By making sustainability-driven choices and cultivating meaningful relationships in the Portland community, the Oregon Convention Center is one of the most environmentally friendly venues in the U.S. Sustainability Manager, Ryan Harvey, talks about its waste diversion and recycling programs and how it has transitioned to a sustainability leader in the convention industry.
When was the Oregon Convention Center opened? How many people use the venue annually? Inspired by the Pacific Northwest region and located in the heart of Portland, the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) is a gathering place for our guests to share their ideas. Our OCC staff is passionate about advancing equity and prosperity, making sustainability-driven choices and cultivating meaningful relationships in the Portland community. OCC opened its doors in 1990, and our 120 staff members now host 600,000 guests annually.
When did the OCC begin to make the transition to becoming a sustainable convention center? The OCC facility was not necessarily built with sustainability in mind, but has evolved into one of the most sustainable convention centers in the world. OCC opted to make sustainability a priority because it is the right thing to do for our staff, guests and community. It is a way we give back and doing so, we have been able to step up as a leader in the convention industry.
The OCC was the first convention center to receive LEED-EB certification in 2004 and has been LEED Platinum certified since 2014. The LEED Platinum certification is the highest level of certification given by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which for an existing center is unprecedented. The OCC is the only convention center in the nation that has earned a LEED Platinum certification for Operations and Maintenance. It is also the only convention center in the country to have reached the highest of four levels of certification as a green venue through APEX/ASTM. We also maintain a SalmonSafe certification, which showcases our dedication to watershed conservation and water use reduction.
When the OCC was first awarded LEED Platinum status, it was a team effort, and required full investment from the OCC leadership team and the rest of the staff. I have now led the LEED Platinum recertification and Level 4 APEX/ASTM certification initiatives, and both were complicated and consuming processes. We concentrate on aspects of OCC operations, such as enacting energy reduction projects, diverting material waste from landfills, prioritizing watershed stewardship, maintaining excellent indoor air quality and a commitment to sustainable purchasing, and these sustainable focusses are woven into OCC’s DNA.
What do you do in your role as Sustainability Manager at the OCC? My role as OCC’s Sustainability Manager is to make sure that OCC events and operations are as sustainable as possible, while simultaneously ensuring our environmental protocols and requirements are clear and easily implemented. This is done by establishing and maintaining ongoing initiatives focused on OCC’s environmental impact, such as our waste management program, Salmon-Safe certification and renewable energy programs.
I also support meeting planners as they establish their itinerary and logistical needs for meetings at OCC. This aspect of my job includes answering questions about our capabilities and functions as a sustainable venue, and providing personalized communications and tools for each event, as needed.
OCC is known as one of the most sustainable convention centers in the U.S. What are some of the sustainable projects, policies and initiatives that you are most proud of? I’m happy to say that, because sustainability is part of all of OCC’s core operations, I can answer this question in many ways. I am inspired and motivated by the way OCC prioritizes watershed stewardship in order to protect Oregon’s rivers and streams. From our famous rain garden used to filter particulates out of the rainwater falling on 5.5 acres of our roof before it gets to the Willamette River, to the gentle nudge of a guest toward one of our 24 water bottle filling stations, we are always maximizing our efforts to manage stormwater and conserve water.
OCC is also a huge advocate for clean energy. Currently, 6,500 solar panels on OCC’s roof generate electricity equal to 25 percent of our annual electricity usage. For context, 25 percent to 30 percent of the convention center’s energy consumption is the approximate equivalent of 166 Portland homes on an annual basis. As a purchaser of many Renewable Energy Certificates, certifying the remaining 75 percent of our power as green, OCC was recently invited to participate in a new Pacific Power program called Blue Sky Select, allowing us to direct funds to support the incubation of a specific solar farm project. Because of the way our electrical grid works, we are not actually using energy from this solar farm, but we are helping to create a more sustainable energy industry.
Public transit is also encouraged for OCC employees and attendees alike, with discounted transit passes available to reduce OCC’s carbon footprint and ease transportation to and from the airport and various destinations throughout the city with the MAX light rail, street car, bus lines and electric scooters all in very close proximity to the center.
How has OCC specifically implemented policy to manage waste? As part of OCC’s devotion to changing the event industry’s overall approach to waste, OCC has implemented a first-of-its-kind Waste Diversion Policy to minimize our environmental footprint. We encourage other venues to follow our lead. By requiring a waste diversion deposit, event and meeting planners are financially invested in minimizing their environmental impact because the refund provides a ‘leave-no-trace’ incentive.
Another aspect of OCC’s Waste Diversion Policy is built in communication about the program that is shared with each meeting planner prior to their OCC event. This communication clearly states the roles and responsibilities each partner owns in making events more sustainable. Our Waste Diversion Policy communications to meeting planners also includes actions that can be taken before, during and after each event. Currently, 94 percent of our events are in compliance of these requirements. My goal is to earn 100 percent compliance in 2020.
