Managing Conference Waste: The Little Things Count

Well managed waste stations look neat and almost empty at the 2010 Net Impact Conference.

by Sarah A. Maine

Like most big conferences, the 2010 Net Impact conference is filled with lofty ideals, ambitious vision, non-stop breakout sessions, and relentless networking. As I hop from session to session I am alternately energized and enervated; I am also heavily reliant on the support structure put in place by the conference organizing team: to get where I’m going, to feed myself, and ultimately to dispose of conference detritus in the form of excess paper and food packaging – two of the biggest offenders clogging up the American waste stream.

This is my third NI conference, and at each one I couldn’t help but to keep mental notes on the waste management systems in place and how they were holding up under the persistent pressure of 2400+ conference attendees over the course of two and half days – a huge challenge for any conference organizer but even more so for an organizer with a triple bottom line focus like Net Impact. It’s a “put your money where your mouth is” moment, a visible symbol of the environmental commitment of the organization and its membership. For me, the little things are what really put the icing on the cake of the conference experience, and in the past I felt let down when the environmental impacts of the conference appeared to be taking a back seat.  Check out Matthew Savage’s observations for Triple Pundit from the 2009 conference.

My biggest issues are usually with the compost/recycling/trash stations. It’s not uncommon after lunch to witness a complete breakdown of the system with cardboard lunch boxes spilling out of the paper recycling bins, swallowing the other bins. This is the point where even the most conscientious attendee is thwarted in their efforts to minimize their impact. The good news is that I’ve noticed incremental improvements at each conference – little signals that the conference organizers are picking up on this feedback and making changes. This year things seem to be running much more smoothly in the waste department, I checked in with a volunteer to see if my suspicions had any merit.

Melanie Lowenberg, a first year Ross MBA and NI conference volunteer who also attended the 2009 NI conference at Cornell, shared a few observations on some of the changes that have been made to address these issues. She told me that a portion of the usual complement of trash cans in the common areas were removed and replaced with expanded recycling stations. Driven by the Ross NI Chapter, composting is already a part of Ross’s day-to-day waste management strategy, and the school has strong relationships with a composting facility and a waste hauler. An increased number of compost receptacles are in place to handle the proliferation of compostable serviceware and packaging. The waste management stations are manned in continuous shifts, with the volunteers keeping the used cardboard lunch boxes organized and giving detailed instruction on what materials go into each bin.

The waste management effort at this year’s conference was shepherded by Sarah Shapiro, the Ross NI Chapter Sustainability Vice President. Sarah was also struck by the waste overflow at previous conferences and worked hard to mitigate that this year by vigorously training almost 300 volunteers and handing out cheat sheets for sorting trash. The level of detail required to make something as seemingly simple as waste collection work well should not be underestimated – or under-appreciated. Each small change has a noticeable effect on effectively reducing waste and creating a more satisfying conference experience, for attendees and for the planet.  The 2011 conference will be in Oregon – maybe they will come up with an alternative to the insanely loud cellophane food packages?

Sarah A. Maine is a graduate of Antioch University New England’s Green MBA program and Co-Founder of

3p Contributor

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Leave a Reply