University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Conference organizers spare the environment 2,700 disposable cups and 2,000 plastic bottles

Green transition — Researchers organizing a conference on stress have foregone print programmes, participant lists, and meat on the menu. They have also washed 1,000 mugs by hand.

Hosting a conference on a limited budget at the University of Copenhagen with zero waste is a daunting task.

In several of the food halls, choosing the porcelain ware over the disposable cups and plates for a larger event will set you back thousands of kroner. At many places, it is simply not an option.

stress Conference

The stress conference gathers professionals in the field of prevention and treatment of stress in Denmark. According to the website, the goal of the conference is to enable the sharing of knowledge and development of treatment methods.

Price: 1,625 kroner per day (450 kroner for unemployed and retired attendees as well as full-time students).

The conference has been an annual event for the past five years. This year it took place on January 23 and 24.

The conference’s green transition was instigated by coordinator Se Eun Lee.

What can you do then, if you want a sustainable solution? For a start, you can do it yourself.

That is exactly what a group of young researchers with the Faculty of Social Sciences have done. On January 23 and 24, they hosted a conference on stress at the faculty opting out of a meat-based menu, printed programmes and participant lists. Similarly, they primarily served organic food, tea, and coffee, and they managed to reduce the use of disposable cups significantly.

The latter was achieved by having all 500 conference-goers bring their own water bottles which they could fill with tap water on-site.

The coffee was not served in disposable cups either. Last year, the organizers asked participants to bring their own cups, and this year they invested in 1,000 thermos mugs which were handed out at the conference.

We hope we can inspire others.

Postdoc Yun Ladegaard, conference organizer

The researchers have been crunching the numbers on their initiatives from 2019 and have concluded – compared to past conferences – they have spared the environment 2,700 disposable cups, 2,000 plastic bottles, 7,000 sheets of paper, and more than 80 lbs of meat. They expect the result will be just as positive this year.

»We’re not climate crusaders, and we’ve also had bad experiences, but we hope we can inspire others to do the same,« says co-organizer Yun Ladegaard who is a posdoc at the Department of Psychology.

Not ready for radical measures

She is convinced that the conference has not been more costly than it would have been if they had not gone green. For one thing, they expect the participants to return next year with their water bottles and the mugs they were issued this year.

It has, however, cost them a great deal of time and effort. Among other things, the organizers had to wash 1,000 mugs by hand, so the conference-goers could reuse them straight away.

»We didn’t have access to an industrial kitchen, so we’ve had to come up with different solutions when working in a smaller kitchen,« says Yun Ladegaard.

So, was it ultimately worth the effort?

»It’s a choice we made, and there are things that could have been done more easily and things that could have been organized better. We’ve taken a do-it-yourself approach to the whole thing, so now we’ll have to wait and see if it has an effect. Maybe we can help change people’s mindset.«

According to Yun Ladegaard there are limits to the drastic measures.

For instance, the organizers were prepared for the fact that not all conference-goers would be willing to bring their own cups and water glasses, especially considering that they are paying more than 1,000 kroner in conference fees per day. Last year’s all vegetarian and vegan menu was also the subject of some criticism.

»If the price was lower, you could ask people to bring more things, because they also have to come away feeling like they’re getting something out of the stay, and I don’t think people are ready to sacrifice that demand for the good of the climate,« says Yun Ladegaard.

And the conference is not completely green, either. This year’s menu was primarily organic and vegetarian, but it was still served on disposable plates. Similarly, the organizers had secured a hundred biodegradable disposable cups for conference-goers who had forgot to bring bottles.

Ordering a 1,000 thermos mugs was a gamble. On the carbon emissions ledger, producing the mugs is expensive, so it is only an investment that pays off, if conference-goers continue to use the mugs instead of for instance disposable cups which are ubiquitous on the University of Copenhagen campuses.

»We can’t claim that it’s a sustainable conference yet, but we’ve experimented with the format, and now we just have to see if people are willing to go along with it,« Yun Ladegaard said just before the conference.

Sending a strong signal

The organizers have not sought out aid from the administration at the University of Copenhagen, but that does not mean the university does not have a responsibility, according to Yun Ladegaard.

She would like to see the university compile a kind of catalog of suggestions in which savings on carbon neutral solutions and initiatives is presented.

»The individual organizers can then decide how they want to prioritize their resources. One or two green options is better than none. Maybe we don’t need to print everything out? Maybe we can do a vegetarian menu?« says Yun Ladegaard.

»Maybe next year, a all vegetarian menus and bring-your-own mugs conference won’t seem outlandish. It would send a strong signal if the University of Copenhagen recommended the practice.«

Tomas Refslund Poulsen, head of Green Campus, says that calculating the carbon benefits to for instance vegetarian menus at conferences is possible. It is, however, much more complicated calculating the benefit from switching to porcelain ware or to issuing conference-goers a thermos mug as the latter would have to be reused many times.

He does, however, explain that the University of Copenhagen already has a list of sustainable solutions which employees can access when organizing conferences and ordering catering. It is available here and here.

Translation: Theis Duelund