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Acfas conference goes totally green

Université de Sherbrooke and Bishop’s University host an “environmentally responsible” gathering of 5,000 researchers.

BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | JUN 13 2011

The organizers of the 79th annual conference of the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas) set themselves a significant challenge: to host a conference in full compliance with the strict standards set down by the Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ), a feat which no event of this magnitude had achieved thus far. In addition to presenting a true logistical puzzle, the project required a series of innovative approaches.

In March, the Université de Sherbrooke was granted certification for Standard 9700-253 by the BNQ, which meant its on-campus activities could now be deemed “environmentally responsible.” Implementing this standard to a week-long conference that brought together 5,000 researchers, on its campus and that of nearby Bishop’s University, was a sizeable task, yet organizers did not hesitate. “It was crucial that these certification standards be implemented in our major events, and the Acfas conference was an absolute must,” says Alain Webster, vice-president for sustainable development and government relations at the Université de Sherbrooke.

The BNQ standard establishes sustainable, environmentally responsible criteria for five key aspects of an event: vendor selection, materials management, energy and water sources, waste management, as well as the selection of transportation methods and of food service.

Some of these activities happen upstream, such as vendor selection and the development of the elaborate database required for the calculation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by conference delegates. “We needed to tally all travel-related emissions generated by attendees, many of whom came from abroad, based on their mode of transportation,” states Patrice Cordeau, a consultant on environmental and sustainable development at the Université de Sherbrooke. “Based on this data, we were able to calculate the conference’s GHG emissions.” The university plans to offset these emissions by supporting carbon sequestration projects, such as tree-planting activities by Action Saint-François.

Other aspects required a sustained logistical effort throughout the conference. Waste management was one such area, further compounded by the decentralization of activities. Thirty volunteers were continuously onsite, engaging in activities such as retrieving unconsumed food and redirecting it to community organizations. Nearly 200 pounds of food were donated to Moisson Estrie.

To reduce the consumption of paper, conference organizers relied on electronic media. For other needs, they turned to Cascades, a major partner for the event, to obtain the 100-percent recycled paper on which the conference program and indoor promotional posters were printed.

Cascades, a company that has collaborated formally with the Université de Sherbrooke on sustainable development issues since 2008, also provided a number of innovative solutions. “We developed a prototype document holder manufactured from 100-percent recycled cardboard, as well as a new green medium, a waterproof card-board made entirely from recycled and recyclable fibres, for outdoor posters,” Carl Blanchet, the company’s director of business development, explains.

“If we can ensure that a conference this broad and decentralized is environmentally responsible, it’s likely a sign that we can do the same for all events held across the country,” notes Professor Webster. Organizers believe that institutions have every incentive to make their processes environmentally responsible year-round. When internal processes are already “green,” the transformation of traditional organized events into sustainable ones becomes much easier, regardless of size.

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