After four days manning an exhibition stand and entertaining clients in an often hot and sweaty venue, the last thing on an exhibitor’s mind is the amount of rubbish they leave behind.
Yet the exhibition industry is being urged to look carefully at the amount of waste it generates and the effect that the tonnes of paper, wood, metal and plastic dumped at the end of a major show or conference is having on the environment.
In Germany and many other European countries, exhibitors and show organisers are forced by law to use recyclable material. UK com-panies are under no such obligation so, instead, the main question revolves around who should pick up the bill for disposing of the industry’s rubbish.
Most venues pass the cost of refuse collection on to exhibition organisers through rental agreements but, they claim, this does not cover all their costs.
Ewan Russell, general manager at London’s Business Design Centre and vice-chairman of the Exhibition Venues Association (EVA), says: “The problem is the way the industry is structured. Show organisers are mainly interested in renting space and are not as concerned with the infrastructure surrounding a show.
“For example, they may print 100,000 show catalogues and distribute 80,000, which means the rest have to be disposed of, usually by the venue. We then discover they have used printers’ inks that are not easy to break down, or plastic sheets for the covers which cannot be mixed with paper for recycling. This means the catalogues end up at landfill sites, which is costly to the environment.”
One reason the EVA is so concerned is that from April the Landfill Tax will rise from 7 to 10 per tonne in a sponsored move by the Government to encourage more recycling. This extra cost will be passed on to exhibition organisers and, subsequently, to exhibitors when they book stand space.
It is surprising how much waste is produced by the exhibition industry. There is no definitive data for the sector as a whole, but Earls Court says it generated 2,680 tonnes of rubbish in 1998 and Olympia 618 tonnes, a ten per cent increase on the previous year.
Earls Court Olympia group (ECO) is addressing the problem by devising a system that notifies an exhibition organiser of exactly how many tonnes of waste its event has created, so that it can work towards reducing the level the following year.
“At present, organisers have no responsibility for waste unless a stand has been left with excess rubbish which we would bill them to collect,” says Robin Hope, hall director for Olympia and health and safety and environment director at ECO. “We must make them understand the cost to us and the environment of producing so much waste.
ECO pays to have 20 per cent of the waste from its exhibition halls delivered to South East London Combined Heat & Power Plant (SELCHPP) to be recycled to generate electricity for London. A further 40 per cent is also recycled: old show catalogues are sent to a newsprint company in Kent, wood to a timber company to be turned into chipboard, scrap metal to a local dealer, and cardboard and paper to another plant in the South-east. Other rubbish usually ends up in expensive landfill sites.
One area of exhibition waste often overlooked is food, and Olympia has found a way to recycle the meals left by its 3 million visitors a year. It is the first UK venue to install a composting machine which, over time, turns uneaten food into compost which is then sold to the local authority.
Exhibition organisers have reacted to criticism from venues by insisting that they are concerned about waste and the environment, although they admit they could do more. In response, the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) may host a conference for the exhibition industry next year to discuss the issue.
“We are in a difficult sector because shows are coming into venues week after week and this creates vast amounts of waste. We must look at what is being used and to what extent. It is a question of minimising the amount of rubbish,” says AEO chairman Stephen Brooks.
Brooks is also managing director of Mack Brooks Exhibitions, which organises 12 shows a year including recycling exhibition ExpoRec, which takes place in Brussels in May 2000. “We are trying to use recycled material for almost everything from stands to carpets, but it is not always easy to find suitable materials,” he says.
Frazer Chesterman, show director for the Training Solutions and IT Show held at the NEC from July 6 to 8, says he tries to limit the amount of rubbish his show produces. “We are as eco-friendly as it is within our power to be. Virtually all the fixtures and fittings such as the shell scheme and furniture are hired and we own and re-use the carpet. Any wood or card left over is offered to local schools and charities,” he says.
One way of reducing waste is to encourage more exhibitors to recycle the material they use to build their stands. This is happening, but not because companies are particularly concerned about the environment, rather because they have realised they can make considerable financial savings by re-using all or part of their stand for a number of shows.
