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Eco-Conferences: How to Plan a Sustainable Scientific Conference in 2023

Two event planners organizing a sustainable conference on a laptop.

As the world becomes increasingly aware of the impact of human activities on the environment, there is no doubt that more organizations and industries are pushed to embrace sustainable practices. This is particularly important for scientific meetings, which draw a large number of attendees from all around the world, multiple times a year. As an organizer, sustainability has probably emerged as a critical aspect of your conference preparation. But you might be unsure of how to minimize the environmental impact of your events while promoting social responsibility and economic viability. No worries! In this article, we will explore the importance of sustainability for conference planning and provide an overview of the strategies that organizers can employ to make their events more sustainable.

Whether you are a conference organizer, attendee, or simply interested in the future of sustainable events, this post will provide valuable insights into the role that sustainability can play in shaping the future of scientific meetings. We will also give some insights and tips on how to reduce the carbon footprint of these events, and promote sustainable practices. So, let’s dive in and explore how we can work together to create a more sustainable future for scientific conferences.

Importance of sustainability in conference planning

Scientific conferences are a great way for individuals and organizations to network, learn, and share valuable ideas. Bringing people together from all parts of the world is essential to make the most of your events and encouraging further research. However, the large number of participants from diverse geographical locations can also result in a negative environmental impact.

Transportation is the number one environmental impact factor when it comes to professional conferences. When the event takes place onsite, many attendees, speakers, and exhibitors need to travel to the conference venue. As we mentioned before, diversity is a key component of scientific meetings, meaning that most of your participants will need to travel large distances by plane to get to the event site. This kind of transportation emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which negatively impacts our environment. Furthermore, conference venues need lots of power to support lighting, heating, air conditioning, and other activities that can also have a significant carbon footprint.

Conferences also impact the environment through waste. Think about the food and beverages served at the venue, or promotional and educational material that you might provide to attendees. These meetings often generate a lot of waste that ends up in landfills. Not only does this waste take up valuable space, it can also release harmful chemicals into the environment, contributing to climate change over time.

Finally, we cannot forget about the impact these large conferences have on the local environment where they take place. Receiving a huge number of people at the same time can put a strain on local resources such as water, energy, and waste management systems. Also, consider the conference venue’s impact on local wildlife and ecosystems. Although it seems like some of these things are hard to control, there are numerous ways you can ensure a more sustainable experience and reduce the impact of your meeting!

The benefits of promoting sustainability in conference planning

Encouraging sustainability in conference planning is not only essential for protecting the environment but also offers many benefits for both conference organizers and attendees.

As we mentioned already, promoting sustainability can reduce the negative impact that conferences have on the environment. By incorporating simple practices, like reducing energy and water use, encouraging public transportation options, or minimizing waste, organizers can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of their events. By doing so, event organizers can help protect the environment while saving costs associated with energy and resource usage – so, a win-win situation!

Not only that, promoting and showing a commitment to sustainability can also improve the reputation of the conference and the organizations involved. Conference organizers can attract environmentally conscious attendees and speakers, leading to a more positive image and increased attendance. This can also lead to more collaboration opportunities for the organizations involved.

Promoting sustainability in onsite meetings can also improve the attendee experience. By offering sustainable food and beverage options at the venue, alongside environmentally conscious practices, attendees may feel more connected to the conference and have a more positive experience.

Last but not least, implementing sustainable practices can result in cost savings for event organizers. Something as simple as implementing online registration can save a lot of paper waste. Furthermore, you can reduce printing and distribution costs by offering an online program planner.

Strategies for conference organizers to minimize environmental impact

1. Plan for sustainable transportation options

Transportation is a key element in planning a sustainable conference. While some attendees, staff, and presenters will inevitably have to catch a plane or car to get to the conference venue, organizers can encourage alternative sustainable means of transportation. For example, providing discounts or free public transportation tickets, arranging shuttle buses from the airport, or car-sharing programs can all reduce your event’s carbon footprint.

Consider providing electric or hybrid vehicles for conference transportation. Conference organizers can either include this option in the conference package, or arrange it with car rental companies for participants that prefer to travel independently.

However, the most impactful way to reduce the carbon footprint of an event is to transition into a virtual meeting format. This eliminates the need for attendees, staff, and presenters to travel to a determined location. Virtual conferencing not only supports sustainability, but it can be a more inclusive option for attendees or presenters who might have difficulty traveling due to scheduling, financial, or health reasons.

If you decide that your meeting may benefit from going virtual, choose a vendor that allows you to easily pivot to a different format.

2. Minimize energy use at conference venues

Another key area that organizers have to take into account to promote sustainability is incorporating sustainable energy practices at the conference venue. While this might be more difficult to plan and control, here are a few simple practices you can include in your conference planning checklist to help minimize energy use at your next conference:

  1. Use natural lighting: Where possible, utilize natural lighting instead of artificial lighting. Consider spaces with natural light during the time of the conference, such as areas with large windows that let in sunlight. However, if you have to use artificial lighting, opt for energy-efficient bulbs like LEDs.
  2. Turn off equipment when not in use: Encourage speakers, attendees, and staff to turn off electronic devices like laptops, projectors, and microphones when they are not being used. This simple step can save a significant amount of energy and reduce your carbon footprint.
  3. Use energy-efficient appliances: When renting appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators, and heaters, choose energy-efficient models that have been officially certified as such.
  4. Utilize renewable energy sources: If possible, consider using renewable energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines, or geothermal systems to power your conference. These energy sources are sustainable and can significantly reduce your carbon footprint.

