Calculating carbon usage was essential for the graduate students who planned the MIT Sustainability Summit 2023 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on April 28. The 14th annual, one-day summit focused on demystifying carbon markets, and it was the first year the meeting would be entirely carbon neutral.
“We’re tracing our footprint across the entirety of the event, and adding scope,” said Alexa Katz, an MIT MBA candidate and a director of operations for the summit. “We’re conscious of our decisions from a venue perspective and a food perspective. One of the easiest choices was to go vegetarian, to signal to our guests that we’re serious about carbon in general.”
Reducing single-use plastics, using washable dishware, and having nut milk for coffee service became part of that plan. So was reaching out to other event professionals about sustainability. “We kicked off that conversation with REVERB,” said Zach Sternberg, another director of operations for the summit, who reached out to the nonprofit that reduces the environmental footprint of concerts for artists such as Billie Eilish. “That conversation centered around, ‘Where does ambiguity lie in this process of trying to green up events?’ It’s rare that anyone has a hard set of guidelines out there.”
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The summit’s organizers eventually settled on the food categorization tool from the Sustainability Indicator Management & Analysis Platform (SIMAP), designed for campuses to track, analyze, and improve sustainability. “We’re going menu item by menu item to calculate the total weight of each ingredient that’s ordered, then categorizing that and multiplying it by emissions,” Sternberg said. “We want someone to walk away from the summit having a tool at their fingertips if they want to apply that strategy at their institutions.”
Among the lunch dishes at the summit were barbecued tofu with cabbage and papaya slaw and grilled portobello mushrooms with roasted red peppers, fontina, and tapenade. Plant-based passed appetizers made the rounds at an evening happy hour. Being surrounded by a campus meant there was already a built-in system for food waste, Sternberg said. “If there’s ever leftover food, we post it on [an online messaging system], and it disappears very quickly.”
Corin Hirsch is a New York–based writer specializing in F&B and travel, and former associate editor at Convene.