Are Trade Shows Worth the Waste? Maybe, if They Can Cut Down on It


Image courtesy Eco Gift Festival

Did you know the tradeshow industry is second only to the construction industry in the amount of waste it generates? Garbage from discarded packaging, samples, handouts and more piles up for days creating countless tons of unused of garbage! So, as someone deeply into reducing waste, I’ve been drawn away from participating. A few weekends ago, though, I actually had a great trade show experience, and my views have shifted.

Over the years, I’ve done my share of trade shows, and I’ve never liked them. When I added up the time and energy, not to mention costs of the booth, travel, hotel and all of the freebies we’d end up giving away, it rarely seemed to make sense. Sure, consumer and trade shows are a great way to speak with thousands of potential customers directly, and it’s got to work (for more than the organizers) as companies keep returning to their annual shows (and it can’t just be for the parties). Having found other ways to more effectively reach TerraCycle’s customers and communicate our message, and given that traditionally trade shows have been an environmental disaster, I’ve mostly given up on the medium.

Earlier this month, I spoke at a unique event called Eco Gift in Santa Monica, CA. Unlike most shows, Eco Gift set the lofty goal of being Zero Waste! The event featured 100’s of environmentally responsible companies showing off their products and services. Once I agreed to speak, and given the trade show’s environmental commitments, I decided to have TerraCycle participate as well. Zero Waste at a trade show is nearly impossible without putting serious restrictions on what vendors can bring. Despite all the challenges, Eco Gift was able to get to nearly 90 percent waste-free!

Eco Gift sets up some very cool Resource Recovery Stations to help divert every piece of material that could be reused or recycled. The stations included a bin for traditional recycling, a bin for composting and a bin for non-recyclable materials. Because many vendors and consumers might not know the difference between recyclable and compostable, they actually trained volunteers to stand by the Resource Recovery Stations to help people get their material to the right bin. I loved Eco Gift’s efforts and organization in trying to tackle an issue with many moving parts.

As both an environmentalist and an entrepreneur, trade shows represent an interesting dilemma that I want to raise with the TreeHugger community. Is it environmentally irresponsible to participate in consumer and trade shows unless they make a zero-waste commitment like that of Eco Gift? If so, if you participate in trade shows, even as a day visitor, will you take steps to require higher standards of the shows you attend? Or does a company’s well-intended end justify environmentally questionable means? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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