Making Meetings Green – Zero Waste Meetings

About the author: Viccy Salazar joined EPA in 1995. She works in our Seattle office on waste reduction, resource conservation and stewardship issues.

I work for the government. One of the things that this means is that I spend a lot of time in meetings. Since I, or someone on my team, is often planning the meetings, my team decided to see what we could do to ensure that the meetings we host don’t use unnecessary resources.

The first thing we did was look on EPA’s website for green meetings. We clicked on the link for meeting planners and go directed to a list of 10 easy things to do – well, it didn’t seem easy to us but we were committed so we moved ahead. As a team, we decided that we wanted to 1) be as zero waste as possible, 2) minimize the amount people had to travel by providing options, and 3) track our result and savings.

We thought zero waste would be the easy one. We called up our local organic caterer and asked if they did zero waste. By zero waste we meant – no packaging, durable serving platters, plates, silverware, and cups, they would compost the food waste and any other non-durable items, and finally, they would carry away and wash everything. Simple, right? Well, not really. They said they did organic but not zero waste. We worked with them and finally got ‘almost’ zero waste. It required some work and the vendor had not done it before. One thing we learned was that it was important to be very specific with your food vendor and conference facility about what you want. Getting recycling at the event seemed easier but we still had to educate the meeting attendees to actually recycle!

We don’t always order out. Sometimes, we go and buy the food for meetings ourselves. When doing that, we learned some lessons like: buy from the bakery and take in your own platters. Almost all of the packaging provided by the shops is either plastic or has a plastic window in it – not zero waste. Provide drinks by making it up in a pitcher, serving drinks in cans (very recyclable) or making coffee/tea. Most other drink types had lids that needed to be disposed of. Fruits and vegetables work great – just be sure to carry in your own bags so you don’t end up with plastic bag waste.

The upshot of our lessons for providing food at meetings is:

  1. be clear about what you want, ask for it – we want it to become part of their service package,
  2. communicate to the meeting attendees what you are doing, they like it, and
  3. do the best you can – you can’t always get everything you want.

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