Mice can show the way to go green

Singapore can do more to encourage eco-friendly practices in the highly successful meetings, incentive travel, conferences and exhibitions sector

Recently, I was at a green, sustainability conference that made me see red.

As I was leaving for the day, I spotted a rubbish bin on the conference floor filled with tangled wires and cables, and other bins with stacks of papers and food remnants.

The recycling bins - located farther away, near the escalators - were not even full.

The situation was ironic considering the event - but it was far from the first time I had come across such wastage in four years of attending conferences.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) alluded to this issue last November when it launched guidelines for business events to encourage organisers to be more environmentally friendly.

The agency noted that large-scale events such as conferences and conventions can be major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and waste.

"Singapore is already making steady progress in some areas of sustainability" such as recycling and making buildings more earth-friendly, it said.

"However, more can be done in the Singapore Mice industry," it said, using the term for meetings, incentive travel, conferences and exhibitions.

Mighty industry

Last year, Singapore hosted more international meetings tracked by the non-governmental Union of International Associations than anywhere else in the world.

The Republic surpassed the whole of the United States and South Korea, at 994 meetings to their 799 and 635 tallies, respectively.

Almost one in 10 of the international meetings for the year was held here, according to the union.

Singapore has topped the list since 2011. Its count last year was also 37 per cent more than the 725 meetings held in 2010. Such Mice events and business travel have contributed mightily to Singapore's economy.

Last year, the events and business travel drew 3.5 million visitors to Singapore, making up about one in five of all visitors here.

These travellers spent a lot too: an estimated $5.5 billion in total, slightly less than one-quarter of all tourism receipts last year.

STB chief Lionel Yeo has said Singapore will work on bringing in more quality Mice events, given that the delegates and business travellers tend to spend more on average than leisure tourists.

Green practices

Reducing waste, recycling and other sustainable measures make business sense, and may even cut costs.

STB has also said the industry should beef up its green practices to attract environmentally minded customers.

Cutting back on waste is good for Singaporeans and visitors in practical terms too. There is no need to queue for electronic bad-ges. Downloaded documents are also much cheaper and lighter than printed ones.

The STB's voluntary guidelines span seven categories, from audio-visual equipment and transport to food and beverage.

It recommends using digital or reusable signage, having a formal programme to donate excess food to charities, and tracking delegates' origins and how they got to Singapore to calculate the carbon cost of their travels.

Events of all sizes could make smaller changes, such as replacing plastic lanyards with cotton or recycled material versions, providing notepads with fewer leaves and doing away with gifts and bags, where possible.

Even something as simple as e-mailing documents, videos and images, or using services such as Dropbox to share them - rather than giving out thumbdrives and CDs - can help cut back on waste.

Organisers of some events have adopted green measures.

The recent Singapore International Water Week and World Cities Summit adopted environmentally friendly measures which included using porcelain ware instead of disposable cutlery, and water jugs in lieu of plastic bottles.

More impressive was the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development last November, although it had the advantage of being a smaller affair.

The organisers recycled cooking oil used for meals, sourced 90 per cent of the entirely vegetarian food locally and bought carbon credits to offset its emissions from, say, delegates' travel and electricity use.

These and other efforts earned it the top Green Meeting Award at an annual international competition in Germany last month.

More data needed

But such efforts are few and far between. What's needed is more data about the sector's overall environmental performance.

The Building and Construction Authority's Green Mark programme for buildings has a specific goal: Green 80 per cent of all buildings in Singapore by 2030.

But sustainability reporting for events in Singapore does not appear to have caught on, even though international standards and checklists have been available for some time.

Few organisers have publicly shared comprehensive post-event reports spelling out, say, the event's recycling rate and energy consumption.

With data, the industry's sustainability can be tracked, and areas for improvement identified. Penalties and incentives can follow.

The way ahead

The STB has been educating stakeholders about its guidelines since they were launched late last year.

It plans to track the results of its efforts from next year. It may, for example, find out how many events have adopted the guidelines.

Meanwhile, Singapore government agencies should take the lead and plan marquee events according to the guidelines as much as possible, and publicise these efforts on their websites.

This would help to further improve the stature of, say, Water Week, the World Cities and CleanEnviro summits, and the Singapore International Energy Week in October.

Such efforts - by raising public awareness - could encourage or pressure other event organisers to ramp up their sustainability measures.

In the longer term, Singapore should look at instituting mandatory, minimum standards for the industry, perhaps based on the STB guidelines, and gradually raise the bar.

The National Environment Agency has taken a similar approach by removing the least energy-efficient air-conditioners and refrigerators from the market because they are household electricity guzzlers.

Three years ago, the Singapore Exchange introduced its sustainability reporting guide for listed companies, and hinted: "Conceivably, there will be progress towards mandatory reporting through regulations and rules in the future."

The next mega-event in Singapore will be the Singapore International Energy Week. That would be a good time to show the world how well Singapore can give its glitzy showcase events a touch of greenery too.