General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), is where Unitarian Universalists gather to worship, participate in public witness, share leadership strategies, and vote on UUA business. It’s also an opportunity for the UUA and for GA participants to practice sustainability. Guided by the triple bottom line of “people, planet, and profit,” the UUA is recognized in the meetings industry as a leader in sustainability for its implementation of best practices at GA.
“The primary goal of our GA sustainability initiatives has been to reduce our footprint through waste reduction, and energy and water conservation,” explained Janiece Sneegas, UUA director of GA and conference services. “We engage our hotels and our convention center in this effort. Reducing our footprint benefits our planet and saves us money.”
One of the ways that the UUA reduces the footprint of GA is by setting and achieving goals for waste diversion from landfills. The goal for the 2010 GA, to be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 23-27, 2010, is 60 percent waste diversion. Front-of-house composting will be available in addition to recycling. All conference attendees are strongly encouraged to contribute to the composting and recycling of waste.
The Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC), where the 2010 GA will be held, sorts waste into four streams: paper, containers, compost, and trash. All dry paper is accepted in the paper stream. Drink bottles, soda cans, and glass bottles can be put in the container bin. Volunteers at sustainability stations will be available to help GA attendees to compost food and the compostable serviceware provided by MCC. Coffee cups can be disposed of by throwing the lid away, recycling the sleeve in paper recycling, and composting the paper cups. More information about how to properly sort items is available
Other significant sustainability initiatives at the 2010 GA include support for locally grown food and renewable energy. Twenty percent of the food at this year’s GA will come from within one hundred miles; 35 percent will come from within 300 miles. MCC has committed to purchasing fifteen percent of venue energy as wind energy.
A substantial portion of the sustainability planning for GA takes place well before the conference begins. Shawna McKinley, project manager for MeetGreen, consults with the UUA on sustainability and has helped monitor the implementation of sustainability measures by GA vendors. McKinley notes that the UUA is exceptional for its integration of sustainability into purchasing and contracting, an approach that she describes as “transformational for how the meetings industry is run.”
The UUA often begins conversations about sustainability with conference centers, hotels, and caterers a year or more before GA. In the months leading up to GA, there are regular check-ins with vendors to monitor progress towards sustainability goals and a site inspection is conducted. The week of GA, there are additional meetings with vendors, random check-ins at hotels, and a consistent presence at the convention center. GA attendees also play an important role in monitoring the implementation of sustainability measures and reporting their observations. There is a documentation period following GA in which measurements on energy, food purchasing, and waste diversion are provided.
In setting goals for sustainability, the UUA looks not only at environmental impact, but also at opportunities to promote justice. “The UUA is unique in its commitment to social responsibility [in addition to environmental sustainability],” says McKinley. “It’s not just about protecting the planet, but about what creates equity among people, what is fair.” One example of how the UUA combines environmental protection and social responsibility is in its support for GA hotels and convention centers using environmentally-certified cleaners. There has been 100 percent adoption of environmentally-certified cleaners at this year’s pre-overflow GA properties, and McKinley is hopeful that there will be full adoption at newly-added hotels as well.
The UUA’s advocacy for sustainability measures can continue to make a difference even after a GA has ended. At last year’s GA in Salt Lake City, recycling at the convention center was increased by 46 percent, reaching the goal of 50 percent diversion from landfill. The Unitarian Universalist Association formally advocated for commercial composting options in Salt Lake and the Mayor responding by forming a task force to implement commercial composting options for local businesses by 2011.
“MeetGreen has documented our efforts since 2005, allowing us to compare one year with another,” said Sneegas. “We are excited about our plans for Minneapolis and are hopeful that the results will demonstrate significant progress.”