In the process of event greening, you’re likely to come across the phrase: “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.” In order to be more energy efficient, or conserve water, or reduce your waste footprint, you need to know the scale of the problem and be able to measure how effective your interventions are. Otherwise you are shooting in the dark. With this in mind, the Event Greening Forum (EGF) initiated its first South African based research project last year.
Through its collaboration at Meetings Africa, the EGF discovered that the event’s single biggest waste component in 2018 was wood materials from custom exhibition stands (over 1400 kg) – and that this amount of wood waste has increased by 277% compared to previous years. Cardboard (over 800 kg) followed by catalogues (689 kg) made up the next most substantial waste materials, but at least could be dealt with through established re-use and recycling channels. Dealing with wood waste responsibly presents more challenges.
The EGF wanted to find out if large volumes of wood waste was a typical and increasing challenge in the exhibition industry, as well as best practice recommendations for dealing with it responsibly. It contracted the University of Pretoria to conduct the study, and five South African stand builders collectively funded the research. They are: African Graphix, bluCube, Inspire Furniture Rentals, Neworld Exhibitions and Scan Display.
According to the research, as much as 37% of a stand builder’s waste is from wood materials. In comparison, it does not greatly affect venues and organisers. (Their largest proportion of waste normally comes from food waste [42%] and cardboard waste [29%] respectively.)
A large complication in dealing with wood waste is the variety of types of wood, wood composites and finishes used (such a laminates, varnishes or paints). Many of these need to be handled differently. Therefore, to effectively re-use and recycle wood materials, they need to be carefully separated first – a process which is labour intensive, time-consuming and costly.
While many stand builders do their best to re-use stands and salvage re-usable materials where they can, most wood waste ultimately ends up in municipal waste which goes to landfill. This isn’t sustainable, given the shrinking landfill space available and its increasing costs, and that a potentially valuable resource is being lost.
Some South African companies may believe a better alternative is the informal re-use system, where wood waste is diverted to disadvantaged people in townships. On the surface this seems like a positive solution. However, there are serious health concerns that need to be considered, which the report highlights – including the discovery that many communities are salvaging chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treated wood to use for cooking. When CCA-treated wood is burnt, it releases inorganic arsenic which is a dangerous human pollutant and can contribute to the growth of existing cancerous tumours.
The research report then goes on to list the following recommendations to reduce exhibition stand wood waste, namely:
Venues should investigate the viability of gasification – burning wood waste to produce electricity – where waste is already in one place. This is not appropriate for all types of wood waste. However it works well with MDF, which is commonly used by stand builders (see ‘Most commonly used woods’). Meganika is busy developing such a solution for small-scale, on-client-site, waste-to-energy processing plants for this purpose.
Event organisers have a responsibility to educate, advise and encourage on how to reduce and deal with waste, to both clients and suppliers.
Stand building companies could make an effort to connect with their local community to find social entrepreneurs, carpentry schools and furniture manufacturers who can benefit from wood waste, instead of relying on a centralised solution for waste management.
Additionally, stand builders can strive to design more sustainable exhibition stands, by:
using fewer materials (i.e. less wood) in the design
choosing more sustainable wood materials and non-toxic paints
opting to use wood in its raw form, which is more easily recycled or reused
instead of paint using removable stickers (although stickers could leave a glue residue, and are usually made of PVC which has its own environmental concerns)
building longer-lasting modular designs, for improved reuse
If you would like to read the full research report, please send an email to email@example.com.