‘A Really Crazy, Big Idea’ — Taking on Plastics in the Events Industry

Author: Barbara Palmer       

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A global initiative to reduce the use of plastics in the events industry launches the week of April 22, which is Earth Day.

A year ago, Fiona Pelham, CEO of the U.K.-based nonprofit Positive Impact, was attending a conference in Monterey, California, when a friend of a friend told her she really ought to connect with Tammy Blount-Canavan, president and CEO of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau (MCCVB).

When they met, it soon was clear that the two — Pelham, who founded Positive Impact as a global nonprofit dedicated to event sustainability, and Blount-Canavan, whose destination considers sustainability and responsible tourism to be part of its DNA — shared a similar passion. “We started speaking about sustainability,” Pelham recalled, “and then I asked, ‘Do you want a really crazy, big idea?’ She said, ‘Yes, we do.’”

That big idea — a global initiative to address the role of plastics at events and conferences — launches this week. And while ambitious, it’s not so crazy: The program is designed to give event professionals the tools to 1) contribute data — via an app — that will help quantify the role that plastics plays in the events industry with the goal of finding alternatives, and 2) to act now by pledging to reduce the use of plastic at events.

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Flowater stations at PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh allowed attendees to refill reusable water bottles. (Every Angle Photography)

The campaign is collecting global data because, “the reality is that no one knows what the role of plastic is within the events industry,” Pelham said. The use of plastics has skyrocketed in recent decades, through single-use products including water bottles and plastic straws, but also in products such as carpeting and lanyards, Blount-Canavan said. Meanwhile, the harmful effect of plastics on wildlife and the environment, including on oceans and marine life, also has spread —25 percent of fish sold at California fish markets, for example, now contain plastic microfibers, according to data supplied by Positive Impact.

So while the first part of the campaign will collect data quantifying the use of plastic in the industry, Pelham said, the next step will be to identify alternatives to their use. “We’re first seeking to understand,” Blount-Canavan said, “and then to create a movement to replace those items with products that are more sustainable — not to sacrifice the quality of those events, but to make sure that we’re doing that in a sustainable way.”

By using the app and contributing data, event organizers “will help us to assess the role of plastic so that we can get a better understanding to then address what those solutions are,” Blount-Canavan said. “It’s really important that we create the awareness, that we gather the data, and then find solutions that are implementable and can be measured.”

MCCVB and Positive Impact have enlisted commitments of support from key associations and organizations within the global meetings industry, including PCMA, MPI, IMEX, Freeman, and others. Positive Impact also works with the team at the United Nation’s Environment Programme, raising the profile of the events industry within the agency’s work on responsible tourism, Pelham said. She’ll share the work Positive Impact is doing with MCCVB and the events industry so that UN Environment “can share our materials with their communities, and so that they can learn from what we are doing,” she added. “We can’t just stay insular as an industry. We need to reach out and work together.”

The initiative that MCCVB launched this week has been supported by years of work on a responsible tourism initiative in Monterey called Sustainable Moments, which addresses water and energy conservation, food waste, and other issues, Blount-Canavan said. As the Sustainable Moments program has developed, “we’ve talked to our client advisory board, our customers, and our residents,” she said. “Sustainable travel and sustainable tourism is obviously something that’s very important to everyone. It’s important to our planet.”

The partnership with Positive Impact seemed like a natural next step, Blount-Canavan said. “We don’t want [people] to stop traveling, we want them to keep traveling. But we want them to be responsible about that, and to start a movement that hopefully inspires other destinations and meeting and event venues to start really taking a look at [event industry] practices and how we can be leaders in both growing economies, and all of the traditional things that we’ve done, but also inspiring conservation. There’s an opportunity to really inspire good things all over the world.”

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PCMA Signs Commitment to Address Role of Plastic in Events Industry