Work on green ‘in person’ events has a clearly outlined agenda. We know that ‘in person’ events leave an energy and water trace (see more: BUILDING), as well as cause emissions associated with transportation, accommodation, food production, waste, etc. Pollution caused by the internet is invisible for us. However, as indicated by a number of studies, internet activity may generate a large carbon footprint. The less data is sent and received in the virtual space, the less harm to the environment will be made. For instance, reducing the quality of a video watched on a streaming platform or switching off camera during an online meeting significantly reduces carbon footprint. By analogy, the more video a particular app uses, the bigger a burden it becomes for the environment. Therefore, when we are faced with the dilemma: in person event or online – it is worth taking these facts into account (see: ICT).
> Read more: Turn off that Camera During Virtual Meetings, Environmental Study Says, source: Science Daily (text in English)
Greenhouse gases emitted by means of transportation contribute considerably to environmental pollution. They affect the soil, and pollute the air and water. When we organise an event, guests we invite have to commute to the venue, participants also have to cover some distance, catering and other necessary materials have to be delivered. It is estimated that transport accounts for 80 percent of harmful emissions at big events. Therefore, it is always advisable to choose an appropriate means of transportation.
Discourage use of private car transport. Cars are the main source of pollution caused by transport – they account for over 60 percent of all CO2 emitted by road transport in Europe. With events addressed to the local community, this form of transportation should be discouraged. Instead, encourage your audience to come on foot or by bike – this is zero-emission locomotion. It is also a good idea to use public transport (bus, tram, railway), which is characterised by low-emissions per passenger. The information accompanying your event should include a clear message stating which means of transportation is suitable to reach the venue, which cycle path will take participants there. Make sure there are bike stands close to your building. Consider introducing incentives for people using public transport or bicycles, e.g. a discount or special prerogatives.
> Read a guide on how to reduce environmental impact associated with the travel of the cultural events audience. Audience Travel, source: Julie’s Bicycle (text in English)
> Glastonbury Festival introduced vouchers for anyone coming to the festival on public transport or by bike. The voucher makes it possible to receive discount on meals, access to solar showers and other benefits. Read more: Green Traveller, source: Glastonbury Festivals (text in English)
Choose public transport, minimise flights. When we talk about bringing guests from various parts of the country and the world, there is no universal response as to what type of transport should be used. Essentially, if you do not have to travel anywhere in particular, organise an online meeting and on shorter distances choose a train or a bus, rather than a plane. With long-haul flights, in order to minimise the negative environmental impact, choose direct flights, as a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions is associated with take-off and landing. It is also possible to purchase carbon offsets offered by most airlines; this way you can support planting of trees in a forest or park, which will absorb carbon dioxide and ‘cancel out’ negative footprint.
Make sure there is a full set of passengers in cars. If you are organising an off-site event, e.g. a large festival, a good way to reduce individual car transport is to start carpooling, which involves allocating passengers commuting on the same route to one car. Suggest a similar solution to the participants of your event; if they live in one place and some of them have cars, it is worth taking care of a full set of passengers in one vehicle to minimise the negative impact of the trip.
Apply these rules to yourself. Point out the above transport rules to the organisers of events to which you and your colleagues are invited. If, as an invited guest speaker, you have the opportunity to reach your destination by train rather than by plane, suggest this to the organisers, if they do not suggest it themselves.
Local deliveries. Transport of people is not the only kind of transport when organising an event. It is often necessary to deliver elements of set design, technical equipment, catering or other materials. Part of sustainable transport is planning orders in a way that does not generate unnecessary kilometers. Make sure to buy or rent nearby and use local suppliers.
Accommodate in your vicinity. When your event requires accommodation for guests, make sure that the place where they stay is not far from the venue and encourage them to use public transport. Let them know how they can get to the event site by public transport. If the hotel is really close, you can call your event ‘zero-emissions-friendly’ and encourage your guests to use bikes (public bikes are available in many cities) or go on foot. By shaping the transport behaviour of your guests, you contribute to reducing emissions.
Support eco-friendly hotels. Find out whether your preferred hotel is eco-friendly. Many accommodation places implement ecological solutions: reduce water and energy consumption, reuse rainwater, provide recycling containers, give up disposable toiletries or disposable packaging for coffee or sugar, use ecological cleaning products, use local suppliers, take care in supplying quality food and do not waste it. Give priority to hotels with environmental credentials or certifications (such as the Green Key award or EU Ecolabel).
Avoiding overproduction of items, minimising waste
Estimating needs. Every year, most of us produce waste amounting to several times our own body weight. What’s worse, most waste is still unprocessed – it piles up in landfills and contaminates the ecosystem. It is worth bearing in mind that every event generates waste. It may be possible to try and dispose of the waste in the most environmentally friendly way, but the best course of action is to pre-empt this challenge and minimise waste production. How much waste would be produced by your event and whether it would be possible to process it will depend on the decisions taken by you, for example concerning prints, materials, catering, etc. Plan consciously in order to avoid overproduction of waste.