By minimizing energy use at the conference venue, organizers not only save a lot of money, but also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainability.

3. Reduce waste through recycling and composting

Large conferences generate a significant amount of waste, such as food, paper, electronic, and plastic waste. As an organizer, you should include waste reduction in your conference planning checklist.

One effective and simple way to reduce waste is to implement a recycling and composting program. Make sure that the venue has clearly marked recycling bins placed in strategic locations to encourage all attendees to dispose their waste properly.

In addition, organizers can work with catering companies to estimate and only prepare the necessary amount of food for all participants. Excess food can be donated to local food banks or shelters. Furthermore, event organizers can use digital tools such as apps, online planners, and electronic tickets to reduce paper waste. Choose a provider that can easily accommodate all these activities in an online platform that attendees can access.

4. Provide sustainable food options

Providing sustainable food options is another way to promote sustainability in scientific conferences. The easiest way is by choosing locally sourced, organic, and seasonal foods. This not only reduces transportation impact and supports local business, but also ensures that participants get fresh, nutritious, and healthy meals.

Another option is to offer vegetarian and vegan options, which have a lower carbon footprint than meat-based options. By reducing the amount of meat consumed at conferences, organizers can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the event. Additionally, offering vegetarian and vegan options ensures that attendees with dietary restrictions are accommodated.

Organizers can also reduce waste by using compostable and biodegradable plates, cups, and utensils. This not only reduces the amount of plastic waste generated but also ensures that waste is disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way.

You can see that providing sustainable food options can heavily reduce the environmental impact of scientific conferences and promote healthy choices. Furthermore, it can have an impact beyond the conference and encourage attendees to adopt more sustainable practices in their personal lives.

5. Encourage eco-friendly behavior from attendees and staff

Encouraging eco-friendly behavior from attendees and staff during scientific conferences is an essential part of promoting sustainability. Conference organizers can provide useful information for their attendees on sustainable practices and tips on reducing environmental impact.

Consider offering incentives for eco-friendly behavior! Organizers can offer free public transportation for attendees, or discounts for participants who bring reusable water bottles or coffee mugs.

Encouraging eco-friendly behavior from attendees and staff during scientific conferences not only helps reduce the environmental impact of the conference, but also raises awareness and sets a positive example for attendees beyond the meeting.

Challenges of sustainable conference planning

There is no doubt that implementing sustainable practices during the conference has many benefits. However, it can also present some challenges:

  1. Cost: Even though we explored many ways in which organizers can save money with sustainable practices, some of these practices can be more expensive than traditional planning. For example, using renewable energy sources and sustainable materials can be more costly. However, it is important to consider the long-term benefits to the environment and the impact on the reputation of the conference.
  2. Attitudes: Not all participants may be aware of or committed to sustainability efforts. It can be challenging to encourage sustainable behaviors and attitudes during the conference. Make sure you include all the practices in your conference planning checklist, so your staff is aware of everything.
  3. Logistics: Planning for sustainable transportation, food, and materials can be difficult and require additional time and resources.

How to overcome these challenges

But no need to worry! The benefits of applying sustainable practices to your next conference outweigh the challenges. In addition, there are a few strategies that you can apply to overcome these problems that may arise.

  1. Set clear sustainability goals: Develop a set of clear and measurable sustainability goals that align with your conference’s values and objectives. This can help you guide decision-making and stick to your budget throughout the planning process.
  2. Engage participants: Involve all participants, including attendees, sponsors, vendors, and staff, in the sustainability planning process as you would with a traditional plan. This can help generate support and commitment for sustainability initiatives.
  3. Prioritize communication: Clearly communicate the importance of sustainability to all participants, and share updates on sustainability efforts while planning the conference. This will help build enthusiasm and support for sustainability initiatives.
  4. Build relevant partnerships: Develop partnerships with local organizations, such as farmers and small businesses, to help implement sustainable practices. This can help reduce costs and increase the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives.
  5. Conduct a sustainability assessment: Conduct a comprehensive sustainability assessment to identify areas of opportunity for sustainability initiatives, and develop a plan to address them.
  6. Provide education and training: Provide education and training for staff, volunteers, and attendees to help promote sustainable behaviors and practices beyond the conference.
  7. Measure and track progress: Develop a system to measure and track the progress of sustainability initiatives, and share the results with all members of the conference planning.

In conclusion, promoting sustainability in conference planning is crucial for reducing the negative impact of scientific meetings on the environment, minimizing costs, increasing attendee and staff satisfaction, and promoting a positive image for organizations. While there are some challenges that may arise in the process, there are also many strategies and best practices that organizers can use to make sustainability a priority and reap the benefits.

As a conference organizer, you have a big responsibility to make conscious choices that contribute to a sustainable future for our planet. By implementing sustainable practices such as offering eco-friendly transportation options, reducing energy use, providing sustainable food options, and encouraging eco-friendly behavior, we can reduce waste and carbon emissions, minimize costs, and make our events more enjoyable for everyone.

We encourage you to prioritize sustainability in your event planning process and consider implementing the points we have discussed in this article. However, you don’t have to do all of this by yourself! Look for a reliable provider that supports these practices and takes your scientific conferences to the next level.

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