Sustainable events have gained increasing traction over the last decade. How has Covid-19 affected this trend? Are online formats during the pandemic making events more accessible and climate-friendly than ever? Or will public health guidelines cause significant setbacks in zero-waste programs at in-person events?
Virtual Events Are an Antidote to the Climate Crisis
Widespread experimentation with online and hybrid meetings in 2020 shows how these event formats can lower carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Carbon emissions associated with everything from flights to food and beverage are all but eradicated in the context of a virtual event that people can experience from home while they feed themselves from their normal grocery stock. Waste, disposables, cleaning, and lights are also non-factors. And while online and hybrid events do increase emissions from data storage, transmission and devices the impact is smaller compared to travel.
Case study comparisons of different event models show how streaming experiences can reduce total climate pollution from events by 60-98 percent.
While it remains to be seen how many organizers will permanently adjust to host online and hybrid events, insight into the relative climate impact of event models enables organizers to more holistically evaluate which format allows outcomes to be met at least carbon impact.
“Buy Local” Has All-New Meaning
“Buy local” has long been a mantra of sustainable events. And is expected to take on new meaning as in-person gatherings resume. Not only will face-to-face experiences likely remain small and local for some time, but supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic is expected to increase demand for local goods. This will be particularly evident for caterers who are expected to expand and diversify their use of local suppliers to reduce risks inherent in relying solely on big international distributors.
Increased local purchasing provides economic stimulus for small and medium businesses while reducing carbon footprint. But smaller vendors unfamiliar with events may not be prepared to operate on the scale and at the speed planners are used to. This could result in longer planning timelines and higher costs. And while local supply chains infuse destination-specific flair into event experiences, exclusively local menus may require organizers to adjust their expectations about the availability and cost of imported ingredients.
Waste Management Has Taken a Hit
The waste management industry has been faced with several challenges during Covid-19, including increased hazard pay for workers, dramatic changes in types of material able to be recycled profitably, temporary and permanent closure of organic waste facilities and softening of disposable material bans intended to curb plastic waste.
This at a time when event organizers are expected to deal with more event discards than ever before: masks, gloves, cleaning wipes, and disposable food packaging and service ware. All of these are rarely possible to recover from landfill, especially in the case of personal protective equipment, which can often only be incinerated.
Where recycling and composting options still exist, costs to provide them are anticipated to rise. At the same time, donation programs are being curtailed as charities restrict what they will accept, or require additional procedures to ensure items are safe.
All of these factors suggest it will be more important than ever for events to reduce rather than rely on recycling. Yet, as anyone who may have ventured out for coffee with their reusable tumbler recently knows, reuse is not always welcome as some food service operators mandate disposables-only service as a way to curb the spread of the virus. This in spite of health orders that afford opportunities for reuse, albeit with steps that may increase labour costs due to added cleaning protocols.
Check out the Global Reusables at Events Hygiene Project for more on hygiene guidelines for events to implement reusables in a consistent and safe manner post-Covid-19.
Chemical Safety is a New Concern
On the topic of enhanced chemical cleaning to combat Covid-19, the World Health Organization has said: “Improper and unsafe use of these products can lead to toxic effects in people that can be as dangerous as the virus itself.”
This statement is an important reminder that as hotels and venues implement added precautions to clean and disinfect, they must also be vigilant about health risks to workers who may come into increased contact with potentially harmful chemicals.
Event organizers will want to ensure Covid-19 and chemical exposure risks are equally addressed, including providing workers with personal protective equipment and training in safe handling of chemicals.
Like all areas of event planning, many practices related to sustainability at events are expected to change as a result of Covid-19. In some ways–through the use of more inclusive, low-carbon online event platforms — sustainability will be easier. But in other ways it will become more difficult as waste and chemical use rises.
To take advantage of the opportunity the pandemic has presented, event planners should
- Embrace virtual events as not only the safer alternative, but the more sustainable and inclusive one as well
- Use virtual event components to lessen the carbon impact of in-person events
- Minimize the disposables at events and double-check that materials can be recycled
- Source locally and plan to accommodate local vendor limitations in producing food and beverage to scale
- Ensure workers are protected from chemical exposures while cleaning