Article / 01 Nov, 2017
How COP23 Organizers Are Tackling Waste

The UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn (COP23, 6 – 17 November) is designed to increase climate action and foster sustainable development at all levels of society. The organizers of COP23 are walking the talk –the conference will be made sustainable to the greatest possible extent. In a special series, the UN Climate Change News team is looking at the different aspects of sustainability – including transport, catering, energy and climate neutrality. In this installment of our special series, we look at waste management.

Big international meetings like COP23 in Bonn attract a lot of people and they generate a certain amount of waste. The organizers of the meeting are therefore paying a lot of attention waste management and recycling – from food wrappers to material needed to construct entire temporary buildings.

On a global scale, the prevention and recovery of waste helps avoid greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy. Reducing waste is therefore essential to achieving the objectives set out both in the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

"The basic idea is to avoid creating waste in the first place," says Stefanie Degreif, who works for the Oeko Institut and contributed to a COP23 sustainability concept commissioned by Germany’s Environment Ministry.

"Where you can’t avoid creating waste, try to re-use it. That means properly collecting and separating the waste, and then recycling it. Only at the very end of the process do you dispose of what could neither be avoided nor re-used," she adds.

Taking things step by step

The way in which sustainability researchers such as Degreif tackle the topic of waste management at a conference is to take things step by step. "We start by asking ourselves what participants actually do and experience at the meeting. That way, we identify for instance questions such as 'what material is the cup made out of from which I drink my coffee,' and so on. And then we make changes."

At COP23, the majority of coffee cups handed out will indeed be "multi-use", as will other crockery and cutlery used at the catering stations. To reduce the amount of single-use water bottles and cups, all participants will receive a free multi-use bottle for use with water fountains available throughout the conference venue.

In addition, participants will be encouraged to donate the deposit of any bottles purchased at the Bonn Zone by leaving empty bottles in designated containers. The proceeds from this action will be donated to the New World Program, a partnership between the Coca Cola Foundation and the Global Water Challenge.

But it’s not just the use of plastic organizers would like to avoid – it’s paper, too. In sharp contrast to earlier major UN climate change conferences, over the past few years COPs have for the most part become "paper light" events.

French delegation poring over paper printouts of the draft agreement
It’s become relatively rare for delegates and officials to pore over hard copies of documents

Whilst hard-copies of newsletters, event summaries and the daily programme used to be readily available  at UN climate meetings – and flood the halls – key information these days is always available electronically. On request, conference delegates can still obtain print-outs – but then they are then double-sided and on recycled paper.

Making Waste Separation and Collection as Simple as Possible

Whilst the use of paper, throw-away plastic bottles and cups can and should be reduced, participants will at some point throw away paper, plastic wrappers, and rests of food such as banana peels.

At COP23, this garbage will be collected separately - not an easy task given that in different countries, people have different customs when it comes to collecting and recycling waste.

Recycling bins for COP23
Color coding and simple icons are supposed to make waste separation easier for particpants

"We are trying to make it as easy as possible," says Marc Nettelbeck who is with the COP 23 Sustainability Task Force. "The trash bins all look alike, but they are color-coded. For instance blue bins are always for paper. In addition, we use symbols and pictograms, making things even clearer."

Should any participant approach trash bins, waste in hand and looking lost, there will be volunteers who can assist in correctly disposing of scratch paper, plastic bottles, or candy wrappers, adds Nettelbeck.

Almost all Temporary Structures of COP23 Will be Re-Used

Major UN Climate Change Conferences are large and need a lot of space. The precise location of COPs is usually only known at relatively short notice, so it is difficult to make advance bookings. As a result, they require temporary buildings to complement existing ones on location. At COP23, the area hosting climate action events, side events, exhibits and media activities as well as delegation pavilions – the so-called "Bonn" is entirely made up of temporary structures. Even in the “Bula” zone, where the UN climate negotiations will take place, there is a number of temporary structures.

But temporary doesn’t mean single-use, says Vu Le Anh, also a member of the COP 23 Sustainability Task Force. “Most of the materials used for these temporary structures are going to be used for other projects afterwards,” says Anh, “so this is not something that is used for two weeks and then thrown away.”

The same holds true for carpets used in the temporary buildings, many of which are made up of relatively small tiles. This so-called modular structure helps avoid waste, says Anh. "If there’s a stain on one part of the carpet, you don’t have to throw away the whole thing, but only the tile that is actually stained," he explains. All other tiles will be reused after the event.

Some waste really cannot be avoided. But Dennis Winkler, who leads the COP 23 Sustainability Task Force, hopes that even small pieces of material will be put to good use. It is planned to collect most of the promotional banners and canvas planes for upcycling and possibly produce bags out of them, or use the material to make reusable bottles for COP24 in Poland.

See more information about COP23 sustainability and how it will be certified by an external environmental verifier here.

Image at top of story: COP21 in Paris in 2015 was a "paper light" event in which the use of paper was largely avoided. Blue boxes were put up to collect the paper that did end up being used.