Covid 19 saw the return of single-use plastic items and as a sustainable event manager, I am obviously not impressed. The reasons why venues and restaurants rekindled their love affair with plastic are aplenty: it’s is perceived to be more hygienic, there’s less touching involved and it’s cheaper.
#PlasticFreeJuly gives us the perfect opportunity to look at what’s really going on here. Spoiler alert: it’s not the germs per se. It’s Covid 19 hospitality guidelines! Let me explain:
When I hosted a virtual Twitter panel on sustainable event solutions, emotions were flying high when we mentioned the rise of single-use plastic. I was grateful when Valerie Wagner from Hotel-O-Motion chirped in. Valerie lives and breathes hospitality. She has a blog and a podcast about digital hotel management and has been working in the industry for years.
When I mentioned my distain for single-use plastic items, she replied with “it’s not that simple”. I reached out to her after the chat and unfortunately, she’s right. Here’s the problem:
Sisyphus is a cleaner
Studies show that you can contract Covid 19 by touching surfaces. All it takes is a sneeze or cough. Hotels, restaurants and venues have to disinfect all surfaces regularly: tables, chairs, armrests, doorknobs, light switches. Glasses and tableware, even if they haven’t been used yet. In the past, it was fairly easy to set up a meeting room in advance. With Covid 19, time is of the essence. And unfortunately, it is easier to plonk down a couple of plastic cups and bottles right before a break than arranging glasses and refillable water jugs.
How hot is your dishwasher?
Turns out, you can’t just wash glasses during a global pandemic. There are rules and regulations in place. You need “suitable” cleaning products and the rinsing temperature of your dishwasher must be at least 60 degrees celsius. Standard dishwashers run between 55 and 75 degrees celsius, which is in the range, but it shows that there’s surprisingly little wiggle room here. If you wash your dishes by hand, things get even more complicated. The water temperature has to be at least 45 degrees celsius and you need to use more detergent than usual. You also need to rinse glasses and cutlery for a longer period of time.
The hospitality industry is facing its most challenging year in decades. With meetings and events cancelled left and right, money becomes a major issue. Hotels have to rent bigger meeting rooms to smaller groups while keeping competitive rates. In a post-Covid 19 world where venues have to turn every single penny into profit, plastic saves them money. This is the ugly truth, but we can’t blame venues on the brink of a financial collapse to save money wherever they can.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
That said, I don’t want to use single-use plastic at my events. I am horrified and saddened that plastic is on the rise again. However, venues and hotels are my partners and I don’t want to play the blame game. It’s time to find solutions that work for the both of us, green event planners and venues alike.
What can sustainable event managers do to reduce plastic during Covid 19?
1. Lecture your partners Plastic isn’t more hygienic than glass. We have to shout it from the rooftops! Plastic is not the safest material during a global pandemic.
2. Be on time If we insist on reusable glasses and cutleries, we have to stick the schedule. We need to ensure that venues and hotels don’t have to replace and disinfect reusable tableware at the last minute because we started our coffee break later than expected. This is also important for social distancing. Break rooms are often used by multiple groups on the same day and if we all go rogue, chances are we bump into each other.
3. Be flexible Sustainability goes on top of standard processes go on top of Covid 19 guidelines and in the current financial situation, our partners won’t hire extra staff. If we expect them to be sustainable during a global pandemic, we can’t get nasty if standard processes take longer than usual or have to be neglected.
4. Recycle Plastic can be recycled. I repeat, plastic can be recycled! Some plastic material is even biodegradable these days. If you fear the back clash of your clients, ask your venue for a plastic recycling concept. That might calm the waves.
5. Don’t haggle Plastic is cheap and after months of not being able to earn any money, we can’t blame hotels and venues to save cash wherever they can. The least we can do is stick to the agreed rates, especially if we ask them to go the extra green mile.
6. Buy plastic neutrality If push comes to shove, you can buy plastic neutrality. It’s not the chicest way to tackle the problem, but we live in strange times. There’s plenty of companies who offset plastic and carbon so this might be a temporary solution if your vendors insist on using single-use plastic.
7. Be kind No hotel or venue wants to host a super spreader event. The media back clash would be brutal, and they’d have to proof that they followed the rulebook to the T. Using plastic might get them off the hook. It’s arguably more difficult to proof that they replaced all glasses and tableware regularly, cleaned them with “suitable” detergent at 60 degrees celsius or soaked them in hot water for a reasonable amount of time. That’s why we have to give our partners some slack here and don’t take them off our vendors list if they temporarily deny our sustainable wishes. We don’t have to book them during Covid 19, don’t get me wrong, that is always our choice, but we don’t have to get overly judgmental, either. Events are a team sport, after all.
That said, there’s more to sustainability than plastic. If you want to host a green event, waste and material are just two parts of your journey. Avoid flights, ask your attendees to use public transportation, reduce food waste, recycle and voilà, you’re halfway there. We’re living in truly exceptional times and there’s multiple things sustainable Eventprofs can do to keep up the good fight. Even during a global pandemic.