3Rs for materials and resources. The 3Rs principle (reduce, reuse, recycle) will help you minimise waste. Remember about it not only while organising events but also in your daily practices.
Reduce: Do not buy or produce unnecessary things – there are already a lot of resources in circulation. Focus on the raw materials which you will be able to reuse or recycle. Avoid perishable products or those containing substances harmful for the environment. Instead of buying bottled water, encourage visitors to come with their own multiple-use bottles. Do not order too much catering ‘just in case’; if some food remains after the event, make sure it does not go to waste. Limit buying new equipment. Instead of buying equipment individually, buy it with another organisation or hire it from a cooperative. Exchange the resources you possess with other organisations (sharing economy). If you bring a guest from afar, let other cultural institutions know and plan together how best to use the guest’s time so that others could also take advantage of this opportunity.
Reuse: A lot of waste which currently piles up in landfills could be reused. Therefore, try not to throw away things thoughtlessly but think how you can reuse them and give them a second life. Transform old banners into promotional items, use pages printed on one side for notes or test copies, use waste as a material for artistic activity. The principle of ‘reuse’ can also be transferred onto bigger activities, such as multiple use of temporary exhibition infrastructure or set design consisting of modules which can be used again with future projects. You can also introduce this principle into your contracts with artists, obliging them to use existing resources in the first instance, rather than buying or producing new by default. Support and become engaged in exchanges and garage sales in your neighbourhood. Pass on usable things which you no longer need, so that others could make use of them.
Recycle: Sort waste so that it can undergo recycling. Recycling will retrieve raw materials from waste, which could be used to produce new products. This procedure allows you to save natural resources and significant amounts of energy which were necessary in the original production. The recovery of raw materials is facilitated by the correct sorting of garbage, which is down to you.
The 3Rs principle is sometimes extended by additional Rs. The zero waste movement also uses the terms refuse (e.g. refuse to use disposable packaging, refuse leaflets), rot (create your own composter from green waste), repair (when something breaks, do not buy new – repair equipment, clothes, etc.).
In order to make conscious purchasing decisions as far as products’ composition or recyclability is concerned, remember the meaning of eco symbols on packaging:
> Useful eco symbols
The economic version of the zero waste movement is the idea of a closed circuit economy (known also as circular economy), which looks at resources in a new way: how we design, how we use them and how we can transform them into new valuable products. Hence the term ‘closed circuit’ which expresses the idea of circulating and processing goods without producing unnecessary waste. These principles are worth applying at work, in one’s creative practice and in daily life. (See > PRODUCTION: MATERIALS)
Problematic plastic. Plastics are widely available in our daily lives: appliances, toys, food packaging. Even seemingly eco-friendly items wrapped in paper may surprisingly contain products in plastic bags. Event production is a real paradise for plastics: food and drinks packaging, promotional items – this is where plastic appears the most. Contrary to a popular opinion supported by manufacturers of plastic, this material is not fully recyclable. There are six basic varieties of plastic, each with different properties, and only a few of them have recycling potential – potential which is dependent on many factors (e.g. cost-efficiency, durability, availability of recycling options in a given country). On top of that, there is plastic of the seventh type, the so-called ‘other plastic’ which is completely non-recyclable. That is why it is so important to avoid plastic as far as possible and use alternative options wherever possible. However, since escaping from this material is not easy, it is advisable to approach this task gradually, starting with the easiest steps and simultaneously finding out what plastic really is. (See > PRODUCTION: MATERIALS)
> Read: How to live with plastic since you can’t run away from it, source: Wysokie Obcasy
3Rs for plastic. While organising your event, allow yourself to be guided by the 3Rs principle (reduce, reuse, recycle), eliminate single-use plastics and replace them with eco-friendly alternatives e.g. reusable bottles and cups. Reduce the amount of plastic packaging. Choose returnable and recyclable packaging or, if possible, buy products without packaging. Do not make banners from PVC. Use erasable notice boards. Instead of plastic bags, use paper ones. Do not use laminates. Provide your contractors, collaborators and suppliers with a guide on material policy at your event.
It is difficult to avoid plastic waste; it is generated not only by you or your team and invited guests, but also by the audience. Therefore, since the rate of plastic recycling in Poland is not amazing yet, think about how you can use these products creatively – by turning them into a work of art or creating a new, usable object. Such a creative activity could also become an interesting element of your programme, emphasising its ecological aspects.
> Get inspired #1: Trash Art or art from rubbish, source: Reused
> Get inspired #2: Precious Plastic, source: Precious Plastic
Sort waste. The organisation of an event is a good opportunity to show that sorting of waste should be carried out at all times. Provide enough bins at the site of the event and make sure to mark them accordingly (bio, glass, paper, plastics, mixed waste). If possible, provide an open composter. In order to help appropriate sorting, supply an instruction on how to use the containers. You can also appoint a person who will help with proper sorting.
