The World Conservation Congress in Honolulu is making a concerted effort at being green and could set a new standard for the tourism industry here.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature event underway now through Saturday is taking ambitious measures to reduce paper, eliminate plastic, avoid food waste, decrease energy use, ramp up recycling and take other sustainability measures that are likely to set a new standard for Hawaii.
What’s more, the convention aims to offset its entire carbon output — flights to Hawaii and related ground transport here — by contributing a cash amount to a carbon sink, a heavily forested national park in South America that can absorb a compensating amount of carbon dioxide.
The National Host Committee has been working on the green effort for many months after coming to an agreement with the Swiss-based IUCN, the world’s largest environmental network.
Along the way, nearly two dozen Oahu hotels worked to implement green measures in their operations, in conjunction with the IUCN, to help draw the thousands of environmentally conscious visitors attending the convention.
Held every four years, the World Conservation Congress draws leaders and decision-makers from government, nonprofits, indigenous peoples, business and academia from all over the globe with the goal of working toward solutions to environmental challenges.
Alexandra Petersen, the IUCN’s logistics manager in Honolulu, contends this year’s event will leave a lasting legacy for the tourism industry, including guidelines for future sustainable events in Honolulu.
“This green policy is demonstrating that it is possible to sustainably run a large event in Honolulu,” Petersen said.
What does the policy mean for the 9,000 people attending the event at the Hawai‘i Convention Center?
There are no plastic soda bottles, plastic bags, plastic cups, straws or plastic packaging to be found. Many delegates are carrying their own refillable bottle.
Paper is a rare sight. There is no official event program, except for the one found on the World Conservation Congress app and website. Delegates were asked to pack lightly, fly economy and leave printed material at home.
There are composting bins where food patrons are expected to deposit their dining scraps, along with their tableware and utensils, which are certifiably compostable and definitely not plastic. All of it is being turned into compost for use on Oahu farms.
There is no dedicated event transportation service. Attendees are being encouraged to walk, rent bicycles or use public transportation.
Here are a few other event guidelines found in IUCN’s “My Green Congress” handbook:
>> There will be no threatened species on menus.
>> Only locally sourced and sustainable food is provided.
>> Only endemic, nonendangered potted plants are allowed for decoration.
>> Only environment-friendly products are used for cleaning.
“We’re recycling the water that we are using in the 55-gallon weighted drums for the tents. We reuse it in the facility for cleaning,” said Mari Tait, the convention center’s operations manager.
Petersen said the event’s green policy guidelines are based both on the IUCN “My Green Congress” handbook and the state’s Hawaii Green Business Program. But that’s not all, she said: The goal is for an even higher level of event certification called ISO 20121.
“This means addressing all key financial, economic, social and environmental issues relevant to congress operations,” she said. “It’s not enough to focus solely on environmental aspects.”
Earning the International Organization for Standardization designation would be “a huge feather in Hawaii’s cap,” said Teri Orton, Hawai‘i Convention Center general manager.
“To be the first location that got that designation for (the IUCN conference) would be significant. It’s taken us months of planning to make that a possibility,” she said.
Orton said her staff was directed to provide only locally grown produce and even meats from local farms.
“It took months and months of preplanning to ensure we could meet all of the IUCN requirements, which were more stringent than any past conference that we’ve had,” she said.
Orton added, “This event is a learning experience that will allow us to take the best practices. In the future we’ll be more green and leave even less of a footprint.”
To help attract business from the massive convention, 22 hotels sought and obtained certification through the Green Hotels Initiative, a partnership among the IUCN, the Hawaii Green Business Program, Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, the Hawaii State Energy Office, Hawaii Tourism Authority and Kupu, the nonprofit that trains young conservationists.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the IUCN conference resulted in the biggest push yet to turn Waikiki’s hotels green.
“We did it for IUCN, but we also want this to be a permanent part of how we do business,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to hang on their shingle that this is a green hotel. Those that were green before have become even greener.”
IUCN attendees are occupying 20 percent of the rooms at the Equus Hotel and Marina Towers, said Mariah Dailey of the Equus Hotel, which was already recognized by the Trip Advisor Green Leaders program for its robust energy-saving programs.
“(The IUCN gathering) is a good start but not the end of the conversation on green tourism,” Dailey said. “We sell a destination with beaches and waterfalls, but if you don’t give anything back, how can we take money for that?
“Hotels and food and beverage are the No. 1 businesses that need to start talking about how to be green because we are the biggest wasters,” she said.
Monica Salter, vice president of corporate communications with Outrigger Enterprises Group, said Outrigger’s Waikiki properties were ready for the IUCN crowd.
For example, water stations were placed in some lobbies to allow guests to fill up their water bottles. Paper notices were replaced with signs on electronic monitors.
“No large plastic banners were made welcoming the IUCN members, either, as it contradicts the green direction,” Salter said.
Eric Au, area director of engineering at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, said the company’s Waikiki properties have been working steadily to improve their recycling.
“Green initiatives will carry on long past the conference,” Au said. “Our corporate goal is to reduce energy by 30 percent, water by 20 percent by 2020. As a complex, we are doing better than average to reach that goal.”
As for IUCN’s mission to make the Honolulu gathering carbon neutral, event officials say every delegate was asked to contribute to a fund that will help preserve and protect the forest of Cordillera Azul National Park Project in Peru.
The park’s bio-diverse forest is threatened by logging, land trafficking and palm oil and illegal coca harvesting, according to the IUCN.