Monday, 31 December 2012

A most unlikely sustainable event destination

I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. ― George Carlin
Settling in to write my last post of 2012 I realise there are some amazing event sustainability stories I could go on about. The launch of event sustainability standards. Big examples of more sustainable events from the London Olympics and beyond. Exciting developments related to hybrid events. Record-setting waste reduction and diversion rates by treasured colleagues. Awards won. Inspiring onsite event experiences.

There have also been a few lows: frustration and cynicism that the event industry is not willing to confront and work on those issues that are the greatest impediments to sustainability. Waste production, carbon emissions, and labour issues being primary among them.

But as the year closes, one experience--captured in the image above--comes to the forefront for me.

Not all event sustainability has to be "epic" event sustainability. In fact, it can be the seemingly small steps that are the most rewarding, and those people enabling inches of progress in difficult situations who make me want to stand up and cheer.

And so it is that São Paulo, Brazil has emerged as the most unlikely "sustainable destination" I will ever love. Why? Because like the curls of ferns sprouting from the graffiti-encrusted walls of Vila Madalena, champions for event sustainability are taking it upon themselves to help this city provide more sustainable events.

I know what you're thinking: how can a city known for urban sprawl, high crime rates and some of the worst traffic and most polluted environments in the world ever aspire to the sustainability credentials of a Copenhagen, Melbourne or San Francisco?

One important reason: the people.

There are several I could mention, and likely will introduce in future posts, but today I will focus on one:  Antônio Hermes de Sousa.

Hermes de Sousa shows off a beautiful table made by NUA students using window frames and tropical hardwood reclaimed from torn down buildings in São Paulo
Hermes is the founder of the Instituto Nova União da Arte-NUA, an art and community development institute located in a neighbourhood of São Paulo where once stood a dump. I came to NUA looking for a simple solution to a common event waste problem: what to do with left-over vinyl banners from a large corporate event. I came away inspired by a person who, in spite of circumstances, is using his two hands and a simple idea to make his community better.

The Mission, Vision and Values of NUA

The Mission of NUA is posted on the wall of its dining room: to contribute to community development through art, culture, sport and income generation. Its Values: the preservation of life, mutual respect, freedom of expression, openness and co-operation.

Hermes created NUA as an after-school arts, crafts and dance program serving 180 school children in 2001. The project has since expanded to include an "Art Delivery" program that encourages students to design and share art with their community, a recycling cooperative that collects waste to earn money to support various programs, and discussion forums that involve citizens in planning to improve the surrounding neighbourhood. Many of these programs help keep local youth from the life of crime that Hermes himself fell into when he first migrated to São Paulo.

Endyara Mendonça tests out an Art Delivery installation at NUA
Amongst these community-minded projects is  Filó Cabruêra, the destination for our event banners. This program trains people to design, sew and market high quality materials made from discarded event canvas.

Custom-designed bags line the walls at Filó Cabruêra
Designers experiment with unique designs for wallets, bags and cases

Filó Cabruêra employs 70 women who learn to design, sew and market their products
Quality in production is of utmost importance at NUA, which makes bags to order or takes waste materials for resale
While the workers at Filó Cabruêra are likely transforming our event canvas into lovely wallets and bags as I type, I recall a serious instruction Hermes gave to me following my request for permission to share the story of his community service projects. He asked I not use the word "transformation" when I speak of NUA and the impact its programs have had on the surrounding community (which you have to see to believe). His reason: it implies he and his team are making the community into something other than it already was, rather than merely helping it and its residents achieve their fullest potential.

Perhaps there is wisdom in that for us in the event industry: that in the New Year we will dwell less on the transformative disruption and uncertainty new technology, a potential recession and diminishing resources bring, but rather embrace these forces to help us evolve the experiences we create to their fullest potential.

