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Government & Politics

Democrats Put Their Environmental Platform to the Test By Pursuing Waste-Free Convention

photo of DNC trashcans

The Democratic party's platform on the environment, has lofty goals. The Democratic National Convention itself in Philadelphia is trying to live up to them while hosting 50-thousand people.

Can all those people travel, eat and party without taking a toll on the environment? 

If you're looking for a trash can at the Pennsylvania Convention Center or the Wells Fargo Center, where the DNC events are taking place, you'll likely come across a set of three bins: one for recycling, one for compost, and one for the landfill.

Say, you have a cup of water to throw away… Green Team volunteer Lindsey Conlan has the lowdown.

“You're first going to dump the water out into the landfill bin, because the bags we're using here are biodegradable and we don't really want to put liquids into our compost area. But then if you have a paper cup…that can get composted...” 

The Green Team volunteers are supposed to stand by these bins helping people figure out where their trash should go. 

Conlan continues, “And then if you have a plastic bottle that can go into our recycling bin. We're using single stream recycling so we're taking all sort of plastics, papers, cardboards, and aluminums.” 

She says the goal is to divert 85 percent of the convention's waste from the landfill. 

Part of a larger plan
The bins are the most visible piece of a larger sustainability plan, which includes promoting mass transit and bike share availability, encouraging the use of locally produced food, and donating uneaten food to pantries and emergency meal providers. 

Officials will also track how much energy the venues consume during the convention. Local utility PECO and its parent company Exelon, will use that data to buy carbon credits.

Exelon's Bill VonHoene says the goal is to make the DNC carbon-neutral. 

“What we will do is this: Exelon will purchase carbon free offsets representing a combination of nuclear, hydro, wind and solar energy to effectively eliminate the carbon footprint of the Democratic National Convention,” says VonHoene.  

A blueprint for a city-wide effort
Three Squares, a sustainability consulting company, has been organizing the convention's greening. Founder Jaime Nack says the efforts are a chance to help Philadelphia on its own sustainability goals, in addition to the event's.

Let's go back to the trash collection - while the venues have composted in the past, the closing of a major composting facility has slowed those efforts, says Nack.

“So one of our key goals in the convention is to really attach them to newer compost facilities, implement the system again, breathe new life into the system, so that system can stay in place from convention and beyond.” 

But she would NOT say where this composting material is being sent, so we couldn't confirm whether this really will build capacity for Philadelphia in the long run.  

Nack says an even more important goal of these efforts is education. 

“When you have such a diverse audience, coming from different regions," says Nack, "different cities that may or may not have recycling and infrastructure in place; a lot of this is educating them about what happens in other cities and potentially, they could bring some of these lessons learned back to their cities and then implement changes at home.” 

A teaching moment
In this way, the convention may also have some lessons to teach to the event planning industry at large. After all, sustainability is a relatively new concern for the DNC.

In 2004, in Boston, greening efforts were led by an outside environmental group whose head had to raise money for his own salary. By 2008, in Denver, the DNC was a case study for events and sustainability.

Seventy-two percent of waste was diverted from landfills that year, with some venues exceeding the 85 percent goal.

“It really helped trigger that there was a demand for moving in this direction for the events industry as a whole. And since then international events standards developed for sustainability.” 

We won't know how successful this year's sustainability initiatives are until the convention is over, the tons of garbage, compost and recycling are added up....and we know how many carbon credits will be bought to offset electricity use. 

At the start of the event, some of the composting bins were closed and Green Team volunteers were not staffing each one, but that seems to be improving.