Among buildings, convention centers are giants. Encompassing thousands and even millions of square feet, they blanket entire city blocks like sheathes made of glass and concrete. It’s not just their size that’s enormous, however. It’s also their environmental impact. Because they’re so large and serve so many people, convention centers can’t help but devour enormous amounts of energy, consume vast amounts of water and generate excessive amounts of waste.
But today's centers are no longer the ecological burdens they once were. Instead of environmental leeches, they’ve become environmental leaders, says Greenview, a research and advisory firm that provides sustainability consulting to the hospitality industry. According to its most recent “Green Venue Report,” published in 2017, convention centers around the world are moving the needle on sustainability in significant and meaningful ways. Collectively, it reports, venues are saving millions of dollars with sustainability upgrades that simultaneously benefit people, the planet and their pocketbooks.
But don’t take Greenview’s word for it. Here are five concrete ways in which convention centers are practicing sustainability:
1. Recycling Waste
When it comes to sustainability, recycling is low-hanging fruit. But even the most ordinary activities can have an extraordinary impact. In Philadelphia, for example, the Pennsylvania Convention Center recycles not only the usual -- paper, plastic and aluminum -- but also cooking oil, shipping pallets and even fluorescent light bulbs. In 2018 alone, the facility recycled 276.39 tons of materials, which saved the Earth 1,231 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 33,804 gallons of oil, 879 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, 1,935 million gallons of water and 3,316 mature trees.
2. Planting Green Roofs
For many centers, the pinnacle of sustainability -- literally -- is a green roof, which can improve storm-water management, minimize the "heat island" effect, increase urban biodiversity, regulate indoor temperature and reduce air pollution. Among convention centers, the mother of all green roofs is the one atop New York’s Javits Center (pictured). Totaling 6.75 acres, it’s home to 29 bird and five bat species and thousands of honeybees that produce more than 2,500 ounces of honey per year. Plus, it can absorb up to 7 million gallons of storm-water runoff annually and reduces heat gain throughout the building, which has helped the center reduce its annual energy consumption by 26 percent. Soon, the site also will be home to New York’s largest rooftop solar array and a 1-acre farm that will yield up to 40,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables per year for use in the center’s kitchens.
3. Growing Food
Of course, rooftops aren’t the only places that convention centers can grow their own food. The Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio, for example, boasts an indoor, vertical, hydroponic “Smart Farm” that grows up to 5,000 pounds of herbs and vegetables per year under LED lights, including basil, chives, mustard greens, kale, bok choy and rainbow chard. Used in soups, salads, entrees, cocktails and even savory baked goods, the produce is both water- and carbon-efficient, since hydroponics uses less water than conventional farming, and self-grown produce doesn’t have to be transported to the center from farms.
4. Generating Energy
It’s common for facilities to reduce their energy consumption with behavioral interventions, like turning off lights and controlling thermostats. The most sustainable convention centers, however, go further by investing not only in energy consumption, but also in energy generation. In 2018, for example, the Los Angeles Convention Center unveiled a new 2.21-megawatt solar unit on the roof of its South Hall. This brought the facility’s total solar capacity to 2.58 megawatts, making it the most powerful setup of its kind in a municipally owned convention center in the United States. According to the LACC, it generates 3.4 million kilowatt hours per year, which equates to 17 percent of the LACC’s annual energy usage. That’s enough electricity to power 565 homes and to reduce the LACC’s carbon footprint by 2,554 metric tons per year -- the equivalent of planting 66,192 trees or keeping 2.8 million pounds of coal from being burned.
5. Saving Water
Water is a precious resource. Dual-flush toilets and automatic sinks are common ways that facilities try to conserve it. Some convention centers that take water stewardship seriously, however, go even further. One of them is Canada’s Vancouver Convention Centre. The world’s first double LEED Platinum-certified convention facility, it boasts an on-site blackwater treatment plant that recycles wastewater, including blackwater from flushed toilets and greywater from sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. The system cleans, sanitizes and stores wastewater, which subsequently is used for toilet flushing and irrigation. According to the convention center, the blackwater treatment plant so far has saved nearly 500,000 gallons of potable water -- equivalent to approximately 300,000 flushes of the facility’s water-efficient toilets.