Special thanks to Paul Salinger of Oracle and Endyara Mendonça, Modesto Junior and the team at Rio360 for enabling the site visit to NUA, and to Hermes and his team for their inspiring story.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Sustainability nemesis: Thine name is Breakfast Bar

Oh sustainability nemesis. Thine name is "Breakfast Bar".
Damn thee and thine horsemen of the planetary apocalypse!
A thousand plagues of locusts would cling and die
To the plastic armour thou hast clinging to thine apples.
Thine deep, red, waxy, non-local, pesticide-laden apples.
Made redder by the unholy white aura of an army of polystyrene plates,
And bowls, and coffee lids! My plastic-laden cup runneth over!
Thine convenience it tempts me, but thine wasteful creamers
Repel me with the wrath of a million plastic stir sticks!
Vile mistress! Where are thine bulk cereal containers?
Thine jugs of organic, anti-biotic and hormone-free milk?
Churned with the hands of bare-footed, fairly-compensated, local virgins?
No kitchen facilities thou say? Fie! Fie thy excuses!
For I see one, hidden behind thee, and in thine suite down the hall.
And even without a fairest and fully-staffed kitchen,
Hast thou common self not learned of compostable disposables?
Thine corporate policies sang of lush, green, organic pastures.
Now about to contract-wed thou appear wasteful and fallen short of expectations.
Such sweetness before me, but in such small, individual packages!
Out Nemesis! Out I say! Feel the vengeance of my contract clause!
May its power compel you to align front line service
With boardroom ideas of being a champion for sustainability.

Monday, 3 December 2012

On the time I closed my eyes to open them

Over the last several years I've trained hundreds of onsite event staff and volunteers to recycle and sort complicated event waste. I think I've had every question then along comes another round of "Stump the Recycler" and I'm reminded I still have a lot to learn....

This year's Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly threw me another challenge: how to train a visually-impaired volunteer to participate as a recycling monitor? 

I confess, when I first saw the note on my volunteer list beside Wesley's name I thought about asking if he could be assigned to another team. How could he recognise the tiny triangles, numbers, colours and labels that tell us how to recycle? It would be a major contamination risk, I thought. UUA, however, has very proactive programs to engage people with accessibility needs equally in their General Assembly. They even have an event staff person onsite devoted to this specific function. Passing my volunteer to another event team was just not an option.

I had to learn to improve my training to enable more equal access. And Wesley was a great teacher. He was very approachable when I admitted I was not adequately prepared to accommodate his needs but wanted to know how I could make it work so he had an enjoyable, empowering and equal experience on our team. Although we could definitely still improve, some of the measures that helped make our onsite waste program more accessible included:

  • Seeing with your fingers. While Wesley may not be able to discern a non-compostable white plate from a beige compostable one by sight, he is great at thinking by 'feel', or in textures. Coated paper that might be recycled feels different than rough napkins and eco-plates that can be composted. This was a great tip Wesley taught us to help sighted volunteers learn, too.
  • Focusing on a method of enquiry, not a method of visual identification. Hour after hour Wesley would have people walk up to him and hold up a plastic up and they would ask: "Where does this go?". Wesley would smile and ask back "Where did you buy it?" which would allow him to know if it was recyclable or may be acceptable as compost. Giving people a series of questions to ask rather than instructions based on what they see can help. It also makes people aware of how where they buy can impact how they dispose, which can lead to different and better choices in future.
  • Ensuring consistency. Wesley did a great job on his first shift. There was hardly any contamination in his bins. The next day, however, was not as good, and many compostable cups were mis-filed in the recycling stream. I gently asked Wes if he might need a refresher as we picked through them together. He was surprised there was a problem as he'd been putting the same cups in the same bin as the day previous. And indeed he had been, but our service crew had switched the position of the bins on him overnight when they had been emptied. The order of his sorting was disrupted as he'd been using the sequence of bins to help him sort, rather than the signs. Our fault!
  • Being bold and distinct. In addition to texture, Wesley taught us about things like using bright colours and distinct shapes. Bright coloured signs were a better way to colour-code bins than white signs with coloured letters. Long necked bottles could be recycled. Some non-neck bottles couldn't be. Clean square plates were recyclable. Round ones were compost. Touch and feel boards at stations became a great reference and education point for all attendees. 
 Wes (pictured above) was a great volunteer, as were of all of our green angels. In fact, together they helped UUA's General Assembly reach an all-time record 87% diversion from landfill (see 2012 post-event report for more information). But he gets a special set of wings for improving our training and program in ways that not only made it more accessible to him, but for everyone.