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AEG Takes on the Biggest Waste Volumes: Q&A with John Marler

AEG Takes on the Biggest Waste Volumes: Q&A with John MarlerGlobal sports and live entertainment company AEG hosts upwards of 100 million guests annually. Fans attend more than 40 music festivals, 10,000 shows, 22,000 live events, and 150 venues ranging from intimate rock clubs to soaring arenas each year.

That’s a lot of hungry and thirsty people. And a lot of containers.

“The solution to serving 20,000 people food and beverages has been to use single-use serviceware,” observes John Marler, vice president of energy and environment at AEG. “That service model will likely be changing.” Yet switching to silverware and china across the board isn’t realistic so the company is looking at each use case to figure out the best approach.

Marler will be speaking about waste management in the entertainment industry at the 2019 Environmental Leader & Energy Manager Conference (ELEMCON) this May. Recently we caught up with him to learn more about AEG’s approach.

What are AEG’s goals around waste management?

We currently have a 70% diversion from landfill goal for 2020, and we have been making progress toward that. For 2017 we were at 55% worldwide.

In the last 18 months or so, with developments from China’s new policy to greater attention paid to single-use items, we realized that the waste and recycling side of the business is in for huge changes. Our strategy is to figure out how to respond to those changes in a way that’s cost-effective and environmentally responsible.

Are there AEG projects or initiatives to help you get there?

We’re doing a soup-to-nuts audit and asking, “Is there a better way for this specific item?” We’re looking at anything you would see in one of our buildings. Is it nacho and hotdog boats? What kind of cups are you serving your beer and soft drinks in? Does it come with a lid? How are you doling out condiments? Last year we started with straws. It helps to phase them out or switch to paper.

What we’ve come around to is that recycling is not a long-term sustainable model. We have to look heavily at reducing — phasing single-use items out entirely — and reusing, perhaps with a circular service model. That’s on our 2019 slate of projects.

Do you have pilots now that involve reuse and waste reduction?

Yes, we’ve got a couple of sites with reusable cups. The customer can either purchase the cup or redeem it at the end of the night and get their money back. For the initial pilots we’ve done, we’ve been pleased with how it has all come together.

How about serviceware like utensils and boats?

Right now we’re going through each building and doing an assessment of the biggest selling items. Which of those are single use? If we can solve for those popular items, that will have the biggest impact.

Besides reusable cups, what other solutions are you looking at?

You see paper-based water bottles and aluminum water bottles. Time will tell. I don’t think it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. It depends on the operation. For instance, a rock club might not sell bottled water. Maybe there’s a cooler with cups next to it. We’ve seen convention centers that migrated away from bottled water to carafes of chilled water with glass cups.

Then you have to factor in the infrastructure. If someone says, “I have a compostable paper box for your water product” and there is no industrial composter in the market, that’s going directly in the trash. You haven’t solved the problem.

How does consumer behavior factor in?

I was talking with an arena director because one of our constant battles is contamination. People never put stuff in the right bins. But this director said, “At a church event we had here, 20,000 people cleaned up after themselves and put everything in the right bin. I’ve only seen that once, but I know it can happen again.” That’s stuck with me.

Part of what we’re trying to do is interface with our vendors, customers, and fans and say, “We all have to do a better job and change.” How to do that effectively without turning people off, that’s the big trick.

Has anything given you hope for behavior change?

I’ve been to a number of our big festivals. People bring their own recycling bags. When I went into the camping areas, at least a third of the vehicles had bags off their side view mirror filled with recyclables. So we said we need to send a vehicle out to pick this stuff up.

We also have the 10-for-1 program at Coachella, where the guests can collect recyclables and redeem them for merchandise and VIP meetings. People love it. That tells me that with the proper messaging and motivation, people will do this. You’ve just got to give them the platform.

Have you had any results so far from waste reduction efforts, including the pilots?

We’re actively crunching the numbers. The thing I would say is that the numbers scale quickly.

When we said we’re not going to buy plastic straws any more, we did the math. Depending on the venue, that’s saving 500,000, 1 million, 2 million straws a year. Think about what size container would fit 2 million drinking straws.

Given all the challenges around waste, do you have advice for others in your industry?

Tackle the biggest things first and don’t be afraid to talk to the market. There are vendors actively trying to come up with solutions. It may take a little while, but we’ve seen that if people know that you want to move away from plastic cups they’ll work hard to sell you a reusable cup that works.

John Marler will be speaking about tackling waste in the entertainment industry at the 4th Annual Environmental Leader & Energy Manager Conference (ELEMCON) May 13 – 15, 2019 in Denver. Register to attend here.

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