Single-use plastic: the time is now

The time is now

2018 has unleashed a war on single-use plastic, but what does this mean for the events industry? Paul Harvey reports

It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Not shocking enough for you? Try this one: more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are already floating in our oceans. And another one? Here you go: more than 40 per cent of plastic is used just once, then thrown away.

These head-spinning stats are just some of the drivers of what has become a war on plastic in the UK in 2018. Companies have been falling over themselves to eliminate plastic straws and bottles, while the government is consulting on a plastics tax.

The event industry has been plastic-conscious for longer than most largely due to the early adoption of green meetings and embedded-CSR initiatives. But is this latest wave of action on single-use plastic a moment of real change or simply another ‘nice to have’ policy?

Sam Wilson

Sam Wilson, founder of EcoEvents and SAVE (Sustainability Action for Venues & Events), has worked for more than 15 years championing sustainability practices in the events industry –  and she says it’s the former.

“There’s a lot of market pressure and it’s coming from clients, it’s coming from attendees,” she says. “We’ve got to change, we’ve got to do something. People have always known, but now there’s been a trigger.”

Among those taking action is the Meetings Industry Association (mia), which is encouraging the industry to use 20 per cent less single-use plastic with a new high profile campaign.

Being championed by association chair Kay England, the #20PercentLess initiative will kick-off with a roundtable debate in October. This will mark the industry’s first debate focusing on the issues and opportunities facing the sector and will set the agenda for the campaign that will share best practice through a dedicated white paper.

Wilson adds that the event industry is in a unique position to effect change on this issue.

“We can be a fundamental part of change, because that’s what we do; we communicate and engage,” she says. “So we amplify the message and build it into the experience. By looking at sustainability and building it into the design and experience of an event, in doing so we will bring our clients’ brand values to life.”

Agencies across the UK are implementing change in response to the shift. Inntel has a number of initiatives in place focused around the four R’s: refuse, reduce, re-use and recycle. However, director of business development Jane Dibble says that it’s simple cost issues that are the real sticking point for change.

“The problem is not that venues need educating but that it is more expensive to be responsible and use recyclable options than use the current options,” she says. “For example, a paperless meeting is something we aim for but to use technology, apps, electronic badging instead of welcome packs and print outs comes at a price that clients often want to avoid.

“Where plastic is concerned, we feel this should be driven more by the venues – for example, rather than charging a supplement, they could simply have a policy of no plastic and incorporate the extra cost into the menu/DDR rates.”

“When it comes to events, the small things make the biggest difference,” says drp CEO Dale Parmenter (pictured). “We like to advise our clients to use jugs of water, crockery, paper packaging and glassware rather than plastic. However, there is still an amount of education required on how to create a more sustainable event and reduce waste, and its cost, of which all industry professionals should implement.”

Francesca Gorvin, event manager at Powwow says that the priority as event professionals is to ensure guests have the best service and experience possible.

“We believe it is about providing an educated offering without compromising on experience,” she says. “Small changes like having straws available on the side rather than adding them into every drink and replacing disposable plastic bottles with suitable alternatives can drastically reduce the amount of wasted plastic at events. We continue to encourage our clients throughout the lifecycle of the event to make sustainable choices and offer reusable solutions that minimise the level of waste.”

IMEX Group is also ramping up its efforts on plastic at its trade shows in Frankfurt and Las Vegas.

“Our sustainability strategy, which we build on each year, enables us to take significant steps to reduce plastic waste across both of our shows,” says IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer.

The carpets at both shows are fully recyclable, while the show’s badges don’t use plastic holders meaning they produce more than 65 per cent less waste than standard badges. The newest initiative is the IMEX Refill Movement, where organisers ask delegates to bring a reusable water bottle and use refill stations across the show floor.

Also taking action is industry charity Meeting Needs, which has launched its Perpetual Auction to run all year round – and not just to auction nights away.

“We’ll auction unwanted event items and hope that by doing this, we’ll be helping to reduced event waste and raising monies for good causes at the same time,” says Meeting Needs chair Jenny Jenkins.

However, speaking with her EVCOM hat on, Jenkins adds that it’s not just plastic that needs tackling; it’s all waste from meetings.

“We are seeing more and more innovation driven by teams beyond just those designated CSR champions,” she says. “It is pretty personal and rightly so. EVCOM would now like to see an industry-wide response to more general waste from meetings which is a problem on a comparable scale and we are looking at practical ways of helping members to do more.”

All in all, the war on plastic unleashed in 2018 has seen a great boost to the sustainable meetings lobby – but there’s still a long way to go. We can use as many pretty words as we like, but it’s only by taking action that we will see any tangible change. So if you’re serious about getting drastic with plastic – the time is now.


Sam Wilson’s guide to cutting out single-use plastic 

Essential – get a clear and agreed definition of single-use plastic

List the items that fall within that definition

Q1. Do we need it? If not – don’t buy (prevention is the most favourable option)

If we do need it :

Q2. Is there a re-usable in-stock option?

Q3. Is there a re-usable new option?

Q4. If we must go to disposable – what are the alternatives to plastic on the market?

Q5. Can we use recycled plastic that can, in turn, be recycled?

Get your facts right. What is the best sustainable solution for my event?

Ensure you engage event suppliers, contractors and traders and clearly communicate requirements, instructions and reporting deliverables from the get-go. Build into contractual agreements.

Ensure you include sustainability in all relevant touchpoints including event messaging so it becomes an integral part of the event design and brand experience.


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