Striving for Net-Zero Meetings

Back in 2014, the Green Standard featured Gregory Butler, then the director of global supply-chain stewardship for Becton, Dickinson & Co.'s office of global sustainability in Franklin Lakes, N.J. He had been working on the BD Global Sustainability Forum, using every green trick in the book to achieve a "net-zero" meeting, where all the waste is diverted and nothing __ not a scrap of paper or food or a piece of plastic __ is sent to the landfill, where the carbon footprint is offset and there is no impact on the environment at all.

Two-plus years later, Butler now is running his own independent company, Greenest Meetings, out of Kinnelon, N.J., and Hobe Sound, Fla. "When I retired, I realized I'd done procurement, project management and sustainability, and said that's meeting planning!" he says. His new business offers full-service meeting planning, and he'll do as little or as much greening as the client wants. "Not everybody wants to go net-zero right off the bat," he notes, "but at least reduce the footprint of your meeting."

After going out on his own in May 2015, Butler planned the 25th anniversary celebration for the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University, which was held in April 2016 at the Westin Governor Morris in Morristown, N.J., again achieving a net-zero event. To choose the venue, he explains, "I went out to bid to all the hotels in the radius of the university, and we picked the Governor Morris because they ticked off the sustainable elements and had competitive pricing." The property also already had good recycling, water-conservation and green-cleaning programs in place.

The sustainable practices used for the dinner included donating all the leftovers to a food bank, not decorating with cut flowers, hanging event banners made from bamboo and fabricating silent-auction sign holders out of wire clothes hangers. Attendees all drove to the event, and their carbon footprint as well as the carbon for the electricity used was offset through a donation from Renewable Choice. All paper towels were removed from the public restrooms, and washcloths were provided with a collection basket for the dirty ones.

Butler is not always asked __ or able __ to get to net-zero. "In November, I did a small group function at a theme park in Orlando, dinner and attractions for about 25 people," he says. "I had to work within the limitations of the park. It wasn't a net-zero meeting, but we did what we could. When it's a small function like that, you have less leverage to get clients to make what are really big changes."

Not many companies are focused on sustainability in meetings, says Butler. "I don't think management has an understanding of the impact a meeting has," he explains. "A typical meeting generates about 73 pounds of carbon per person per day, according to the EPA, and then typically you figure about .25 pounds of carbon per mile for people flying to the meeting. There is a large carbon footprint to meetings, but it's not talked about."

Still, he persists. "If you ask me what a meeting's about, it's about sustainability," Butler says. "That's my mindset. It doesn't add a lot of cost, it just has to be how you're thinking. It just becomes the way you're doing it. I can understand why a lot of planners aren't incorporating the green criteria into their meetings. They see it as adding time and complexity."

The good news: Hotels are on board. "I'm getting back-of-house tours, and I'm finding a lot of hotels are using green practices," Butler reports. "A lot of farm-to-table is being used in catering, there's water filtration and the elimination of plastic bottles, linenless tables to do away with laundry. At one property, the chef had his own herb garden outside the window. Another hotel had a liquified food composter, using enzymes to break down compost and flush it away. There's a lot going on out there, but there's a lot to be done."