How COP23 organisers are tackling waste

BIG international meetings like COP23 in Bonn attract a lot of people and they generate a certain amount of waste.

The organisers of the meeting are therefore paying a lot of attention to waste management and recycling from food wrappers to material needed to construct entire temporary buildings.

On a global scale, the prevention and recovery of waste helps avoid greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy.

Reducing waste is therefore essential to achieving the objectives set out both in the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“The basic idea is to avoid creating waste in the first place,” says Stefanie Degreif, who works for the Oeko Institute and contributed to a COP23 sustainability concept commissioned by Germany’s Environment Ministry.

“Where you can’t avoid creating waste, try to re-use it. That means properly collecting and separating the waste, and then recycling it. Only at the very end of the process do you dispose of what could neither be avoided nor re-used,” she added.

Taking things step by step

The way in which sustainability researchers such as Ms Degreif tackle the topic of waste management at a conference is to take things step by step.

“We start by asking ourselves what participants actually do and experience at the meeting. That way, we identify for instance, questions such as what material is the cup made out of from which I drink my coffee and so on. And then we make changes.”

At COP23, the majority of coffee cups handed out will indeed be “multi-use”, as will other crockery and cutlery used at the catering stations. To reduce the amount of single-use water bottles and cups, all participants will receive a free multi-use bottle for use with water fountains available throughout the conference venue.

In addition, participants will be encouraged to donate the deposit of any bottles purchased at the Bonn Zone by leaving empty bottles in designated containers.

The proceeds from this action will be donated to the New World Program, a partnership between the Coca Cola Foundation and the Global Water Challenge.

But it’s not just the use of plastic organisers would like to avoid, it’s paper, too. In sharp contrast to earlier major UN climate change conferences, over the past few years COPs have for the most part become “paper light” events.

COP21 Paris

It has become relatively rare for delegates and officials to pore over hard copies of documents.

While hard copies of newsletters, event summaries and the daily program used to be readily available at UN climate meetings — and flood the halls — key information these days is always available electronically. On request, conference delegates can still obtain print-outs , but then they are then double-sided and on recycled paper.

Making waste separation and collection as simple as possible

While the use of paper, throw-away plastic bottles and cups can and should be reduced, participants will at some point throw away paper, plastic wrappers, and rests of food such as banana peels.

At COP 23, this garbage will be collected separately — not an easy task given that in different countries, people have different customs when it comes to collecting and recycling waste.

Color coding and simple icons are supposed to make waste separation easier for participants.

“We are trying to make it as easy as possible,” said Marc Nettelbeck who is with the COP23 Sustainability Task Force.

“The trash bins all look alike, but they are color-coded. For instance blue bins are always for paper. In addition, we use symbols and pictograms, making things even clearer.”

Should any participant approach trash bins, waste in hand and looking lost, there will be volunteers who can assist in correctly disposing of scratch paper, plastic bottles, or candy wrappers, Mr Nettelbeck said.

Almost all temporary structures of COP23 will be re-used

Major UN Climate Change Conferences are large and need a lot of space. The precise location of COPs is usually only known at relatively short notice, so it is difficult to make advance bookings.

As a result, they require temporary buildings to complement existing ones on location. At COP23, the area hosting climate action events, side events, exhibits and media activities as well as delegation pavilions — the so-called “Bonn” is entirely made up of temporary structures. Even in the “Bula” zone, where the UN climate negotiations will take place, there is a number of temporary structures.

But temporary doesn’t mean single-use, said Vu Le Anh, also a member of the COP23 Sustainability Task Force.

“Most of the materials used for these temporary structures are going to be used for other projects afterwards,” said Mr Anh, “so this is not something that is used for two weeks and then thrown away.”

The same holds true for carpets used in the temporary buildings, many of which are made up of relatively small tiles.

This so-called modular structure helps avoid waste.

“If there’s a stain on one part of the carpet, you don’t have to throw away the whole thing, but only the tile that is actually stained,” he explained.

Some waste really cannot be avoided. But Dennis Winkler, who leads the COP23 Sustainability Task Force, hopes that even small pieces of material will be put to good use.

It is planned to collect most of the promotional banners and canvas planes for upcycling and possibly produce bags out of them, or use the material to make reusable bottles for COP24 in Poland.

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