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UUA’s General Assembly goes green

Recycling capacity depends on host city
By Donald E. Skinner
10.4.10

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There was a time, not that long ago, when being green at General Assembly, the UUA’s annual business meeting and conference, required a fair amount of effort. Recycling bins were hard to find. If you didn’t want hotel staff to change your sheets daily you had to leave a note. Everywhere you went people handed you paper and more paper.

And now? GA has become one of the greenest parts of Unitarian Universalism. At GA 2010 in Minneapolis recycling bins were everywhere. Participants could contribute to a carbon fund to offset the energy used by GA. Programs for worship services were printed in the GA program book. Many cups were made of plant starch rather than polystyrene foam.

The move toward “event sustainability” began in 2003 when the Seventh Principle Project, now the UU Ministry for Earth, surveyed GA participants and found a high level of support for a more environmentally responsible GA. The next year the GA Planning Committee hired a company, now called MeetGreen, to help it reduce the waste from GA.

And waste is being reduced. According to an Event Sustainability Report prepared by MeetGreen in August, the amount of waste from GA 2010 that ended up in a landfill or was incinerated weighed 1,400 pounds. Compare that to GA 2008, which sent more than 17,000 pounds to a landfill.

“We’ve come a long way since 2003,” said Jan Sneegas, the UUA’s director of General Assembly and Conference Services, who noted that while the construction industry contributes the largest volume of trash to landfills, the meetings industry is second.

GA 2005 in Fort Worth was the first GA to incorporate substantial sustainable practices. But because the UUA already had contracts in place when it decided to go green, many sustainable efforts that year had to be in the form of requests to hotels and the convention center rather than requirements, noted Sneegas.

GA 2006 in St. Louis was markedly better. “We formed a connection between the convention center and Operation Food Search, a local food distribution center that has continued to this day,” Sneegas said.

The following year GA was in Portland, Ore., a city with a strong environmental ethic. “We hit the pinnacle that year,” said Sneegas. In addition to recycling the usual items, anyone who ate in the convention center had an opportunity to compost leftover food.

Shawna McKinley, director of sustainability for MeetGreen, notes that where recycling is involved, geography is the factor that can still thwart the best intentions of convention planners. “The biggest challenge is always location,” she said. “While some convention centers may want to do what we ask, the infrastructure just does not exist in their city.”

That’s what happened in Fort Lauderdale. Just a year after Portland, GA 2008 was in a city where recycling was not a fixture. That year 82 percent of our waste went to a landfill, compared to 24 percent at Minneapolis.

Sneegas said that the 2009 GA in Salt Lake City was an improvement because the convention center made a commitment to sustainability.

Next year General Assembly will be in Charlotte, N.C., a city that’s still developing a capacity to recycle. “I’m hopeful for Charlotte,” said McKinley.

Sneegas, a board member of the Green Meetings Industry Council, said that the UUA is ahead of other denominations in holding sustainable meetings. “Our Seventh Principle--Respect for the interdependent web of all existence––is so front and center for us it’s like a mandate. That gives us our strong platform to do this work.”

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