Updated: Mar 5, 2020
I liked April from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), - the 1987-1996 version - but I never really gave much thought to wanting to be like April when I was a kid. I picked Raphael as my favorite (red was my favorite color) when I role-played with my little brother, and he picked Michelangelo. I now apparently dress like April, but instead of the portable video camera, I am armed with a cell phone. I bought the yellow coverall while I was online shopping in the US; it was on sale. It is definitely not a wardrobe staple and I do not think there was any reason for me to buy it beyond the "I'll take it" factor. Like many people I find myself guilty of buying things I happen to like rather than need. And there it was in my closet waiting to be worn when one day as I was getting ready to go on a beach cleanup, I decided to wear it. I've been wearing it to most of our beach cleanups since then, and now, to a number of events, including lately the Step conference, where I was asked to pose for the picture above.
We approached Step Group last year about wanting to do something about the waste generated by the annual event, and they were cool enough to take us up on our offer. We had an initial meeting to look at what was practical to do at the moment and what can be done later. Having a little bit of an event production background myself, I understood how it was very difficult for any event organizer to do things very differently from the way they have 'always' been done. For one thing, it is less costly and more predictable to go for what is conventional. Nonetheless, we were invited on board, and on a month's notice, we trialed an activation with them at their newly launched Step Next.
Our activation at Step Next.
At the conclusion of Step Next we also got to meet one of their contractors for the setup, a very nice man, who sympathized with our interest in diverting event waste from landfill and even shared with us how at his workshop he had made upcycled keepsakes from waste material but that customers expressed little interest in buying them and would always prefer the look and feel of brand new items. Our own "keepsakes" from Step Next were printed styrofoam boards which we knew would end up in landfill, used lanyards and badges and a battered old printer they had made available for destruction, in addition to the sorted items that made it into our improvised and repurposed bins.
Diversion from landfill is no piece of cake. There is simply too much trash being generated on a daily basis for any of the existing systems to be able to handle efficiently, and there is simply too much trash that no one wants to, or can conveniently, handle, store or sell. If landfills didn't exist we would be forced to reconcile with this reality, but landfills and poorer countries willing to take our trash for money do exist.
So has our presence at the Step events made a difference and how could we have contributed more to managing waste at the event?
Before we get to that, we need to make sure we are on the same page: 1. There is a global waste management problem. 2. Artificial intelligence and biological solutions are being developed but we are running out of time and we need to be mining human intelligence. Taking this into account, you have to understand that we find it very difficult to go about our daily lives, pretending everything is alright. And yet, it may be that we are able to think about this problem only because we are blessed to be sheltered from the direct ramifications of any of the existing world problems (except maybe the economic), including wars, and because we have learnt as contemporaries of this world to live our lives without thinking much about the death and destruction that is taking place contemporaneously.
The short answer to the first part of the question is: if you were there, we made you look.
If you have been attending Step you might have noticed that, compared to last year there was no free bottled water on offer this year, except for the water available to the event speakers and staff, and that provided at the Floating Pitch Boat activation by In5.
Free water on offer during Step 2019.
There was also no where to refill a reusable water bottle at Step 2019, unless you were OK with refilling from the bathrooms. This year, we provided filtered water to those who brought their own reusable water bottles or cups. We also almost got around to providing the same for the staff and speakers, but the plan could only materialize 2 days before the event, the organizers had already bought the single use plastic bottles and this was not something they were able to take on by then.
The original plan for Step 2020 was, in addition to providing reusable food containers if needed, signing up participants to our community engagement activities and to our eco points program, was to engage the participants in understanding what is recyclable and what is not, like we did at Step Next. Our team worked on upcycled, repurposed collection bags made from discarded shipping bags, old outdoor tent material, biodegradable string and Step Next lanyards.
We were going to be collecting recyclables and depositing them at the existing Dubai Internet City recyclables collection bins on either end of the event venue. We decided against doing the same though on the day of the event because a different company from the one that manages the venue collection bins, was contracted to handle waste management at the event, and for us it was not ethical to be taking away recyclables from one company and giving them to another. It's not common knowledge but common recyclables like PET bottles and aluminum cans are usually picked out by the waste management companies that collect the trash if the trash arrives unsorted.
