Vol. 44, No. 2

Toward greener events: Ideas from the bar world and beyond

By Marilyn Cavicchia

“I was finding I was printing materials, then picking the majority of them up again off of the tables after an event.”

This “ridiculous waste,” says Tracey DeMarea, executive director at the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association, is the main reason she no longer prints materials for bar events.

“The added advantage is the material remains online,” she notes. “I often get calls after the event for another copy, and I simply send them a link.”

There are exceptions, she adds (such as one older member who requests a hard copy of the PowerPoint), but for the most part, this move to make bar events a bit greener has gone over well, because it’s in line with members’ own habits: “Most people use an electronic device to follow the presentation.”

A bar event with less paper—and plastic

But the paper reduction begins long before the actual event: Most registration for her bar’s events is done online, except for a few members who prefer to print a form and send a check. And with the exception of the bench-bar conference, DeMarea no longer prints name badges for events.

For the bench-bar conference (and something she would like the ABA and the National Association of Bar Executives to consider, too), DeMarea is actively looking for alternatives to the usual plastic name badge holders. “There must be a more environmentally friendly way to show our names,” she says, adding that while it is possible to recycle them, that’s only if attendees turn them back in—and also if they haven’t had ribbons (for “speaker,” “first-time attendee,” etc.) stuck on them.

DeMarea thinks she might have an answer, and she plans to try it next year: printing name badges on  recyclable cardstock with a hole punched in the top for a lanyard clip. Speakers and others could be designated not with ribbons but with different colors of cardstock, she adds.

What about all that food?

But paper isn’t the only thing that can be over-abundant at bar events: What if, say, the event planner orders a lot of turkey sandwich box lunches, but most attendees choose roast beef? Could there be ways to donate the leftover food, as long as it’s still usable?

Since 2011, the State Bar of Arizona Southern Regional Office has done just that, after an annual networking event that is cosponsored by the state bar and the Pima County Bar Association. About 100 people attended the most recent event, says Amy Ihrke, manager of the regional office. They ate a lot of food ordered from a local Mexican restaurant—and they also left a lot of food. Several pans’ worth were donated to homeless individuals living in Tucson, Ihrke said, thanks to the nature of the event venue.

In addition to being a rental venue, the Z Mansion, which is next door to the bar’s regional office, also hosts free meals, medical clinics, and other programs for people experiencing homelessness. 

“Since they have existing structures in place to use the food, we have donated it each year,” Ihrke says, adding that the leftovers are taken to the mansion’s commercial-grade kitchen and refrigerated immediately after the event.

The bar plans to continue its food donations after this event each year. As for the possibility of expanding this idea to other events at other venues, Ihrke is less certain. “I would like to explore this with our off-site events at hotels,” she explains, “but normally, hotels have strict policies about not being able to take food off site.”

Though both the venue and the bar have charity and reduction of hunger in mind when ensuring that leftover food is not wasted, Ihrke says the green aspect of not sending food to the landfill is also a factor.

“Donating food from the networking event shows good stewardship of our resources and reflects positively on the bar,” she adds.

Other ideas, and further reading

Looking for some additional tips for making your events a bit more sustainable? Consider these ideas from event planning companies, association management publications, and other sources:

  • Associations that are not thinking much about how to make their events more sustainable may soon have good reason to: A post at Associations Now says greener meetings will be a top trend in 2020, largely because Millennials consider sustainability to be a top priority. The post quotes a meetings and events expert who says that starting in 2024, Millennials will be the largest age group among business travelers.
  • Event planning firm Endless Events notes that a three-day conference attended by 1,000 people (admittedly, larger than would be typical for many bars) would generate waste that weighs as much as four compact cars. In addition to going as paperless as possible and donating leftover food, the company recommends taking a hard look at previous events and any places where you bought more of anything than you ended up needing—which will help with your budget as well.

  • Similarly, an article from ASAE notes that using resources efficiently, and thinking about whether every event is necessary, can boost sustainability in every sense of the word. One association management company has encouraged its clients to abandon paper programs in favor of meeting apps. As app technology has advanced, the article says, it has allowed for other uses that were not imagined at first, such as enabling attendees to communicate with each other in real time.

  • A post at Event Manager Blog notes that many practices that increase sustainability also make life easier for attendees and may help extend your reach. For example, a “digital ticket” allowing online access to at least some of your event’s programming could help keep your carbon footprint small while also prompting registrations by people who can’t spend the money or time required for travel.

  • The IACC is a professional association for meeting planners and venue companies. Its Code of Sustainability includes 60 tenets covering such areas as Recycling, Energy Management, and Food & Beverage. Though they are designed for those applying for IACC Green Star certification, taking the surveys for residential venues (hotels that host meetings) and nonresidential venues may reveal some things to think about—and to ask your venue staff about. PDFs of both surveys are also available by request.

  • An IACC blog post notes that a few years ago, the meetings and events industry was identified as the second most wasteful sector in the United States, behind only building and construction. The post offers several ways to make an event more sustainable, some of which are under the meeting planner’s direct control, and others of which are (for an off-site meeting) things to discuss with the venue staff. These include: independent heat controls so that only meeting rooms that are in use are heated; reducing the use of plastic water bottles and straws; placing recycling bins for every possible material in all meeting rooms; choosing locally sourced food and beverages to reduce transit; switching to plates, cups, and cutlery made of compostable corn or potato in cases where these items must be disposable; and ensuring that signs and nametags can be reused or recycled.