A Plastic-Free Business Meeting? You’ve got to ask

By Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador

I’ve got a quick mental survey for you:

  1. How many business meetings or conferences do you attend every year?
  2. Do they serve food/beverages?
  3. Of those, how many of them are plastic-free?

If your professional experience is anything like mine, then the answer to #3 is “none of them.” There might be water glasses and a pitcher of water or ice water in meeting rooms … but those will sit next to the plastic bottles of water, soda, and juice. There might be actual stainless steel ware – but still those plastic stirrers to the side of the coffee and tea.

How hard would it be to get rid of those plastic bottles and plastic-ware?  Have you ever asked?

The truth is, it can be either easier or harder than you think – in other words, like so many things, it depends. But if no one asks for a no-plastic conference, it will that much longer until we can expect there to be one! 

This ‘ask’ is something any one of us can do with a simple email to conference organizers. One such effort: This past summer I attended the annual American Comparative Literature Association conference in Utrecht, Netherlands. Two of the local organizers, Birgit Kaiser and Kathrin Thiele are good friends who have been listening to me talk for years about plastic pollution and Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC). In early spring, they wrote to tell me that the local conference-organization committee had “just decided against providing water [in plastic bottles] at the ACLA. It would be too much waste, too much plastic, and Utrecht tap water has [one of] the highest ratings.” Utrecht, it turns out, also has public taps. You can refill any time.

So my friends asked about the possibility of having some stainless steel water bottles with the conference logo – so I put them in touch with John Borg, CEO of Steely’s Drinkware, to look into the viability of doing that. The truth is, because of logistics, the expense of transportation, and the rules of the Utrecht University about selling things, that ambitious plan didn’t work out this time. But that didn’t mean that nothing happened!  

  1. Pre-conference emails asked participants to bring their own water bottles, and explained that no bottled water would be supplied. What participants found on site were large glass water dispensers located at popular sites and kept refilled. Coffee was served in compostable paper cups.
  2. The conference program included a “sustainability statement” – with a shout-out to Plastic Pollution Coalition (below).
  3. PPC flyers were put out in the registration room.

It’s a modest start.  But the moral of this story is, It doesn’t hurt to ask. Again and again. One small step at a time.

Katrin Thiele and Birgit Kaiser (below left and right), Utrecht University faculty, and co-organizers of the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Utrecht (Netherlands), July 6-9, 2017.

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor is Associate Professor of Women's Studies and English at Penn State University.

See also: More Ways to Go Plastic Free at Work