Harry McDermott, managing director of Exhibition Surveys, which analyses how stand holders and visitors perceive specific shows, says companies that treat exhibiting as an ongoing marketing discipline, like advertising or direct mail, are the most likely to use recycled stands. “They know they can use the bones of a stand again. Smaller companies also tend to re-use stands to save money, which means it is the medium-sized companies which regard exhibitions as one-off events that tend to go for a new stand every time. This is not good for their budgets or the environment,” he says.
Consumer healthcare company SmithKline Beecham attends the pharmacy industry shows Chemex and Pharmacy Live, as well as regional events, to exhibit its over-the-counter brand medicines such as Hedex and Night Nurse. It uses a modular stand system so selected parts can be used for different sized stands at large and small venues. It also returns any unused samples and leaflets to its head office to minimise waste.
Another company that re-uses its exhibition stand is The Colt Car Company, the UK distributor for Mitsubishi. It saves 50 per cent of its stand costs by recycling components, such as wood and steelwork, and only replaces elements that wear out, such as carpets. Its stand at the Birmingham Motor Show last year was almost identical to the one constructed for the same event in 1997.
“It costs us about 750,000 to exhibit at the motor show, which includes the stand, accommodating staff and preparing the cars, so any money we can save is important,” says director of marketing Colin Peirce. “We have to pay to store the stand when it is not being used, but this is peanuts compared with the cost of building a completely new unit every time.”
Companies such as Colt plan their exhibition schedule years in advance and have a close working relationship with their stand design company, in this case Cockade International. Another brand to use a stand designed by Cockade is Rolls-Royce’s Allison Engine Company, which exhibits at about 20 shows in the US every year.
The stand, which is made from traditional renewable softwood and medium density fibreboard (MDF), has also been built to a modular design so it can be easily constructed, dismantled, stored and transported.
“The exhibition industry is aware of the temporary nature of its business. These are purpose-built stands with component materials and their overall life is about five years,” says Cockade’s managing director Jeremy Britton.
Despite the merits of recycling exhibition stands, some marketing teams still need convincing that they will not be sending out the wrong message to their customers if they have the same stand two years running. The key, say the exhibition companies, is to refresh the message and not the stand for different shows.
“Large companies are becoming happier to re-use stands because they want a global brand image and a more corporate look at exhibitions around the world. Yet modular stands are flexible and still allow for different designs to get a specific brand message across,” says Colin Hibbs, director at Protean Design, which has been producing modular stand systems made from plastic and aluminium since 1993.
One of the oldest recyclable stand companies is Octanorm, which has been producing re-usable aluminium stands for exhibition contractors for over 30 years. It has links in 76 countries, which means brands that exhibit around the world do not have to spend large sums transporting their Octanorm stands because their systems can be supplied locally.
It is likely that an opportunity to save money will drive the exhibition industry towards being more eco-friendly and, as exhibitors and show organisers are realising the financial benefits of turning green, so too are the venues.
Bournemouth International Centre (BIC), for example, was so concerned about the waste and energy inefficiencies of its exhibition halls that it carried out an environmental audit. It now uses energy-saving lightbulbs in all stand areas, and has a computerised heating control system controlled by room temperature that only heats the halls being used.
This has led to an eight per cent reduction in gas bills and a four per cent drop in electricity charges.
“We realised a long time ago that if we did something to help the environment we would also save money,” says BIC’s head of engineering and technical services Chris Warren. “We are now looking at charging exhibitors for the electricity they use rather than a one-off connection fee so that it is in their interest to save energy too.”
One could argue that exhibitions are eco-friendly because, by taking a stand, companies are reducing the amount of paper they might otherwise be using for advertising or direct mail campaigns. This does not cure the problem of excess waste, however, which can only be solved if all sectors of the industry – venues, organisers, stand designers and exhibitors – recognise the need for a significant reduction.