5 ½ Ideas for Eco-Friendly Packaging at Conferences

Conferences are the number one type of event that always hands out something. From event material to merch to product samples, you name it. I have never not been to a conference nor organized one and there was no welcome package prepared or give away at a later time. And with this comes a whole lot of packaging. Is this always necessary? Probably not. Can this be done eco-friendlier? Sure thing!

Of course, you can start by purchasing packaging material that is biodegradable, recyclable, made of carton or paper-based, using natural ink, etc. But this is not really reducing the packaging or making it any more useful. In the end, trash is trash, regardless of its material.

Let’s take a look at other packaging approaches. And I’m not going to show you all these amazing high-class inventions of super eco-friendly packaging options which cost a lot of money. What is friendly to the environment and to your budget?

1. Simplify Conference Material

provide useful information and tips for the meeting or training upfront © by Kristin Sammann

Analyze your conference material and re-think its necessity. Does everybody need an agenda at pre-registration which they will forget in their hotel room? Maybe it will work just as fine to hang up a few big schedules or display them on the screens throughout the venue, and print less copies of the full agenda for your guests. Like this, only the ones who really need it will get it at the hospitality desk or grab one in the lobby.

Does it make sense to create a DIN A4 folder when all material inside is smaller than that? Just because it is the standard format doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. Try a DIN A5 folder the next time or make it a clipboard if that works for your customers. Or – even better – leave it out at all. An agenda and a block don’t need to be collected in a folder. Seriously. Make sure each item has a real purpose.

Talking about blocks, how often have you collected (or thrown out) blocks after an event and there were only a few pages missing? Well, we have never distributed used blocks again but just used them internally ourselves. However, with our digital event planning approach, there is no need for this paper anymore. Instead, order blocks that only have 15-25 pages, and don’t force them on every guest. Beautifully displayed at the entrance to the plenary, at the hospitality desk or other strategic locations, your guests will have access to them whenever they really need them. And if the block is empty, give them a new one. Anything is so much better than throwing out barely used blocks.

Next on the list are our wonderfully branded conference bags. Ordered in mass quantities to save money. Oups, and then there is a change in the logo or the event date which is printed on the bags. Now what? Another beautiful, easy, and cheap alternative to this would be using brown paper bags or other simple eco-friendly bags. Produce a wonderful stamp (which can be reused again!) and design them the way you wish. No need for a fancy plastic coating to get your brand on it, and these bags do a great job. Your guests won’t think less of you but will love this new sustainable approach that increases your event’s personal touch.

Now, what does all of the above have to do with packaging? Simplifying and reducing your items will have no negative impact on your conference, but can have a big one on the packaging needed to deliver and provide all of it. The less, the better.

2. Create a Reusable Bag

Handing out conference bags is handy when your attendees have to carry around a lot. Also, it provides a beautiful branding opportunity. So, we don’t want to eliminate the bag at some events. That is absolutely fine. Still, we also don’t want our bags to end in the trash right after the conference, which wouldn’t be very sustainable.

Packing your conference material in jute bags will have two benefits; the material is 100 % eco-friendly and your guests can reuse the bag to pack their groceries, carry their sports clothes, etc. Actually, jute bags have a third benefit; they can be hung on the back of your attendees and keep their hands free, which makes it so much more convenient than carrying it like normal bags.

By choosing and creating bags or even boxes with a higher quality, you can encourage your audience to reuse them and extend the bag’s life. Make your guests remember your brand and product every time they use the beautiful bag again. Isn’t that worth the extra money? Definitely a bigger contribution to the environment than thousands of bags thrown away after less than 24 hours.

3. Switch to Digital Swag

Companies want to get their name and logo out there. And many of them are still opting for the traditional pen or post-it or lanyard. How many lanyards can someone really need? And how many post-its does your audience want to carry around at your conference? Especially trade fairs are well known for customers just flying from booth to booth to collect the giveaways. We all love free stuff, but can this swag also be less heavy and more sustainable?

Good news, it can! Switch to digital swag and think about offering one of the following goodies; none of which needs printing nor packaging but is just as cool:

  • discount or gamification codes

  • e-tickets to other events

  • downloadable freebies

  • free entry into a prize draw

  • community rewards – offer to make a donation in the winner’s name to a local charity or program in need

4. Avoid Single-Use Packaging

Talk to your caterer and/or venue and agree with them that they will avoid single-use packaging wherever possible. Butter and milk can come in bulk containers at the buffet station, and water dispensers or pitchers with glasses reduce the amount of water bottles and plastic cups immensely. It will also save your guests time at the table or the food station to fiddle the small packaging.

We already talked about not using packaging when it is not really necessary. While you can ask your providers to reduce unnecessary packaging, very often many items still come wrapped. As the new sustainability expert, you know how to handle this excess rubbish better than your audience. Take the time to unwrap USB cards, pens, mugs & Co. and recycle them properly. And your items will be ready for use immediately.

5. Think Zip Bag

Sometimes, you may have items that need plastic packaging due to hygienic reasons or for transport safety. In these cases, zip lock bags are another wonderful alternative to handle those items. They come in many forms other than the well-known airport zip bag and can be branded as well. Made from biodegradable material, their impact on the environment is not as bad as their plastic brother, and again these can be reused many times.

Additionally to this, keep in mind that you most likely will need some packaging after the conference for leftover items. Don’t throw out all boxes after unpacking your event material, but keep some in the back office to reuse them. It can be worth thinking about this already while packing for your event to choose the right multi-purpose packaging.

Multi-purpose packaging brings us to our last topic which could fit in here but I wanted to make it stand out.

5 ½. Add Value to the Packaging

Choosing biodegradable, eco-friendly materials are all good but it doesn’t avoid your item ending in the trash if it doesn’t provide any additional value to your attendees. The best you can do is to design your container for a dual, multi-purpose use. What could your package or item be used for after having served its primary function? Is there something that is of use for your audience and at the same time serves your event purpose?

Designing the name badge as a bottle gives the organizer an item to identify the audience, and at the same time helps the attendees stay hydrated, clip their pen on it, and reduces the amount of water bottles since they can ‘refill their badge’ at water dispensers.

Your conference takes place during summer? Switch the usual conference bag to a cooling bag, and your participants will love this handy item at their next summer picnic. Free and extended brand exposure guaranteed.

Remember that biodegradable options for packaging are less harmful to the environment and show your company’s commitment to improve your event’s sustainability. However, eco-friendly packaging doesn’t make trash any nicer. A lot nicer than plastic, for sure, but still, trash is trash. Aim for zero waste, make your packaging reusable, choose jute bags over plastic. Surprise your attendees with innovative custom packaging and set an example to others by inspiring them with your minimal, eco-friendly options. And if you can make the container valuable or useful for your customers after the event, you’ll be fit for a king.

What was your favorite packaging you came across? Let us know in the comments below and share this article to inspire others.

Have a wonderful day!

Kristin Sammann

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