At the event, we also faced waste management competition from an exhibiting company which provides home cleaning services. Like last year, their hired staff, wearing new printed t-shirts and caps, and equipped with brooms, dust pans and disposable black trash bags, were all over the event grounds advertising the company and leaving little room for thinking about taking care of one's own trash, unfortunately. The company was also offering free water from a dispenser and new convenient branded reusable bottles.
Unlike the competition, our team was not paid, was free to wear any yellow top they already had for the sake of standing out among the crowd, and every one of our team members brought along their reusable water bottles or a cup. We also did not bring along any disposable napkins or bags and chose not to take the lanyards provided with the badges (yes, branded lanyards are a form of disposable plastic). We also made a conscious decision not to have any printed marketing material (most printed handouts and posters are disposable and laminated in plastic to make the oil-based ink stick and many event-specific and therefore not reusable banners and signs are also plastic - vinyl mostly). We instead opted for upcycled cardboards hand-marked with our website address.
Our setup at Step was not very complicated. We were out for a day in the park. On the second day we had to take down our reusable dry erase boards from their stands and place them on the grass because the wind gusts kept knocking them over. We brought our own reusable table, seats that came with integrated storage, a water cooler, water pitchers, a compost bin, and our own umbrella (had it for at least 10 years). The table itself was waterproof and we used it to hide everything under when it rained. For the event, we partnered with Just Salad to provide the participants with a reusable option for their food purchases on site. They could then keep the bowl if they chose to, and use it for perks with their purchase at the chain's outlets. Even though the bowls were provided for free, we were very adamant about making sure that whoever took them really wanted to keep them, and asked them to let us know if they ever wanted to throw the bowls out so that we can take care of repurposing or recycling them.
So as you can probably tell, set up and take down for us at the event was very easy and took very little time. Our table did come from the manufacturer in a clear plastic bag (I am assuming to prevent scratches) and was, like everything else, shipped into the country from somewhere else, but now you know what our basic set up for events looks like and you can hold us accountable for reusing what we have in order to account for its carbon footprint. To mitigate our carbon footprint, except for the one car we used to transport the setup, the metro was used by all of my team members (except for one person on the second day who had an excuse). Also, we did not need to discard anything on site, so even the plastic bag that came with the table (which is not oxo-biodegradable) was saved for repurposing.
Compare our setup to everyone else's and how long it took everyone else to built, transport, set up and dismantle and the difference is clear.
But is everyone else ready to take it easy? And are the event contractors along with the manpower they employ ready for change?
So much work and money goes into branding and making stands look a certain way. And if, as a setup designer, you want to embellish things to stand out, you will probably be using a lot of disposables, or items that come wrapped in disposables. Because waste is always on my mind, I am no longer able to be wowed by set design: if it's expensive to store and/or can't be reused, I'm not impressed.
If only those were old CDs! Glued to perfection and cheap to discard. Plastic.
From speaking to a number of contractors for different events I also learnt that a lot of sets are made to look upcycled, to keep up with the trend, when in fact they are made from scratch. Most of them also arrive to the location wrapped in bubble and cling wrap (not recycled) to prevent scratching. We, of course, only get to experience the glitz and glam, and who cares if a couple of inexpensive water bottles filled with expensive desalinated water are wasted here and there?
So, while we were out of the tents, getting participants signed up to our activities and eco points program, did we miss much? I have become very weary of staged discussions lately but I ventured into the tents a couple of times to check what was happening; the experience made me restless. In an era where we can access videos 24/7 at our own convenience, having to sit in a room to watch somebody talk felt antiquated and outright annoying. "If I wanted to watch you talk I could do it from the comfort of my cell phone," I thought. I made it out of the tents in no time gasping for a breath of fresh air.
The real value from being at the event came from the people I met. No matter how accessible our lives have become via all the technology at our disposal, real human interaction is priceless. It is easy for that human interaction to get lost in the middle of all the pitching and tech "solutions" on offer but if you are out there looking for it, you will find it, and I found it. The interactions I had with a number of people at the event made my time, and it could be argued, even the carbon footprint associated with us being there, worthwhile.
I leave you now with pictures of our team and some of the lovely people we met at Step 2020.