Event Organizers Aiming Toward Zero Waste Should Look Beyond Recycling—Even in a Time of Global Turmoil

February 15, 2023

Suvi Haimi

Dr. Suvi Haimi is the co-founder and CEO of Sulapac, an internationally awarded material innovation company with the mission to save the world from plastic waste. Sulapac helps brands across industries to replace conventional plastics with a sustainable alternative that doesn’t compromise functionality or aesthetics.

Our observations on the impact we made as humans became very clear when we were not traveling and consuming as much as we used to during the pandemic. Having witnessed the decrease in pollution resulting from lack of traffic during COVID-19, we have returned to events and conferences much more aware of our footprint.

After a long shutdown of events, 2022 saw the doors fully swing open, and we eagerly started to gather again en masse. Virtual events became fully hybrid as we found ourselves rubbing elbows and networking like it was 2019. 

How can we make our events and conferences less burdensome on the planet—not only when traveling to them, but when we are there? Furthermore, how do we remember to stay on track for paving the way to a more sustainable future in a time of great turmoil, as post-pandemic challenges, economic downturn and a war in Europe affect daily lives and businesses?

Where humans gather, they create trash. It’s a given that events produce a ton of waste—from cutlery, plates and cups needed for catering to event passes, wrappers and a myriad of giveaways, often plastic to some degree, tossed into the trash soon after receiving them.

With all the talk about moving onto sustainable materials and finding daily ways to reduce emissions, you might think that in the next few years we would be seeing a clear downward trend in the production of oil-based products—like plastics.

Still, oil-based plastic production is estimated to grow by four times during the next three decades. In 2014, we produced 311 million tons of plastic each year. Predictions now say that by 2050, we will be producing 1,124 million tons of plastic per year. That’s hardly a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, the pandemic actually significantly increased single-use plastic consumption and waste. A study published by PNAS discovered that due to the pandemic, more than eight million tons of plastic waste have been generated globally, and more than 25,000 tons entered oceans globally.

According to the study, the sharp increase in demand for personal protective equipment for hospitals and personal use caused many single-use plastic legislations to be postponed or even withdrawn due to the more acutely pressing threat of contagion. Increased dependency on online shopping, often relying on plastic packaging, also played a hand in causing mountains of pandemic plastic waste.

Recently there has been a strong movement away from disposable “conference swag,” and event organizers are quickly becoming diligent in both reducing and sorting waste. However, much remains to be done.

For example, as much as we’d like to believe simply increasing use of recyclable materials would solve the waste issue, the effective recycling rate is somewhere between 10% and 15%. And even with an optimistic scenario for 2050 of 70% plastic recycling rate, the effective recycling stops just shy of 40%.

In the EU, for example, the recycling rate of plastics packaging is just 41%. What’s important to understand, however, is that this number only tells us about the classification of waste, not how much useful material actually comes out at the other end.

To top it all off, producing, using and recycling plastic materials ends up releasing microplastics into the environment. As recently as this past summer, scientists have found microplastics in freshly fallen Antarctic snow. All plastic items shed small particles during their lifetime—in production, in use and when disposed of.

While too little research on the long-term effects of microplastics exists, the time to stop the spread of microplastics was yesterday.

So what do we do? Something always falls through the cracks, no matter how clearly recycling bins are labeled. And as we’ve established, recycling is inefficient and ineffective. 

One major step would be if event organizers looked into bio-based and biodegradable options. When forks, spoons, straws, plates and disposable containers are responsibly manufactured and truly sustainable, they don’t leave permanent microplastics behind and have no environmentally toxic impacts, even if they fall outside the recycling infrastructure.

It’s another opportunity for us to teach ourselves and each other new, kinder habits.

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