The Extension Natural Resources Team had an ambitious goal this year to offer a carbon-neutral and environmentally responsible Gathering Partners of Natural Resources conference for volunteers, May 20-22, 2022, at Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Red Wing, Minn.
After hearing participant feedback, our team wanted to figure out how we could use sustainable practices to reduce the carbon and climate change impacts of our conference. As stewards of natural resources, this seemed a logical step for us to take. And the effort included collecting data to determine the environmental impact of our event.
Volunteers helped us make climate-conscious meal choices, facilitated carpools, helped draft communication to encourage environmentally sustainable choices, explored waste reduction systems, and created a way to help offset carbon through conference-initiated tree planting.
Staff worked with the Prairie Island Indian Community (the owners and managers of Treasure Island) to understand and track conference utility usage, tribal nation commitments to environmental sustainability, and document activities.
How we got the message out
When we contacted our attendees, we included surveys to gauge audience intentions and asked for pledges to be more environmentally sustainable during the conference. We asked people to bring and use a reusable water bottle, bring their own toiletries, carpool, try vegan food and talk about our sustainability effort to encourage environmentally sustainable behavior and make it a goal to carry forward beyond the conference.
A Sustainability page was added to the Gathering Partners Conference website that included a sidebar with “How you can help” information. We also created digital materials to help participants understand the venue and answer questions about food, waste, recycling, composting, reusable containers, transportation, energy, and tribal initiatives.
Emails with conference information included both facts about climate as well as positive actions individuals or communities can take.
We were able to reduce the conference's food carbon footprint by at least 12%. Participants reduced their meat consumption for the weekend and we ordered 50% vegetarian meals for all conference breakfasts and lunches and 40% vegetarian meals for dinners.
While there was significant effort to reduce the carbon footprint through food selection (including efforts to order locally sourced foods), a quick comparison of ordering that volume of vegetarian food resulted in 322.43 fewer pounds (0.16 tons) CO2E (carbon dioxide equivalent, which is a unit used to measure carbon footprints).
As with any conference, some people requested special meals including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. Because so much of the food was vegetarian and most meals were provided in a well-signed buffet style, most dietary needs were met without making special meals.
Transportation to and from the conference was the most significant carbon cost of the conference, representing about 85% of the total conference carbon footprint.
We encouraged carpooling but, although some people carpooled with friends, others were uncomfortable carpooling generally or because of COVID-19 concerns. Some drove electric vehicles which have a much lower carbon footprint. In the conference evaluation, 42 participants reported their miles driven. We used that to estimate the transportation footprint was 6.65 tons of CO2E.
Utilities and waste
Treasure Island Resort & Casino is a large location. We weren't able to separate the event center from overall utility usage calculations so utilities are not included in the calculable carbon footprint.
Treasure Island does not compost and all the waste is commingled with recycling and then sorted at a Red Wing municipal site. Upon our request, Treasure Island did work to limit the amount of single-use utensils, dishware, and packaging. Event organizers were grateful for how seriously the venue staff responded to our many “odd-ball” requests and the effort they made to accommodate them.
Carbon sequestration: Planting bitternut hickory trees
Conference organizers worked with a UMN Extension horticulture specialist and selected trees to help offset the conference's carbon footprint. Volunteers agreed to plant and steward 25 recently-potted bitternut hickory whips. Conference organizers and volunteers are committed to checking back annually to calculate tree survival and growth and calculate the carbon offset.
We also had a carbon offset silent auction item where folks could contribute financially to the purchase of these trees. That effort offset about 25% of the total costs incurred by the Extension forestry team to purchase bitternut hickory trees.
Conference organizers concluded that it is possible to push meaningful change by being conscious consumers of event planning resources.
With the high carbon cost of transportation, we are considering a fully remote (Zoom) conference to further sustainability efforts in the future. One audience survey indicated that one-third of potential participants preferred an online event and conference organizers are considering doing virtual conferences every 3 years. This also would help accommodate those with special needs who are less able to participate in person.
Not surprisingly, using trees to offset carbon is a very long-term endeavor. We were able to give away only 25 trees, though we had about 100 conference participants. But we think that everyone that wanted and could care for a tree was able to take one. In the future, we will focus on reducing the conference’s carbon emissions so that planting trees will have a greater impact.
Almost all who responded to our evaluation survey were satisfied with the sustainable food choices.
Despite some limitations, we've taken a huge step by making intentional choices to improve environmental sustainability and by determining carbon calculation methods. We hope our efforts will help inform future Extension conferences.
Check out our Project Plan, which outlines our approach. It includes a list of resources that others may find helpful if they’re considering something similar.