Deconstructing cocktails and green printing for an eco-friendly event, over the city of 1,000 spires.

This blog is the third in a series about sustainability, green event planning, and fine food and beverages. You can find the entire series here.

Most people know Prague as a gorgeous, romantic place to visit. I was quite fortunate to be there on event planning business, which afforded me a view of how modern day Prague is addressing sustainability issues. Today, I’d like to share a few stories with you, but before I start, let’s head to Tower Park, and take the elevator up to The Oblaca Bar. While we enjoy the breath-taking views, let me order you a …

Three Sisters Molecular CocktailThe Oblaca Bar specializes in molecular mixology. In this drink, 3 different deconstructivist cocktails are served in a set of test tubes. Let’s start with the reimagined Lemon Drop, with its spherified drops of lemon-vodka juice that slip around on your tongue before they burst in your mouth. Delightful!

This is just the bar, and just the drink to recharge and inspire us, after a long week of producing a conference at the world-class Prague Convention Center.

The Prague Convention Center is beautiful, set atop a hill a few tram stops away from Old Town. The building was designed so that many of the meeting rooms have outstanding views. But the jewel of the building is Congress Hall, ranked among the best concert venues in the world, and host to the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Prague Convention Center at sunset

Prague Convention Center at sunset

The convention center’s in-house catering company is the world class Zátiší Group, who deliver hot, delicious conference meals at a fraction of the cost of most other western European cities.  Zátiší is committed to “happiness on all fronts”: not only do they donate leftover meals to those in need, they are deeply committed to philanthropy, partnering and sharing their profits with UNICEF and similar organizations.

The city of Prague itself helped reduce the environmental impact of our event. I was heartened we were able to provide complimentary public transit passes for our 2,000 attendees, cutting down on the use of private cars and taxis during our week-long event.

But my real vendor crush in Prague was LookUp!, a local, green signage company. Joseph Švec and his firm delivered the eco-friendly event planner’s dreamiest dream: Price, Delivery, and Quality…. and that’s not all – they are Google Doc friendly. Yes, Yes, OMG.

As I compose myself, let’s try the next test tube, a deconstructed Cosmopolitan, topped with foamy cranberry bubbles; the texture so light, contrasting nicely with the tang of the cocktail. Did I mention that molecular gastronomy is a style of cooking that involves social, artistic and technical aspects of preparing food?  Inspired by that, let’s deconstruct some of the social, artistic and technical aspects of “green” printing…

Let’s imagine we need almost one hundred “foam core” signs for our event. If we want to be socially and environmentally responsible, we need to consider not just the materials needed to create the signs (the substrate, the paper, the inks, and the finish), but also their end-of-life fate (what happens to them after the show).

Eco-friendly event signs from LookUp!

Eco-friendly event signs from LookUp!

Paper. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably already concerned that vast areas of the planet are being deforested at an unsustainable rate, contributing to global warming, destroying habitats and wrecking the world’s 2nd best source of Oxygen*. Want to do something about it? You can! Request only paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC is an international standards organization that monitors the forestry industry in hundreds of countries. When you specify FSC-labeled paper, you know it has been made from environmentally sustainable forests.

Inks. Traditional inks are toxic. They are harmful to manufacturing workers as well as sign shop printers. Signs made with traditional inks cannot go into recycling or composting streams. The signs end up in landfills, where the chemicals poison the ground and leach into groundwater, which poisons our fresh water supply. I recommend you request soy or other vegetable-based inks, or specify “non-toxic and biodegradable” ink, and be open to what your printer suggests. There are new, non-toxic and eco-friendly green printing products on the market all the time, and – no surprise – most printers are keen to help you.

Substrate or “Core”. Foam core is an evil material. Styrofoam®, Dow Chemicals’ brand name for Polystyrene (C8H8)n, does not decompose in normal conditions, because the polymer beads that comprise it are resistant to photolysis. It is harmful to the environment because it contains hydroflourocarbons (try saying that after cocktails!) that negatively impact the ozone layer. During the manufacturing process, polystyrene releases chemicals which are unhealthy for factory workers, and can cause headache, depression, weakness, fatigue and adverse kidney effects. Finally, it is a petroleum product, which means it’s created from a non-renewable natural resource.
Yep. It’s evil. So we need to take the foam out of foam core signs.

There are many eco-friendly substrate alternatives out there. My personal favorite is a honeycomb cardboard product, made from 100% recycled paper, and compostable after the event. Falcon-board is a brand name for another good eco-substrate product. But products change and evolve all the time, so ask your printer for an eco-friendly substrate and give them a little time to see what their suppliers carry.

Finish: We all love lamination, that super thin layer of plastic that keeps signs looking new and clean during handling. If you have a one-time use project, consider going without lamination. If you need to laminate, ask your printer for eco-alternatives. They are available!

When trying to set up green printing for your event, consider my five pro tips:

  1. Source locally! Packaging signs for shipping can almost double the material needed! Avoid the environmental impact and cost of packaging and shipping your signs by finding a vendor near your event. As a bonus, most sign shops located near convention centers will deliver your graphics right to your meeting room, avoiding a material handling cost.
  2. Before you print, ask your venue what materials they are able to recycle; if you work with them, you may be able to avoid that $1,000 dumpster charge!
  3. Ask your signage vendor if they can collect the signs. If they can, the materials will be reused for another project.
  4. Ask your venue or other local contacts for help in donating the signage. Many schools and non-profit agencies are often psyched to get the materials.
  5. Tell the world and reap the good will!  Your social media team will be happy for the story; your attendees will love that you care, and you will look like a rock star.

Don’t believe the myths. Green signage is not more expensive!
While green signage used to be more expensive, it is now readily available for the same cost or even lower. I’ve found green printers in most U.S. and European cities and I’m always excited to recommend them. Hit me up if you can’t find one!

Final Inspiration:
We event planners have the power to make a difference if we all create demand. The more we planners request green signage, the more printers will supply it to stay competitive. When we all speak up, we can change an entire industry and make a difference.

On that note, let’s enjoy the view, and try test tube number 3, topped with an effervescent foam of Chartreuse, the aptly named Verdant Lady.


*The world’s number one source of O2 is phytoplankton from the ocean. More about healthy oceans over another cocktail.