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Recycle, Reuse, Repeat

By Selena Fragassi


In 2016, the Internet has become known as the web of viral animal videos. There are cats shrieking at cucumbers, baby pandas sneezing like old men, and dogs mastering street hockey.

But when the University of California at Berkeley innocently released a Facebook video last summer of a herd of goats cascading down a hillside, no one ever thought they’d be the next in line. “Goats gone wild,” read the headlines in publications from CNN to the Daily Mail, with the video racking up over three million views on social media.
While the video was certainly entertaining—it’s not every day you see hundreds of goats stopping traffic—the story behind it became the catalyst for its popularity.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is operated by the campus, has “hired” the goats every summer for the last 17 years to be eco-friendly lawnmowers. The herd of 500 is represented by Goats R Us (no joke), who delivers them in a goat limousine no less to the 100-acre plot of land where the herd efficiently eats overgrown grasses and weeds that could otherwise become wildfire kindling.

“They do excellent work, and it’s almost impossible for humans to do the same [job] they’re doing with their everyday routine,” said Tom Price, maintenance supervisor of facilities at the lab, in an interview with The Daily Californian.

More than just a conversation starter, the so-called “vegetation management plan” has become a win-win for everyone involved. Goats get to live out their wildest dreams while the lab saves considerable money and gives back to the environment by avoiding the use of gas-guzzling mowers.

As UC Berkeley shows, it’s not good enough to just be green anymore; rather, many venues and planners are working together in earnest to find comprehensive new ways to problem solve sustainability and create a much smaller carbon footprint.

A Waste Land

“We have more waste than anywhere you can think of,” says James Spellos, a former planner for 20 years who now runs Meeting U, a niche training company that aims to make industry personnel more comfortable with new technologies. Fifteen years ago, Spellos connected with Rock and Wrap It Up!, an award-winning anti-poverty and anti-hunger think thank with a specific purpose to reduce waste and end hunger by taking leftover food from events and bringing it to people who need it.

The organization started in the music industry with a theatre in Long Island that held rock concerts. “[Founder Syd Mandelbaum] was able to connect with bands and have it put in their riders that any excess food would be donated after the show rather than being thrown away,” says Spellos. It developed from there and built a huge following. Rock and Wrap It Up! now serves 40,000 cities in North America and has expanded into schools, hospitals, and —with the help of Spellos—professional meetings and events.

“It really hit home to me,” he says. “When I was a planner in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I always got pushback from hotels that said they were not able to donate food from event, because they thought it was illegal to do so and cited potential lawyer roadblocks.” That changed in 1998 when the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act was passed through Congress that waives any liability to an organization if they donate food that is prepared (but not served) to charitable organizations as long as proper refrigeration and timing is adhered to. Ten years later, it was further supported with the passing of the Federal Food Donation Act, sponsored by Rock and Wrap It Up!.
“But what we have found is that there’s still a lot of misinformation fed to planners. And some aren’t aware about the ‘no liability’ clause and really don’t understand just how easy it is to do this,” Spellos says. The company vets all the charities, including churches, food banks, and soup kitchens, and has runners to coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs. “Yet, we are still finding incredible resistance.”

To help combat that, Spellos has worked with EventMobi to create the Whole Earth Event Calculator (, a rather dramatic online tool that allows a planner—or anyone—to enter in the pounds of food they have to donate and it will return the number of meals it will serve and the number of pounds that will be kept away from landfills. “There’s also calculations for composting and paper and plastic recycling. All free of charge.” The results can be shared on Facebook and Twitter (there’s also hashtag suggestions). A new, coordinating app also launched earlier this summer to make the process even easier.

“Planners can reach out to us and ask us questions anytime,” says Spellos. “They don’t have to figure it out, we will do the work. And together we can keep food from going to landfills and serving people.”

More Than an Old College Try

Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania also has people-centric missions with their reuse programs. Leftover floral arrangements get donated to a retirement village a mile from campus or to employees on-site. “We like to give flowers to our food service and housekeeping staff so they feel appreciated,” says Lynn McManness-Harlan, director, conference & event services. And for remaining food, she says, “A group of students do food rescues and will take it to local shelters and churches, or food kitchens and food pantries.” College staff also works with the local women’s shelter to create community gardens they can harvest for an eco-friendly food supply.

