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A Phantom Fact During our interview with Edward Humes, he expressed

surprise when he heard the often-repeated assertion that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had ranked the meetings industry second only to the construction industry in terms of waste generation. (“I’m shocked” were Humes’ actual words.)

Given Humes’ expertise on the EPA’s accounting of waste, we weren’t going to take his skepticism lightly. And it turns out, although the claim can be found in meetings industry speeches and publications going back to 2004, the EPA appears to have never published a study supporting it, according to Tamara Kennedy-Hill, CMP, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC). The agency reviewed materials including 54,000 of its own digitzed reports, and couldn’t find the source of the quote, Kennedy-Hill told Convene. Apparently someone made an error that was picked up and repeated, the EPA concluded in an exchange with Kennedy-Hill.

That’s not to say that the meetings industry is not a significant generator of waste, Kennedy-Hill said, but this case underlines the need to find reliable ways to quantify the environmental impact of meetings.

In the meetings industry, there is a very wide variance in how important it is to people who organize events to not have bottled water, for instance, and to recycle paper and to meet in convention centers where the carpeting that is used for exhib- its is not going to be thrown away. Do you have any ideas about how individuals can create change in a system? I have been thinking more of it as a community kind of issue. I think that where individuals have joined with a common goal of whatever it is — we are increasing recycling or com- posting or reducing waste —the big success stories have been at the community level. And there are a lot of examples of that. Internationally,

[there are] countries like Denmark, which defines waste as a local, community issue. They have a lot of community-based solutions, including waste-to-energy and district-heating plants. There is community pride in having those kinds of facilities for converting and recycling and making energy out of waste. It is very different than the kinds of solutions we tend to

focus on in the U.S., where it has always got to be these gigan- tic, utility-scale, regional, epic, many-hundred-million-dollar projects. Maybe your question tells us how we tend to think here, which is it is a system as opposed to a very individual and local phenomenon. If you look at some of the positive things that are happen-

ing in the U.S., you have towns and cities that have collec- tively decided by voters and leaders that they want to rewrite the book on waste — communities like San Francisco and Portland, and, for that matter, Lee County, Fla., and other areas that are trying to redefine how we deal with waste.


Do you see any common denominators in what motivates people to change? I see a lot of variation. I see businesses realizing how much it costs [to be wasteful] and that it gives them a competitive advantage to be less wasteful. That can manifest itself in send- ing less material to landfills, recycling more, putting their materials to use, instead of paying someone to haul away their trash or their food waste. Walmart is a good example — in composting its food waste and actually selling the compost. So they turn their waste cost to [an] actual source of revenue. In the course of working on Garbology, I spoke with some

people involved with running sports venues, and how they have really been working to divert their immense amounts of waste from their events from landfills, and to change the char- acter of the waste so a higher percentage of it could be recycled or composted. There is a lot of variation between locations. In Seattle, venues have really been leading the charge on

this and are building renewable energy into their portfolio of how they power their stadiums. They see value both in terms of their operating costs and also in their branding. That seems it would be apropos to the meetings industry in general. How do individuals come to that realization? I think that

economic motivation can be one [way]. Certainly, look at com- munities that have instituted robust container-deposit rules — they have uniformly higher recycling rates. Why? Because it saves money. … Or communities that, because of this legisla- tion, have very convenient recycling programs. You see a huge change there, again primarily for economic reasons. How could one person make a difference? Again, I think if

you look a little beyond an individual household, … you can see the magnetic force that a leading community can have on the rest of the world. Places like Portland or San Francisco or oth- ers really set the standard that many other communities have sought to emulate. You have Los Angeles [saying,] “Oh no, we want to be the green leader in California.” You have New York sort of shamed into ramping up their recycling program. And other communities [are] following because they

see that the outliers and the leaders who have taken these lower-waste paths are reaping benefits from it. Each of those communities have taken the lead, starting out with a much smaller number of individuals who made this a personal pri- ority for them.

. Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene. + ON THE WEB

› For more information about Edward Humes and Garbology, visit

› The Green Meeting Industry Council ( promotes sustainability and provides education and other services to planners, suppliers, and venues. Many of its resources are available to nonmembers.


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