The theme of the Event Greening Forum (EGF) NPO’s virtual Master Class on 18 November 2020 was #BuildBackBetter: Creating the new normal for sustainable events. Three speakers from different corners of the world explored the topic from different angles, to share both ideas and guidelines on how the events industry can rebuild itself into a safe, sustainable and arguably superior model.

Reusables can be safely used

The first speaker was Australia-based Meegan Jones, president of the international Sustainable Event Alliance (SEA) and author of Sustainable event management: A practical guide. The SEA held a hackathon event earlier this year which saw 800 event professionals from across the globe discuss where sustainable event management priorities should be focussed in light of COVID-19. One significant concern that came out of this was that much of the progress that has been made to remove single-use plastic from events could be undone because of uncertainty about the safety of using reusable serviceware.

Following on from this, research and guidelines were produced and are freely available in the form of the Reusables hygiene at events: Global best practice guidelines which you can download here.

Their research shows that if existing hygiene standards for reusables at events are adhered to, they will be COVID-safe.

Jones reported that their research shows that if existing hygiene standards for reusables at events are adhered to, they will be COVID-safe. Naturally additional precautions need to be taken in how reusables are handled at events, to avoid any possible transmission of the virus, she added. But these would be the same ones needed as if disposables were being used.

It’s not that different…

The second speaker was EGF Chair Greg McManus, who is also the founder of Heritage, South Africa’s only independent sustainability certification company. McManus has a great amount of experience in environmental certification and the development of standards, and has recently been collaborating with the Event Safety Council on how sustainability can be incorporated into the Re-Opening Guidelines. This was the focus of his detailed presentation – essentially what safe and sustainable events look like.

COVID-19 is not a significant obstacle to hosting events in a sustainable manner, and the Re-Opening Guidelines are in many ways supportive of sustainable event management practices.

The good news, McManus shared, is that COVID-19 is not a significant obstacle to hosting events in a sustainable manner, and the Re-Opening Guidelines are in many ways supportive of sustainable event management practices.

For example, procurement is still a critical component to hosting a sustainable event. Event professionals need to continue considering the typical sustainability attributes of various event services and suppliers that they normally would. The only change now is that they would also need to assess them according to their ability to minimise the risks of COVID transmissions. In the instance of cleaning products – a concern which one delegate raised –McManus encouraged the adoption of earth-friendly options but cautioned that you would need to check that they are able to destroy the virus effectively.

Smart tips to cut your carbon footprint

The third and final speaker was Shawna McKinley, an accomplished sustainability consultant, event planner, author and instructor based in Canada. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, and based both on real events and case study projections, McKinley discovered that the following four event planning decisions have the greatest impact on an event’s onsite carbon footprint:

#1 Type of event: Deciding to host a hybrid events can reduce carbon emissions by 60% or more. Therefore McKinley encourages event planners to “consider the experience model that makes the most sense to achieve the event outcome, filtered through a lens of which model provides the least amount of environmental impact”. She added that hybrid events can be more inclusive and increase your audience reach.

#2 Use renewable energy: Choosing a destination that primarily uses renewable energy can have an emission saving potential of as much as 63% compared to one that uses fossil fuels. Unfortunately, all destinations within South Africa are powered by Eskom, which uses fossil fuels. However this means choosing a venue or hotel that has its own onsite renewable energy supply can have a significant carbon saving result.

#3 Opt for green venues: Selecting a venue or hotel that has LEED® green building rating or has been certified by the Heritage certification label means that energy efficiency, water conservation and responsible waste management measures are already in place and have been vetted by an independent third party. This means that a great amount of the work needed to reduce your event’s carbon footprint will happen automatically.

One event which traditionally served a 20% plant-based menu switched to an 80% plant-based menu. This reduced their footprint by 7%.

#4 Switch to lighter menus: The decision to serve more plant-based meals can also drastically affect your event’s carbon footprint. One event which traditionally served a 20% plant-based menu switched to an 80% plant-based menu. This reduced their footprint by 7%. McKinley adds that this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing decision, but every small change has an impact.