Monday, 7 March 2011

BS-check, Aisle 12

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has identified chronic issues that contribute to greenwashing and recently released Guides for Making Environmental Claims. The implications? Anyone communicating their sustainable event practices should avoid making unsupportable or inaccurate environmental claims, lest they wind up in a similar situation as Fiji Water did recently.

I've just found myself in the awkward position of having someone make an environmental claim about their property that I question to be true based on first hand experience.

To give some basic facts:
The claim relates to waste management. Specifically, disclosure of an event diversion-from-landfill rate by a venue that is significantly higher than expected. Post-event data received does not align with practice observed on site or what one would expect based on the type of waste program at the venue and the history of the event in question. Recycled amounts from the venue do match documentation directly from the recycling facility, but appear to exclude trash hauled from the venue by another waste company. The property in question has been asked about these points and they maintain they stand behind their reporting in spite of specific concerns raised. The event host has been advised of the situation and is wisely not reporting the data provided as actual diversion, given concerns about accuracy.

Since going through this experience, I've observed others touting similar diversion rates from this property as truthful, without question. I can't say I blame them as they likely a) don't have the direct hauler documentation b) haven't completed back of house inspections of the venue and recycling facility and c) probably don't have their event waste history to refer to as a reality-check. So, although I can't blame them, I have to confess: I'm having a hard time not calling the venue on misrepresenting their data, especially when I've raised concerns with them in a reasonable way!

So please, do me a favour if you can: When presented with a diversion rate from landfill for your event, do a BS check.
  • Ask for direct-reported data from the hauler. Data filtered by a venue can be manipulated. Also be aware the venue may deal with different haulers for different materials and they may only be disclosing partial data in their report.
  • Ask if reported data includes all material hauled, including recyclables, trash, donations and any other streams. Sometimes venues will not factor in all streams, which can have significant impact on reported diversion trends.
  • Ask if you can isolate your data specifically, or if the data might be impacted by multiple events on-property at the same time as yours. Most facilities would have to make special accommodations to do this for you. If they haven't it's probable that you're getting more than your own event's weight, although percent diversion could still be accurate, overall.
  • Ask if you can come back of house to visit where waste is marshaled. Observing staff and how they handle waste in the back of house is a good way to gauge what kind of diversion you might expect. If 2 of every 3 trash bags are being put in the landfill, it's a good sign you're likely lower than 40% diversion. Don't be afraid to peer into a dumpster or ask how full it is either. It's important to see these things with your own eyes in order to know if reported waste metrics are accurate.
  • Ask if you can contact or visit their recycling and/or compost facility to see for yourself how waste is sorted. Any facility that is transparent will be glad to connect you with their hauler to verify practices.
  • If possible refer back to any previous records you might have about landfill or recycling at your event. Often if you can estimate per participant amounts in previous years you can gauge roughly how much waste you could expect, assuming a similar event format and attendee composition. So if last year you produced 10 lbs of left over material per person and you're expecting 1000 people onsite, you can expect your total waste and recycling to measure about 10,000 lbs.
  • Clarify if the venue includes incineration in their diversion from landfill calculations. I choose to not include incinerated waste in diversion from landfill as it often does not provide the highest use option for organic waste which could be used as compost. It can also create significant local air quality issues. Sometimes venues will treat this as recycling of waste-to-energy, so clarify if this is the case.
  • Lastly, if your venue doesn't have composting and they're claiming a diversion from landfill rate of greater than 70%, be suspicious. Compostable waste tends to account for at least 25% of event waste streams. If your venue doesn't have composting your event likely shouldn't be achieving over 70% diversion.
I should temper my post here by stating in over 10 years this is the first time I've ever been faced with this kind of situation, which itself is pretty good news. Most venues are doing a good job of reporting waste and when there are questions are more than willing to work to address them. Still, it's important to be clear there are no rules on how to report waste diversion for events. So it pays to be diligent in minimizing your risk of greenwashing your good efforts. Don't be afraid to ask!

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