> See: How to sort waste, source: Na nowo śmieci
Local and healthy products. Make sure that ecological food produced with respect for nature is served during your event. Choose local producers and suppliers not only to shorten the supply chain and limit gas emissions associated with transport, but – above all – to get fresh seasonal products. Fruit and vegetables grown outside the season in greenhouses may have a high carbon footprint. Avoid technologically processed foodstuffs (e.g. carbonated drinks, rice cakes, packed biscuits) – not only are they unhealthy but their production uses up more energy. It would be a good idea for tea, coffee and sugar to be Fairtrade-certified, evidence of it coming from an ethical plantation.
Minimising animal and animal-derived products. What we eat and how our food was produced is important to both our health and the climate. Factory farming is one of the most serious causes of environmental pollution. When planning catering during your event, minimise animal or animal derived products or, if possible, give them up altogether. Discuss this issue with your team, so that the decision to withdraw from animal and animal-derived products could be extended from one-off events to an institution-wide policy.
> Read: The climate footprint of a pork chop, source: Nauka o Klimacie
> Check how your diet impacts the climate: Climate Change Food Calculator, source: BBC (in English)
Preferences of participants. Before the event find out the dietary preferences of the participants to meet their dietary and allergic requirements and to prevent food waste. Label dishes so that it is clear what ingredients they contain.
Water. Use tap water. In Polish cities, you can drink tap water without boiling; filters are usually not necessary either – according to EU norms, tap water is filtered multiple times. Some people may be reluctant to drink it saying tap water is not to their taste (in their case adding mint or lemon may help); it may also happen that the bad condition of water pipes makes water undrinkable (then the use of filters is necessary). Encourage your guests and event participants to bring reusable bottles and ensure easy access to water. Also, make sure that reusable bottles are available to purchase on the spot. If bottled water is needed, provide water in glass bottles.
Waste. We must not let food go to waste. Leftover food after an event can be distributed among participants or donated to a food bank. Provide clearly marked containers for composting food waste. Use reusable crockery and cutlery. If you have to use disposable dishes – choose compostable ones (made of sugar cane, corn) or, if they are not available – biodegradable ones (made of bran, wood, paper). Remember that from 2021 in all of the EU there is a ban on single-use plastics such as plastic cutlery, plates, straws, polystyrene takeaway food containers, polystyrene cups and lids, plastic stir sticks. Using up stock of these items is only possible until 3 July 2021!
> Find out more: Biodegradable vs. compostable. Is every biodegradable material ecological?, source: Eko-logicznie
> Check what to look out for to avoid food waste: Save the food (in English)
Communication and promotion
3Rs for promotion. When planning the promotion of your event, apply the 3Rs principle: reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce print production whenever possible. However, be mindful of the needs of various groups of recipients. You can publish your programme on the website or post it on social media, send it by email or display or make it available in a limited amount during the event. Print on both sides and use ecological paper. Give up promotional items. If they are indispensable, create an item of practical use, preferably from recycled materials to avoid overproduction of materials. Sustainable information and promotion also concerns the virtual space – your online activity does not remain without impact on the environment. Remember to reuse and recycle materials which are already at your disposal. Recycle old banners or billboards and make a new product out of them. Design new banners and posters with a thought of reusing them in the future – without a date, with a blank space to fill out. Make sure even small elements such as conference badges can be reused. Recycle prints left over from the event. (See: COMMUNICATION AND PROMOTION)
Communicate environmental responsibility of your event. It is important to communicate eco-initiatives, inform your audience about the action taken and thus shape their attitudes. The website and social media are usually the first source of information about your event and a good opportunity to encourage participants to use ecological means of transportation. Publish information on how to reach your institution by public transport and describe bike routes. This is also a good place for an announcement about any potential benefits or vouchers for public transport users, cyclists or pedestrians. Inform everyone about the solutions adopted to minimise the negative environmental impact (e.g. limiting prints, recycled paper, etc.) during your event.
Looking after the body of the institution
You. Event production usually means tight schedules, many changing factors and the area of work in the cultural sector susceptible to exploitation and self-exploitation. That’s why you should take care of yourself. Agree on the scale of activity in your organisation. Make sure you have enough resources and enough support from the team to organise an event. Together look for solutions to difficult situations and share responsibility.
Participants. Ensure that the needs of your audience are fulfilled. Ensure accessibility of your event at architectural and linguistic levels – if your event is held in a foreign language and is not directed at a narrow group of specialists, provide interpretation, including Polish sign language interpretation. If this is an all-day event, make sure there is space for relaxation – provide enough breaks and make water and food available.
Neighbourhood. Consider whether your event will have a negative impact on the residents living nearby. When organising an open-air concert or film screening, make sure noise levels are kept within acceptable limits and there is no noise at night. In both cases, notify your neighbours about the event, invite them and encourage co-creation of initiatives in the future. If you are using green areas for your event, make sure that the solutions you use and the behaviour of your audience does not affect the natural world.