While part of the intent is goodwill, part of it also is progressing towards Allegheny’s mission to achieve climate neutrality by 2020. In 2007, Allegheny (which is one of the country’s oldest educational institutions) signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. “It’s a collection of 700 colleges and universities that got together and said environmental sustainably is something really important, climate change is a scientific fact, and we need to think about how we can make positive changes and provide a social mandate to teach students about efficiency,” says Kelly Bolton, the campus’ sustainability coordinator. “And what we have been finding is that all the things we have been doing to get closer to our goal are actually really good for efficient operations.”

Some of the initiatives include purchasing all electricity from wind-generated sources and installing solar panels across campus, as well as developing a number of LEED certified buildings and creating several alternative food sources. That includes an aquaponic system that raises tilapia and an on-campus production garden run by students who grow greens, scallions, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas, and beans, all of which gets supplied to dining halls.

There are also a number of rain gardens to minimize storm water runoff and provide attractive pockets of landscaped space in addition to water refill stations across the grounds. “For all our freshmen, we give away stainless steel bottles they can refill around campus,” says Bolton “We always see freshman purchase bottled water but by senior year that drops off because they realize that the social norm around here is to carry a bottle with you.” Another program Allegheny coordinates every summer is an annual energy challenge. “We ask everyone on campus to reduce energy consumption by 10% just by changing small habits,” Bolton furthers. “We do that for four weeks, and the money saved from it is put into various sustainability projects around campus.”
But it’s not just students that benefit. Many of these programs carry over into the summer conference season, which welcomes around 80 groups that make use of various campus spaces including two small theaters and larger auditorium that seats roughly 1,700 people. “Summer is the peak production for our gardens, so a lot of visiting groups eat the veggies we grow on campus,” says McManness-Harlan. In the summer, the garden also has a table where they sell produce if people are interested in buying. “Some guests have kitchens in their rooms so they can get fresh veggies and herbs and cook with them.” The dining halls also have a reusable takeout container program for groups that stay a minimum of three days. In addition, all of the waste in the food centers is fully composted for a rich fertilizer used for campus lawns and sports fields.

Bolton estimates that the wide range of eco-friendly programs has saved the college millions of dollars over the past decade, which has allowed McManness-Harlan to keep rates consistent. “Because we have been able to keep costs to a minimum, we have not raised our fees in few years,” she says. “We really just try to encourage sustainability with all of our summer groups.”

Creating Natural Habitats

Planners will find a similar structure at Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada—a retreat-like arts and culture institution with a full meeting, event, and conference center for up to 1,000 people. “We have a very unique setting relative to our natural environment, but because we don’t use our sustainability measures as a marketing tool there’s no ability to pass on the costs to guests, and therefore we remain competitive,” says Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Luke Sunderland. Here, environmental programs are standard since the Centre is located in the mountains of Banff National Park, a protected world heritage site.

“It’s incredibly important that any business in Banff be proactive in environmental practices, so everyone within the park is pretty progressive,” says Sunderland. “But we think we take it one step further. We have worked with our environmental team to focus on three areas—habitat, sustainable sourcing, and energy.”

One of the most original parts of Banff Centre is that all meeting spaces on the 40-acre property have floor-to-ceiling windows. “The only thing that might interrupt a meeting is the animals that are outside,” he jokes of the deer, elk, and occasional bear that passes by. “We really made a concerted effort to make the habitat of this campus as natural as it possibly can be, and part of that was maintaining all wildlife corridors.” That also includes restoring grasslands, he says. “We brought back the wild spaces in place of the manicured plots with absolutely no pesticides used anywhere on the grounds. When people get here sometimes they think we don’t cut our lawn but that gives us a chance for storytelling.”

Groups also find it fascinating to learn about the sourcing of the food in their daily meals. All of the micro greens used in menus are grown on-site, “but being in a mountain there’s a limited growing season,” says Sunderland. “So we use an urban cultivator that’s able to grow our greens and herbs year-round. It’s operating right in the main dining room where guests can see it.” Banff Centre was the first property of its kind in Canada to institute the idea. Meats are also sourced locally and seafood comes from Ocean Wise, which ensures ocean-friendly practices. “It’s not the least expensive choice, but we want to provide a high-quality product that upholds our sustainable mission.”

