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Zero Tolerance
That hard-walled exhibit you put out to pasture a decade ago still exists, whether you want to admit it or not.
've been on a multiyear mission to eradicate a false statistic that has been repeated so frequently that many in our industry accept it as fact. The myth is that the Environmental Protection Agency cited trade shows as the second largest source of commercial waste in the United States. In truth, the EPA never conducted the alleged research, nor did the organization issue such a statistic. But that factoid's falsehood has become less important to me over the years compared to the reality that so many exhibitors and suppliers believed it.

The reason that concerns me is simple: For so many to automatically accept the bogus sound bite implies that even though the EPA claim is entirely erroneous, we have an honest-to-goodness problem on our hands. After all, exhibit managers, suppliers, and laborers who have witnessed the sheer volume of trash generated during installation and dismantle know our industry produces a tremendous amount of waste. So the spurious statistic is easy to believe, given the mountains of debris they've personally witnessed being discarded.

Over the years, show organizers and convention centers have stepped up to the plate, instituting large-scale recycling efforts, waste-diversion programs, and eco-friendly policies of their own. But exhibitors have, for the most part, sat idly by as if their debris somehow magically vanishes in a puff of smoke. The ugly truth is, of course, more difficult to stomach. That hard-walled exhibit you put out to pasture a decade ago still exists, whether you want to admit it or not.

Our industry's refuse doesn't just disappear, and a recently announced initiative spearheaded by the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association is hoping to make marketers (and exhibit houses) more mindful of that fact. Late last year, at the EDPA's annual meeting, sustainability expert Tom Bowman (aka Mr. Green) unveiled the Zero Waste Challenge. At its most basic level, it's a competition for exhibit houses to incorporate sustainable practices and materials into their clients' booths. The goal is to spotlight, recognize, and encourage more eco-friendly trade show exhibits, especially with regard to waste reduction.

The most interesting component of the program is a two-part waste audit that requires participants to take stock of the trash generated at the exhibit house or fabrication facility, as well as on the show floor. The audit is an informal observation of the discarded items: How much trash was generated? What types and sizes of materials are being wasted? Where is the garbage going? And what might be done to decrease the detritus in the future? It's a simple process that every exhibitor should be conducting. In essence, the audits are intended to force participants to acknowledge the amount of waste produced, while eliminating their ability to willfully ignore the problem.

Zero-waste exhibiting is a lofty goal, indeed, but it's not impossible. In fact, our 2014 Green Exhibiting Survey found that 18 percent of exhibit managers believe it's both realistic and attainable. And if EDPA's initiative is successful, the outcome will be a series of case studies and best practices not only proving it's possible, but also demonstrating how it can be done.

Granted, things are not going to change overnight. But little steps can make a big difference, especially if we all take them together. If each exhibiting company at last month's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas had decreased its waste output by just 5 measly pounds (that's less than the weight of a single ream of paper), they would have collectively diverted more than 8 tons of trash from entering the waste stream. And if every exhibitor at every trade show followed suit, perhaps that bogus EPA statistic wouldn't seem quite so believable after all.

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