by Sally Braley | October 15, 2012
Julie Larson, project manager, meetings and events, McDonald'sI remember distinctly the first McDonald's I went to as a kid, which opened in November 1970. It was — and still is — on Route 22 in Scotch Plains, N.J. It was a big treat in our family to drive the six miles to get burgers and fries in the original polystyrene containers that squeaked when you opened them. In 1990, McDonald's started replacing those "clamshells" with paper wraps and recycled boxes, and switched from bleached to unbleached bags. This environmentally friendly attitude now is working its way into the company's meetings, too. The food giant's biennial Worldwide Convention, held this year in Orlando in April for 16,000 attendees, was the greenest yet, as 69 percent of the waste was either recycled, composted or donated; 17 percent of the food came from within 400 miles of the Orange County Convention Center; and attendees, staff, suppliers, hotel employees and others all got together to refurbish the local Ronald McDonald House. M&C spoke with Julie Larson, project manager, meetings and events, for the company, about the process of making this important meeting more eco-friendly.

McDonald's 2012 Worldwide ConventionHow sustainable was the Worldwide Convention before 2012?
We began our green efforts back in 2008, and everything I've learned has been self-taught by the school of hard knocks. I threw every sustainability opportunity on the table that I could, but a lot of people weren't being green-minded at the time -- yet no one told me no. That was an experiential year, and we tried everything we could. We tried to hone some ideas and improve the metrics and the good we were doing in 2010. As we began planning the 2012 convention in spring 2011, we wanted to take our learnings and reach out to an organization that could help us assess our successes, provide some professional environmental feedback and capture the carbon footprint of the show. I took measurements, but they were the Julie Larson best guestimates, and I felt they weren't reliable and couldn't be verified.

Is that when you hooked up with Portland, Ore.'s MeetGreen?
Yes, we wanted to have someone with environmental strengths help us assess what we were doing, identify opportunities, and give us a benchmark and advice on how to go forward. Our ultimate goal is to roll out the full APEX [green meetings] standards for the Worldwide Convention and eventually have the event certified when that opportunity comes.

What was the biggest challenge in greening this event?

The biggest challenge I think is one of our biggest benefits as well -- the size and the scope of this program: 17,000 people from all over the world [including staff] in 16 different hotels, creating synergies and consistencies across various brands. We have worked very diligently as a team to communicate the initiatives we are creating and the areas of opportunity for our attendees. From day one on our website there has been dialog of what we were doing. For instance, under our Good People initiative, we highlighted opportunities for attendees to use fitness centers in the hotel. We talked about the distance from the main stage to the McDonald's restaurants on the main floor (4.9 lengths of a football field), which attendees walked multiple times a day. We told everyone we were measuring our carbon footprint, and we encouraged people to offset their travel through

What was your favorite tactic?
Composting is something that's never been done with a group at the OCCC, and I'm really proud that we found a partnership with Waste Management, HAVI Global Solutions and the McDonald's operation team. More than 80,000 pounds of food was kept out of the landfills. We were a bit giddy at the process. We also got really creative in our donation program, a creative corporate social responsibility tactic. The OCCC, Freeman and the McDonald's exhibit team looked at how leftover materials could be used again. We donated things we never would have thought of donating in the past, from flooring, to walls, to graphic panels that teachers and art schools could use again. That was one of the most rewarding things, to see the excitement and gratitude from the charities when they came in to pick up the goods.

What was the most unusual process you employed?
One of the most fun activities we did was an opportunity for employees, suppliers and staff to re-landscape the Ronald McDonald House at the Walt Disney Pavilion at the Florida Hospital for Children. For about five hours, we worked on 75 feet of the house planting new trees, florals and bushes, and we did a complete first- and second-floor wash, reorganized the food pantry, sterilized the play room.

How will you take this event even greener in 2014?
We're working on that now. The biggest variable is probably strengthening our environmental policy and getting the policy into our contracts. But I want to improve on all of it. We want to increase our diversion rate, the waste going to landfills. That can come in reducing the amount of waste, increasing our donation capabilities. We need to interact with the exhibit managers and building contractor earlier, starting the dialog three to four months before the show, so we have more than a week to figure out a home for these components. We've changed our language on our exhibitor website, telling them the things we want them to be mindful of.

What responsibility does McDonald's have to set an example for the rest of the world? Do you think about that?
Every day. I think it's our responsibility. And I am very proud of the efforts of the team and our suppliers, but McDonald's has really stepped to the plate with this clear vision. I am using events to tell this story as loudly and as passionately as I can. Because we have the ability and we're doing so many great things, we can make a positive difference with our events and as a corporation.