Plastic hack: Expert tips to remove single-use plastics from your event
Updated: Apr 20
Firstly, you have my huge congratulations for reading this blog. It means you’ve already taken the first step towards an event that’s free of single-use plastic – you’re finding out how. I’m not going to sugar-coat this and tell you it’s easy, but by reducing single-use plastics, we can make a big statement on behalf of the events industry. As part of the working group for the Meetings Industry Association’s (mia) #20PercentLess campaign, sustainable events – in all areas – is something I’m passionate about. We can show the world that we won’t sit back and watch the destruction of our environment and our planet. We can make a difference.
To make things easier for you, I’ve broken down my expert tips into key event areas, including where plastics commonly feature, and how they can be removed:
1. Venue / Accommodation Sourcing
Source sustainable venues! Despite the fact I mentioned it’s not easy to remove single-use plastics from events, this one is straight forward. Search for venues with proactive sustainability policies (such as BMA house, Melia hotels - voted most sustainable hotel chain, or Voco hotels. If you include sustainability in your RFP, the more pressure you put on venues to improve. It obviously helps if you have increased buying-power and small supply chains, but don’t let small spend put you off making the all-important statement up front.
2. Venue / Accommodation planning
Check that your venue doesn’t use plastic straws/stirrers/disposable coffee cups etc. If they do, insist they be removed. Work with the conference manager to ensure no plastic bottles of water are used on your event. These can be easily replaced with simple water stations. The stations can just be jugs of tap water, and if it’s a large event or exhibition then large bubble water-cooler machines should be provided. These do have plastic bottles, but you can select from the many companies which reuse the bottles and then recycle, so they aren’t single use. And you can insist on biodegradable cups, too.
It can be hard to be completely plastic free on an event if you select a hotel chain which isn’t already aligned with removing plastics. For example, they might still use mini bottles of toiletries in their bedrooms. This pointless consumption of single-use plastic is a major bug bear of mine. Some hotels are now replacing them with large dispensers (InterContinental Hotels Group cuts out the mini shampoos), but it’s a mindset that many still haven’t adopted. Some properties push back with the view that dispensers aren’t in line with their brand or that their customers don’t like them BUT for me this is about the General Manager and the brand being brave, making the decision for them and being brave in giving guests no choice but to be more sustainable.
The messaging is important too. Many guests see the notes about reusing towels not as a sustainable measure but a way for the hotel to save money. But if the messaging about sustainability is delivered passionately it can be a positive marketing / brand tool rather than a negative issue. And there are clever, behavioural-science based ways of nudging guests in the right direction too – check out this great blog from behavioural-science expert Steve Martin.
Younger generations, generally from Millennials onwards, are more in tune with sustainability and protecting the environment. So, there is a growing demand for change. And it’ll become prevalent as younger consumers move into the workforce and obtain their own disposable income and spending power within the hospitality industry. In the meantime, we have the power to speed up positive change by demanding it.
Run through your event’s supply chain and ensure everyone is aware that the event is not to use single use plastics. There are examples where this can be more challenging, but it’s not impossible. For example, botanical dressing is a tough one because on long events natural foliage won’t survive a whole event. One trick is to intersperse natural with fake, replacing natural sprigs every few days, and ensuring the supplier reuses the fake foliage so it doesn’t go into landfill.
Ban exhibitors from giving away plastic water bottles and plastic tat in goody bags – every time, no excuses! There are soooooo many alternatives and it won’t do their own brand image any harm either!
Also, carefully consider your carpet - ensure its recycled by the venue or supplier. The amount of plastic that is used in protecting carpets during a build makes me want to cry. Some exhibition venues have invested in carpets so consider favouring these during your venue selection stage or consider painting the floor instead of using carpet.
Delegate badges / lanyards / passes, this is a tricky one as I’ve struggled to find a truly sustainable alternative. The best option is to do away with badges altogether or ask the delegates to bring their everyday corporate name badges. If neither of these are options, then remove plastic badges and holders or go old school and use stickers or alligator clip lanyards with a business card sized badge.
When it comes to signage and printed collateral, anything that has been laminated in the production process will have plastics in. Think hard about if your artwork needs to be laminated, obviously if it needs to be waterproof then you have less choice. Another major area to reduce overall wastage is to avoid dating your collateral and signage for annual events, use the client’s logo rather than the event logo on all printed branding and it can be reused for future events and will deliver a cost saving.
And please, please, please don’t overprint. We tend to over produce in the events industry, as we don’t want to run out. It’s a BIG challenge to change the mindset with clients and agencies so that we only produce what we need.
Consider everything from coffee cups and water-coolers/ tap water, to catering suppliers wrap is a common challenge with food platters etc, but there are some caterers with alternatives like Eden Caterers, the supplier to 15 Hatfields (sustainable events venue in central London).
Hidden horror: It might surprise you to learnt that there is plastic in tea bags too, so you really do need to scrutinise suppliers on every level.
7. Design / Theming
From props to greenery, and laminated sets! That last one is a biggy for me. The covering on set panels is often laminated but this is a huge single use item unless it’s a stock set that the supplier will reuse. And we all know that these coverings usually go straight in the bin after an event!
Lip service, or not cascading the responsibility down to all levels of the business.
Some might say they are plastic free in client-facing / delegate-facing experiences, but how many times has the catering employee or production runner been instructed to remove all plastic wrapping before it goes ‘front of house’? I’ve seen it a lot.
Ensure your team is on board with your policies. I’ve seen too many agencies leading from the top with their sustainable policies with event managers on the ground not supported through the supplier selection process. Admittedly, this can be tough. Supplier sourcing and event planning takes a lot longer when trying to remove plastics. Supporting and rewarding your team is key here!
Packing and derigging – don’t get me started on bubble wrap arrrrgggghhhh