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How to run a ‘green’ event

Dr Eimear Duff explains how this year’s dotMD conference in Galway aims to be environmentally sustainable

Pens, plasters, highlighters, hand-sanitiser sprays, and notebooks. Sound familiar? Medical conferences overwhelm us with attention-grabbing promotional materials. It is enough to have you reaching for your branded stress ball. Attending a paediatrics conference in Toronto last year, I felt plunged into a mecca of resource consumption. Drowning in glossy brochures, I was saved only by the branded bags, which were on hand to carry my plunder in.

Meetings and events are valuable ways to cross-pollinate ideas. Yet we are becoming increasingly conscious that their ‘freebies’ come with an environmental cost. A significant climate footprint is created by conferences through depletion of natural resources, and generation of pollution and waste. There is another way. Recognising that as clinicians, we cannot promote health without promoting a healthy planet, dotMD has designed its 2019 conference through the lens of environmental sustainability.

This ‘green wave’ has come to the ‘festival of medical curiosity’ in collaboration with Irish Doctors for the Environment (IDE). This grassroots movement views tackling climate change as the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century. Eco-aware healthcare professionals commonly find a disconnect between their high level of personal commitment versus behaviour in their professional environment. Current workplace constraints and practices inhibit them from acting in harmony with their values. IDE is a branch of clinicians (and some medical students) in Ireland who aim to counter this trend through sustainability awareness and action.

Established in autumn 2018, it has already organised many events and has wide circulation of its newsletter. This year, IDE brought motions calling for sustainable energy, increased investment in cycling and walking, and sustainable food to the Irish Medical Organisation AGM. All of these were unanimously passed. dotMD is pioneering the first ever green conference partnership with IDE in this endeavour. IDE hopes to partner with more conferences and stakeholders
going forward.

As per the United Nations Environment Programme, a sustainable or ‘green’ event “is one designed, organised and implemented in a way that minimises potential negative impacts and leaves a beneficial legacy for the host community and all involved”. There are strong arguments for organisers to ‘greenify’ conferences. Firstly, saving the earth goes in tandem with financial savings. Whether it is less printed material, energy, or single-use plastics, we pay less to consume less. In an era where environmental issues are prioritised, green events can also bring reputational benefits to an event. Furthermore, a multiplier effect can be created. As more conferences improve their operations, this may inspire other events to adopt innovative green techniques. This may not only apply to events, but
could also create a ripple effect among participants to transfer their pro-ecological behaviour to their clinical practice. Attitude
follows behaviour.

The environmental initiatives dotMD has taken to help minimise the impact of the 2019 conference on the environment were informed by the wealth of resources that exist to inform sustainable best practices in conferences. The question to consider is whether it is necessary to host a physical meeting. Further considerations include evaluating the sustainability of the venue, catering, accommodation and transport.

This year, a dotMD conference mobile phone app will be released to avoid having glossy, non-recyclable brochures. Venues will be within walking distance, and maps will be available. Volunteer student guides will be available to bring delegates from hotels on foot. A small, fold-out, one-page leaflet with maps and a programme will be available for those who are unable to access the map on their phone. The organisers will provide reusable aluminium water bottles and water stations. This will eliminate the usual disposable plastic bottles at the conference, and going forward, for the participants. Caterers will use local suppliers preferentially and have biodegradable coffee cups. To avoid food waste, leftover food will be donated to local charities. Sharing environmental awareness is also an important component. IDE will have a stand and members will be available throughout dotMD for discussion. After dotMD, lanyards for attendee names will be collected for re-use in future events to reduce waste.

The case of earth, a 4.5 billion year-old patient whose vital sign of temperature is particularly concerning, is a pertinent worry for clinicians. In the words of Dr Maria Neira of the World Health Organisation, “the true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs”.

dotMD has always been an innovator in embracing inter-dependence. It showcases intersections between the arts, humanities, technology and medicine. Now it is taking into account a ‘systems review’ of human health. The multidisciplinary meeting of dotMD is becoming part of the treatment plan for patient number one — our planet. These may seem like incremental changes where we know that our pale blue dot desperately needs systemic change. Yet it is precisely through such personal and professional commitments that we build the activism and ignite the political will needed to protect our environment.
An ounce of action is worth a carbon tonne of theory.

The dotMD conference is taking place on 13-14 September in Galway

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