Sustainable events: beyond reusable cups

Summer: the time of long, sultry evenings on colorful festival grounds. Music, friends and a great atmosphere! Even more than before the corona crisis, we realise what such a feast is worth to us.

With this ‘worth’, Gunilla de Graef, researcher at the centre of expertise Public Impact, not only refers to the cost of a ticket, but particularly to its impact on the environment. After all, a year without events made us aware about its environmental impact more than ever before. Can we just go back to how things were before?


When you look at the numbers, it is striking: a festival visitor produces on average two kilos of waste per festival day. One hamburger uses 1500 liters of water. And an average festival tent for 3000 visitors consumes as much electricity per day as three households in an entire year (Terstappen, 2000). We saved a lot, in 2020.


Future-proof event professionals have known this for a long time. They see this as the ideal moment to make the switch to a more sustainable event approach. But how do you organise truly sustainable events?


As the centre of expertise for the event sector, we want to support all event professionals in making this switch. That is why we are starting a new research project in September 2021. Together with our project partners OVAM, FIDO and Event Confederation, we want to provide tools, tips, checklists and best practices, and develop an online platform.


Why should you, as an event professional, invest in sustainability?

We list three reasons:


Reason 1: event visitors want more sustainable events


Event visitors are pro a sustainable approach. A survey by our centre of expertise (2019) shows that even before the corona crisis, 75 percent of visitors think it is important for events to be organised sustainably. This is good news, as strong support from visitors is needed.


Support is important as visitors may feel the additional cost of investing in sustainability in the entrance price, like possible investments in furniture that lasts longer than a summer, more organic catering, more reusable dishes and a more careful waste management. However, these investments can recuperate themselves. After all, visitors are looking for a unique experience that is completely in line with their values. A match in terms of 'people' and 'planet' turns visitors into spontaneous ambassadors for the event.


Reason 2: the government wants more sustainable events


An increasingly stringent legislative framework obliges organisers to make more sustainable choices. For example, since January 2020, serving beverages in single-use cups has been prohibited at events, unless the organiser provides a system that guarantees that at least 90% (95% from 2022) can be recycled.


'Reduce', 'reuse' and 'recycle' are the key words. In that order. For cities and municipalities, the use of reusable cups is even mandatory for events they organise themselves (VLAREMA, 2012; OVAM, 2020). We expect that regulations will also become stricter in other areas of sustainability, such as waste management and energy consumption.


Reason 3: your future company wants more sustainable events


Doing business today must be done with an eye on today and tomorrow. Also in the event sector, foresight is a sign of thoughtful entrepreneurship. No more than eight years remain until the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be achieved in 2030 in order to get the planet back on track toward sustainability.


Of the 17 SDGs, two apply strongly to the event sector:

- make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG 11);

- ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12).


To both goals 15 concrete targets are attached that event professionals can use in their business plans and event roadmaps. Those organisations that will adapt best will be the example for all others.


Beyond reusable cups


In our research, we aim to go beyond the well-known solutions such as reusable cups and biodegradable straws. To really make a difference, more is needed. We want to approach ecological sustainability in a broad way and inspire, advise and inform event professionals to work in a more ecological sustainable way.


Together with relevant stakeholders (sustainability experts, knowledge institutions, policy makers and the event sector), we want to break down the complex and multidimensional sustainability concept into measurable parameters. We want to build onto existing knowledge and tools (Green track, Ecofest, the groeneVentscan of OVAM). We also want to learn from events where sustainability is part of their DNA: such as Summer of Antwerp, Sfinks and Crammerock.


Would it not be wonderful if in the future we could also visit festivals and other events in our own country, which would be just as good examples as some other international events, such as Glastonbury, DGTL and Primavera Sound?


Read more about the research