Spring and summer are synonymous with event season. Whether it be conferences, concerts, community events or festivals, chances are we are all heading to at least one in the next few months.

In honor of Earth Month, now is a great time to reflect for a moment on impacts these events are having on the environment; particularly in the area of single-use plastics, which given their prevalence in event settings as well as their difficulty to recycle & break down, present a unique challenge to attendee, venue, and planner alike.

Just The Facts

We know when humans gather, we love to eat and drink…and it shows! According to recent studies, more than 100 million plastic utensils and 500 million straws are used every day in the United States alone. When calculated on a global scale, humans buy one million plastic bottles per minute. This translates to using approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil annually just producing plastic water bottles!

Why Does It Matter?

This staggering scale of consumption is compounded by the tremendously long time plastic takes to decompose or break down. Petroleum-based plastics like PET do not decompose the same way organic material does. Most estimates factor 450 years or more for a single plastic bottle to degrade. That is an extremely long time for one plastic bottle, and helps reinforce a sobering point: that many of the things we use for the shortest moments can actually stay in the environment the longest.

The Reality Of Recycling

“But wait a minute, I always recycle my plastics at events, shouldn’t that help?” While recycling programs are still a good strategy to mitigate our waste, an unfortunately grim statistic is that less than 2% of the total waste stream in the United States is actually recycled (Ouch!). In the world of plastic bottles alone, which on the surface seems like one of the simplest items to both capture and message to the public, a staggering 90% are not recycled.

“Is that really true? How can it be?” There are a number of reasons for these low recovery rates: cost competition with virgin plastic, changes in commodity (recycled material) value, lack of advanced processing technology, and most recently the enforcement of China’s National Sword inspection program which imposes a much tougher standard for contamination levels on plastic and other materials.

Lastly, and perhaps mostly startlingly of all, a surprising number of major conference centers, hotel chains, and event sites, have branded “recycling” bins in place that essentially are treated just like landfill waste and are never picked up by recycling haulers. In a very literal sense, these bins are just an illusion. Thus, one of the key takeaways here is that just because a plastic bottle has been placed in what appears to be the proper receptacle, there is still a fairly strong chance that it may never be recycled for reasons that may be entirely out of participant control.

What Can I Do?

There is hope! Fortunately the best strategies are often the easiest to implement. As an attendee, travel with your own mug or water bottle. This may seem like a small detail, but it is extremely important. If 20,000 conference attendees did something as simple as bringing a reusable water bottle, they would divert 40,000 plastic bottles from the landfill per day and save enough energy to run an average American household for 4 and a half years!

If you are an event organizer, look to serve condiments in bulk, have plastic straws available by request only, and use as much durable wear, glass and china as possible. On the registration side, sourcing paper name badges that can be recycled and opting for ink hand stamps as an alternative to plastic wristbands will dramatically cut down on your plastics footprint. And always reach out to your venue operations team for a back of house tour or audit. It may be your initiative that helps tip the scales towards process improvements. We have seen it happen before.

Oh, and about those plastic bags…As of August 2010, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year world-wide. These too take hundreds of years to degrade and can be very harmful to wildlife populations. Look to eliminate plastic swag bags at events or source re-useable cloth bags. This can be a great sponsorship opportunity at the marking & communications level, and a way to help raise awareness to a larger audience.

Reasons For Hope

Despite single-use plastic at events remaining uncomfortably high and the present recycling commodity market one of the most challenging in recent memory, a silver lining here has been the renewed dialogue and urgency surrounding our consumption habits and where our waste goes. In that sense, we are seeing a dramatic increase in interest in this topic from venues, planners, suppliers, and attendees world-wide, and that will be of the key drivers for meaningful change. In that spirit, let’s make this Earth Day both a call for action and an appreciation for our planet and its resources.

To help get you started on ideas to avoid single-use plastic at events download the MeetGreen’s Single-Use Plastic infographic to get started today.