That goes for the actual landscape of the buildings, too. “We are a Four Green Key Hotel and Meeting destination, awarded by the Hotel Association of Canada, and we are in the Gold tier with the International Association of Conference Centres,” says Sunderland. “We’ve been doing carbon footprint audits since 2007 to monitor our status and make changes where needed. Every year, we also allocate capital to retrofitting the grounds to use LED sensor lights and energy-reducing windows so we can bring down our rates of consumption.” A recycling program also diverts 2,000 liters of organic waste every year.

As such, Banff Centre draws a lot of business from socially conscious organizations, particularly government and environmental groups lobbying for change. “Our mission aligns with their core values, and by coming here they are meeting their corporate social responsibility goals, too.”

How the Garden Grows

The same can be said of Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, a 385-acre living plant museum, which won the award for “best green venue” in the 2015 Unique Venues Best of Awards. It was recognized for various building designs such as a new LEED certified children’s learning center opening this year, innovative programs like rainwater collection for landscaping, and a voluminous rooftop garden that supplies food services. It’s run by Windy City Harvest, an urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative that employs at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated.

“It’s great to be recognized for the programs we have going on here, and it has helped us get more business,” admits Director of Sales & Special Events Connie Bolle of the distinguished titles Chicago Botanic Garden has received. Because of the environmentally friendly setting, Brown Flynn opted to book a two-day conference on sustainability at the grounds while groups like Mariani Landscape and Practice Greenhealth from Virginia also chose the facility, which offers a variety of 16 indoor and outdoor spaces.

In addition to being a popular venue for eco-friendly corporate and social events, including weddings, the venue also hosts quarterly roundtables for local businesses that want to implement some of the same sustainable ideas. “We run a whole operation of external outreach to larger businesses, and invite leaders to come in and meet with our team to have lunch and talk green methods,” says Bolle.

The businesses learn takeaways about how Chicago Botanic Garden operates on both a daily basis and for special events.

“One of our big messages here is that we compost everything,” says Bolle. “We have a whole separate trash program where all scraps become fertilizer we use at the gardens year-round. All of our production, both back and front of house, is also recycled.”

As well, Chicago Botanic Garden uses disposable plates and silverware made out of bamboo and plastic, which are recycled on-site. Recycled linens made from plastic bottles are also available, and the vendors the Garden works with (namely, BBJ Linen and Hall’s Rentals), deliver materials in reusable boxes.

“For more formal events, we recycle all cork from wine and bottles to be repurposed,” says Bolle of yet another example, also noting that the program is also open to the public. “You’d be surprised to see how many people bring in baggies of cork.”

Operationally, there are also strong eco-friendly initiatives. The sales team doesn’t prepare folders or kits or print out menus; they don’t even mail receipts. “Everything is 100% green from our office. We do it all online and through e-mail and fax. We don’t want to create any more paper production.” And instead of pads of paper and pens, Bolle and her staff encourage clients to use smartphones, tablets, or laptops to take notes and also to download the free Chicago Botanic Garden app. “It will track where you are in the garden and tell you where all the different plants and flowers are that you want to see,” she says.

To encourage more healthy transit, the Garden also built walking paths from the local commuter train stop and is an official station for the Divvy rental bike program.

“What’s great about being here is that our people come up with new ideas all the time, so there’s a lot of trendsetting going on. It’s not only a natural place to institute new programs, but our staff and members really have a passion for green living,” says Bolle. “We live and breathe it.”

That’s an important distinguishing part for the future, admits Spellos.

“Eight or nine years ago, right before the recession hit, we were just about to really jump into sustainability as an industry but the economic turnback pretty much took it off the table and made people focus on bottom lines,” he says. “Now, with a younger generation coming in that is very focused on this and understands we have a lot of excess, we are having these conversations more and more and developing solutions. And in so doing we can really impact not only our world but the world in general.”

Get Connected

Allegheny College
Meadville, PA
(814) 332.3101

Banff Centre
Banff, AB
(877) 760.4595

Chicago Botanic Garden
Glencoe, IL
(847) 835.8370

University of California Berkeley
Berkeley, CA
(510) 990.5525