Andrew White: Events are Rubbish

How venues hosting conferences and business events can make a real impact on reducing waste.

Bin full of rubbish
Photo: Getty Images

The business hospitality and events industry is very good at jumping on a bandwagon; Brexit, apprenticeships and the gender-pay-gap to name but a few. It squeezes a big picture topic or worthy cause to fit its own self-worth then slaps itself on the back or mops its brow. But perhaps the industry actually needs to look internally before weighing in on external debates?

This sector is very vocal when it wants a quick media hit. However, we are more often than not slow to get our act together and ultimately other industries don’t want to listen to the moans of the meetings market.

As an industry we have a huge problem about to hit and it’s time to address the big elephant in the room. Our colleagues in retail and public catering are currently struggling to come to terms with their consumption of drinking straws and plastics. For the event sector the ramifications are far, far bigger:
• think of any event and the cups, the plates and the ‘disposables’ used in catering
• think of the giveaways that are ever present such as pens, stress balls and giftbags

While plastic is an urgent matter that needs addressing, the hospitality and events sector struggles with its conscience around being sustainable in general. Plastic is a very real topic and we need to address it but taking a more holistic approach is the answer. Banning straws is a great move, we’ve all seen Blue Planet, but we can’t just stop there and think we’ve done our bit. Straws have disappeared but plastic drinking bottles are given away without thought, wooden cutlery is handed out with a lunch packaged in plastic. Let’s get smart, ditch the quick fixes and think long term.

Let’s take the plastic bag policy as an example. In 2015, the law changed, requiring large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. The policy was introduced in an attempt to reduce their use and the litter they can cause by encouraging people to reuse bags.

At first this evoked national outrage, “What effect will reusing plastic bags have?” people cried while tabloid papers predicted a descent into ‘chaos’. That was until it was revealed that in the first six months the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England plummeted by more than 85%. Also, a recent study by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) revealed since the 5p charge on plastic bags was introduced, which has taken over 9 billion plastic bags out of circulation, there has been an estimated 50% reduction in plastic bag marine litter – long live the turtles!

Now it’s second nature to go to the shop with a back pack, a Bag For Life and a couple of extra totes, proof that these seemingly small changes are having a huge effect on the environment. I’m not saying we should force a levy onto everything, but perhaps the moral of the story is that behaviours can change and those changes make a difference.

It is our responsibility to look after our planet so let’s get serious about plastic and food waste. Business event organisers need to be thinking about the environmental impact of an event before it’s begun. Can anything be recycled or reused from a previous event? Do you really need so much food? Can plastic water bottles be traded in for water filling stations or a simple jug?

Line up of pens
Photo: Getty Images

Sustainability initiatives and waste reduction processes need to be routinely included in the pre and post event strategy and responsibility shared between the venue and the event organiser.

Start small and go from there; it’s definitely a case of breaking old habits and realising that trying to become more sustainable as a person and a business is not ‘too much effort’.

There are plenty of tools online that offer free advice, and try looking towards businesses that are already paving the way on such issues. 15 Hatfields, a leading sustainable events venue in central London recently gave away saplings in compostable packaging instead of pens at an exhibition.

Another useful resource is OLIO, a pioneering app which helps to pass on unused or unwanted food. OLIO’s Food Waste Heroes programme provides volunteers to pick up and redistribute unsold or unused food from businesses at the end of the day and offers guidance on what can and can’t be passed on as this is often a worry for corporate companies.

Be a thought leader

As an industry we need to square up to what’s ahead by being less opportunistic with matters that are not as relevant or prevalent. Banning plastic and tackling the huge problem of waste in the events sector with more gusto than just removing straws from the bar top will have far greater resonance and thought leadership than trying to jump on many of the UK’s other issues.

At Triggerfish we attend many events and exhibitions and often notice, among other unnecessary items of merchandise, a sea of branded biros ready to give away to potential clients.

But, we pondered, what happens to those pens after the event and is there a way we can avoid them going to landfill? With that in mind, at this year’s SquareMeal Venues + Events Live we simply encouraged exhibitors to donate the leftover pen and pencil giveaways to Triggerfish. In turn we arranged for them to go to schools and orphanages who need them far more than the show’s tech savvy Insta-tanious visitor.

Our premise is simple, we want to encourage tomorrow’s artists and wordsmiths. So, rather than letting the exhibitors’ surplus pens and pencils go to landfill or sit unforgotten in a draw, we encouraged them to help us pen a better education for children in schools and orphanages overseas who often struggle to fund such items.

The support from the events industry was unanimous and we are delighted to be helping children overseas in furthering their education and enjoying the simple pleasure and wonder that ink and graphite can bring. Searcys, The Science Museum, Sodexo, Center Parcs, Tottenham Hotspur and more were abundant in their generosity and have helped us gather the necessary tools for those starting their education.

Our first shipment was sent overseas to Malawi and we are continuing to encourage conference organisers, exhibitions and venues large and small to collect up the pens and help us recycle.

We have a responsibility to future generations and can genuinely create an impact in the UK and across the business of events. And all too often how you can help is under your nose.




Andrew White is MD of Triggerfish Communications, a specialist in helping heritage venues and leisure attractions build awareness and market share in the business of events.

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