The meetings and conventions industry is known as being fairly wasteful as a whole. What changes does OCC think need to be made industry-wide to become more sustainable? There is a mentality that needs to shift in the meetings and conventions space when it comes to using copious amounts of wasteful materials. Large-scale conferences and events often produce staggering amounts of material waste in the form of giveaway swag, printed materials, decorations, etc. Many of these items can only be used once or are immediately thrown away by attendees after the event. Our industry needs to reexamine the type of items and materials that are specifically produced for events and look towards changing our mentality towards opting for one-time use objects.
The specific materials used to create supporting decorations and objects in the meetings industry are often very wasteful and difficult to reuse or recycle. Event venues have the opportunity here to set guidelines for the types of materials that are allowed onsite. For example, OCC’s Waste Diversion Policy’s communication protocol outlines commonly used event materials that are not allowed in our facility, such as foamcore signage. OCC provides sustainable alternatives with comparable pricing directly to meeting planners to make this switch as convenient for them as possible.
It is also important to be imaginative and resourceful when it comes to recycling materials and assets. For example, during OCC’s comprehensive renovation that is currently being finalized, 110 tons of carpet was removed. Instead of letting that carpet go to waste, we recycled and repurposed it. The old carpet padding has been made into new carpet padding, while the carpet itself was sent to Seattle to be used to filter waste that comes out of cargo ships. Those filters now separate oils and harmful materials as water is being pumped into the Puget Sound. During our remodel, we also donated 17,500 used chairs to more than 90 nonprofits and community partners.
Event venues also have the opportunity to combine their sustainability efforts with programs that benefit their local communities. Currently, OCC donates 22 tons of usable goods to reuse organizations annually. OCC also provides about 66,000 meals annually to local nonprofits addressing food scarcity in Portland. Re-use organizations like Habitat for Humanity have partnered with OCC on product donations, receiving more than 50,000 pounds of items that could be used in its projects—such as nearly new bricks, bookshelves and other equipment. These are impactful accomplishments, but we are always looking for new ways to reuse, recycle and give back to the local community.
We understand that OCC is just finalizing a nearly $40 million renovation. How have sustainability and waste management practices been implemented into that project? As part of OCC’s renovation project, we have opted to build with environmental materials, when possible. The facility has installed all LED lighting that is automatically controlled to brighten or dim depending on the amount of natural light in the space at a given time. The renovation also used all low volatile organic compound (VOC) materials, and particular focus was placed on recycling construction waste including metals, gypsum, etc.
Waste Diversion Policy
As one of the most sustainable convention centers in the world, Portland’s LEED Platinum certified Oregon Convention Center (OCC) is a proven leader in environmentally responsible practices. The convention industry generates tremendous waste, and OCC is challenging that status quo with a groundbreaking approach to event waste management.
In 2015, OCC introduced a first-of-its-kind Waste Diversion Policy (WDP) to reduce event waste, encourage innovation and promote re-use. OCC is the only convention center to explicitly call out a formal partnership between client and venue when putting on a sustainable event.
The WDP ensures that all material brought into the OCC can be recycled, donated or taken back by the company that produced it. As an industry leader, OCC has a long-term goal of reaching at least an 80 percent waste diversion rate.
Today, 94 percent of conventions held at OCC are compliant with its WDP. “Environmental and social responsibility are woven into OCC’s core pillars, and we’re proud to set an elevated standard for waste management in the events industry with this policy,” says Cindy Wallace, OCC Director of Sales and Marketing. “Sustainability is continuously top-of-mind at OCC, and that focus influences the decisions made throughout the venue, from sales policy, to operational procedure, down to our set up. It’s just how we do business.”
As part of the changes to OCC’s actual building and functionality, an alternative route was built to make it possible for event attendees to forego using OCC’s elevators. This change simultaneously improved the venue’s accessibility. Lighter usage of escalators and elevators will mean less time, energy usage, inconvenience and cost to maintain and repair them. OCC’s single level escalators each use approximately 15,000 kWh of electricity annually to operate 12 hours per day. To put that into perspective, the energy use of a pair of escalators is equivalent to the annual average energy consumed by about three average American households.
What changes are currently in the works for OCC, specifically from a waste management perspective? Currently I am partnering with our in-house caterer, pacificwild, to eliminate single-use plastic from our concession stands. A shift to durable plates and flatware will not only cut down on landfill-bound plastics, but it will also allow us to capture a significant amount of food waste currently going into the trash. The methane created by food in landfills is a devastating percentage of the overall emissions that are negatively altering our climate.
Our venue will also be targeting the landfill-bound waste from certain events to receive a post-sort. Preliminary pilots indicate that about half of what is being thrown away by clients and their guests should actually be recycled or composted. Capitalizing on this opportunity before these materials leave our building will decrease our waste weight by dozens of tons, and hopefully help us achieve our goal of an 80 percent waste diversion rate. | WA
For more information, visit www.oregoncc.org.