How the 2008 Democratic National Convention hopes to be the greenest of them all

Reporting from Denver this week on the donkey’s environmental footprint

By Eric Mack

Plenty reporter Eric Mack at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver will follow the realities, hype, and results of the country’s greenest nominee convention. Check back for his daily videos.

The environmental footprint of the Democratic National Convention and the tens of thousands of visitors it is bringing to Denver, Colorado, between August 23-28 will be tough to avoid in the Mile High City. But Democratic convention planners are hoping that the overall footprint the event leaves on the planet will be minimal, and they've undertaken some ambitious planning to try and make this year's convention the “greenest” ever.

With the Democratic nominee from the 2000 convention now a Nobel Laureate and arguably the first environmental superstar (apologies to Bill McKibben), there was no avoiding the high expectations, vigilant critics, and hype around greening the convention. That's why, says Damon Jones, a member of the Democratic National Convention Committee’s (DNCC) press team, they knew they would go for broke when it came to their “green plan.”

“There's a very comprehensive recycling program in place,” says Jones, “the transportation for the week for the delegates is a fleet of buses, and all of them run on biodiesel... We even looked at the construction of the Pepsi Center, and the stage that will be built there uses 80 percent recycled or reused materials.”

With the promise of road and security closures on Denver's west side near the Pepsi Center and the inevitable traffic snarl that comes from increasing the city's population by as much as a quarter overnight, the biofuel bus fleet is a no-brainer. Plans to install fluorescent lighting, adding a new solar array to the site, and using green-building techniques are also par for the course these days in the world of high-profile green event planning, but the comprehensive recycling program Jones mentions is the real monster task.  

The DNCC’s appointed “Green Team” aims to keep at least 85 percent of the trash and other waste generated by the convention out of landfills. Jones acknowledges the Herculean nature of not only picking up after, but also recycling or composting what's left behind by tens of thousands of visitors. He says Coca-Cola will be providing the recycling infrastructure and a small army of hundreds of volunteers will be on trash patrol to make sure everything makes it in the right bin.

“We started working on this back in November,” Jones explains. “We started working with our partners, understanding traffic patterns and where food and waste would be coming from so that we can design a system that would be the most efficient.”

He says the DNCC also wanted to go beyond the local impact on Colorado landfills to reduce the overall carbon footprint for the convention. They brought on a “carbon advisor” to meticulously calculate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and calculate carbon offsets to be purchased for what can't be made up through conservation or efficiency. Delegates are also being urged to get in on the act – the prime seating at the convention will go to delegates who choose to offset their carbon. So far more than half the delegates have met the challenge.

Jones claims there has been a lot of “misreporting” about plans for healthy and green catering at the convention - a hubbub ensued earlier this summer when the Wall Street Journal reported the DNCC had nixed offering fried foods at the gathering. Conservative bloggers had a field day with the alleged dietary rules, and as a result, there will now be no such requirements, Jones says.

For their part, the Republicans are also planning to have a “green” convention. The GOP likes to call it an eco-friendly event, complete with paperless systems, improved efficiency at the convention sites in Minneapolis / St. Paul and plenty of flex-fuel and hybrid vehicles.

The lack of any planning for waste recycling or carbon reduction in Minnesota this September would seem to easily hand the Democrats the crown for the year's greenest convention, but Jones says they're also being pragmatic.

“At the end of the day everything requires a balance. There are always multiple interests that need to considered, whether that's cost or convenience or sustainability. There's no perfect formula that says one thing is right or one thing is wrong.”

Translation: If the Democrats can't find any biodegradable balloons by August 28, there will still be a balloon drop after Obama’s acceptance speech (assuming the mechanics work), but onlookers would be wise to bring their own water bottles.

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