Big time: how Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre is building a sustainable business

Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre recently won the Sustainability gong at the Lord Mayor’s Business Awards for the second year running.  CitySmart spoke with Cleaning and Environmental Services Manager Paul Wilson about their current initiatives and what other local businesses might learn from BCEC’s journey.

Q. Firstly, congrats on the Lord Mayor’s sustainability award. What achievements did you highlight in this year’s award entry?

This year we focused on food recycling. One part of the entry was about the good work we did in directing consumable items to FoodBank, the hunger relief agency that provides meals to charities and schools.

The other part of the entry was about organic waste recycling here at the centre. There are a substantial amount of off-cuts from fruit, veggies, meats and other products generated as we prepare food for events. Previously we’ve disposed of this type of waste via an on-site composting system. But even with our best efforts we found the process very hard to keep in balance and smell-free. As a result we started to look around for alternative ways to process organic waste. It took us a while before finding the Gaia food dehydrator we currently use.

Q. So how exactly does a dehydrator machine work?

It’s like a high temperature tumble dryer. You put 100kg of food waste into the machine and after 10 hours the excess moisture is driven off and you’re left with only 15kg of dry, sterile biomass. That’s an 85% reduction in weight which in turn saves us money on waste transport costs. The process also removes the risk of any seeds in the biomass from germinating, another important feature.

We send this finished product on to City Parkland Services where it’s added to soil destined for the Roma Street and South Bank Parklands. The biomass acts like a good quality soil enhancer. The manager over at City Parklands, Shaun Walsh, is a champion of all things green and a great supporter of our initiatives. He was keen to accept our initial supply of biomass and has now been taking the product from us for over a year.

Q. Can we go back a bit and talk about how BCEC got to this point. Why did you originally get involved in sustainability initiatives?

Well when the centre opened in 1995, best practice at the time, at least in regard to sustainability, was pretty basic. We recycled a small number of items, including glass and cardboard and of course we complied with the environmental regulations of the time.

But since then we’ve gradually developed more recycling initiatives to the point where now we have more than 30 recycle steams up and running. Sometimes finding the better way to do requires a process of trial and error, as happened with our early attempts at composting starting in 2008.

Of course it also helps that we had a lot of enthusiastic people on staff to support this process. Using my own situation as an example, I knew very little about the waste management side of events when I started, but I tried to make up for this by taking an interest in the process and how it might be done better. Our facilities manager at the time, another enthusiast, was doing the same thing with energy and water saving initiatives. As time went on, this review and refinement of systems led to the formation of a venue Green Team, and sustainability became very much a part of the venue’s DNA. Fortunately for us, the company’s culture is set up in a way that gives BCEC managers the freedom to experiment and innovate.

Q. How aware are your event customers of sustainable practices?

Oh very. It’s increasingly becoming a client expectation. Recently we’ve had five international conferences and two national conferences tell us that our sustainability credentials were a key factor in making their decision to choose BCEC.

Q. A lot of businesses these days are talking the talk on green initiatives without necessarily walking the walk. How do you avoid the green washing trap?

We’ve used an external organisation called EarthCheck to audit our sustainability initiatives since 2008. In 2015 we received an EarthCheck Gold Certification and we retained it again this year.

Having an outside third party involved also helps push us further along the path to sustainability – they help benchmark our performance against industry standards. This is particularly important in an organisation like ours. The constant focus on clients and their event needs might cause us to miss areas of non-compliance or chances to improve, things that an EarthCheck review can easily pick up.

Q. Can you tell us about your local food policy?

Our policy is to source as much fresh local produce as possible. We’ll source Australia wide if needed, usually because of environmental or seasonal issues relating to quality and volume. We aim to source 80% of produce from Queensland. We’ve introduced a Queensland First icon with our new menus to identify when the hero produce item of a menu is sourced from Queensland.

Sometimes the sheer scale of events can make it challenging to source as much fresh local produce as we would like. One day/night in October this year we fed 20,000 people, for example. That’s a lot of food.

Q. What’s been the hardest thing about building a sustainable business?

Ignorance for one, in a sense that you don’t know what you don’t know. Recycling options are an example. Before the internet became part of daily life there wasn’t a lot of information out there on the subject for businesses. And we didn’t have the strong network of industry contacts we’ve developed since. Also, in the early days getting buy in from venue staff was a challenge. We have 600 staff members working at the venue and you need a high level of engagement for recycling initiatives to work on a large scale.

Of course now it’s more a part of the centre’s DNA. We have green champions supporting recycling initiatives within departments. These enthusiasts are also members of Green Team and Social Responsibility Team. Some of the recycling programs focus on items staff members can bring in from home – old phones, light bulbs, batteries, even old reading or sunglasses which we donate to the Lions Eye Health Program. We’ve also developed relationships with organisations that reuse or repurpose waste items such as Reverse Garbage and Planet Pen.

Q. What advice would you give other events, hospitality or entertainment businesses who want to run their company on sustainable lines?

Definitely promote staff engagement. And of course networking, because the more you look around and talk to people, the more likely you’ll find sustainable solutions that are not only good for your business but also the wider community.

On a final point, I’d say never be afraid to ask a stupid question. Asking that type of question took us from identifying the generation of food waste as a problem to finding a very workable solution via FoodBank and the installation of our dehydrator.

Learn more here: Sustainability at BCEC