Convention balloons. Photo: Vidiot via Flickr

Can you find the green in this picture?
Photo: Vidiot

Both the Democratic and Republican national conventions have pledged to go greener this year. And they’ve drawn mockery for their efforts — particularly the Democrats, who say they’ll be putting on “the most sustainable political convention in modern American history.”

A Wall Street Journal article in June reported that convention organizers were having difficulty finding union-made, organic-cotton fanny packs for volunteers.

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The article also poked fun at the Dems’ efforts to make convention food both green and good for you. They’re aiming for 70 percent local and organic ingredients, and at least 50 percent fruits and vegetables. Fried foods are verboten. Meals must have “at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple and white” — and garnishes don’t count. All of this has caterers up in arms.

The New York Times reported that costs for the Democratic convention are ballooning out of control, in part because of efforts to be greener. Face the State, a conservative Colorado blog, recently pointed out that one of the wind turbines that’s supposed to be offsetting the convention’s carbon footprint doesn’t work. (The turbine is now being repaired [PDF].)

The latest news is a security regulation barring bicycles from the area around Denver’s Pepsi Center, where the event is being held. The Secret Service and the Denver Police Department don’t want bikes parked within the convention perimeter. Cycling advocacy group Bikes Belong is bringing 1,000 bikes to the convention through a partnership with Humana. Mat Barlow, special projects coordinator for Bikes Belong, tells Grist the group expected there to be security regulations, so this is no big deal. Conference attendees can still use the bikes free of charge — they’ll just have to park them outside the perimeter.

The Democratic convention’s first-ever director of sustainability and greening, Andrea Robinson, has also been the subject of ridicule. She’s a sometime actress who’s appeared on Baywatch Nights and Joey, but she also has a degree in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara and has worked to green other big events. (And maybe she picked up some political savvy while shooting one episode of The West Wing.)

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Dems do Denver

But hiccups aside, the Democratic National Convention Committee has some ambitious green endeavors underway.

It is calculating the overall carbon footprint of the event — which will be held in Denver from Aug. 25 to 28 — and buying offsets for emissions that can’t be avoided. It has issued a “Green Delegate Challenge” that asks each delegation to buy offsets for its travel; 28 state delegations have committed fully, and the rest will participate at least partially. Delegates can offset through a partnership with NativeEnergy, or choose their own provider. The 140-member Massachusetts delegation has teamed up with LiveCooler, which will be providing low-income families with 2,400 compact fluorescent bulbs, offsetting 393 tons of carbon in the process.

The Pepsi Center has pledged to go “100 percent green.” It’s installing energy-efficient lightbulbs and water-saving faucets, and the convention stage is being constructed with salvaged or recycled material and eco-friendly paints. During the convention, the venue will be powered completely by wind and solar from Xcel Energy.

The DNCC has set a goal of keeping at least 85 percent of waste out of landfills by composting, recycling, and reusing — and they’ll have monitors standing by waste bins to make sure that no one’s refuse goes in the wrong container. Balloons will be biodegradable; utensils will be compostable; signs will be made of post-consumer recycled or biodegradable material; and banners will be made of canvas or corn-based bioplastics (and then recycled into handbags!).

On the vehicular front, there will be a hybrid-only parking area and a “no idling zone” outside the arena to cut back on emissions. The buses shuttling attendees from their hotels to the convention are all hybrid, alternative-fuel, or biodiesel-powered, and they’ll be factored into the convention’s carbon footprint.

GOP goes green

The Republican National Convention’s goals are considerably less ambitious. Matt Burns, director of communications for the convention, calls them more “reasonable.”

“We have very common-sense measures that anybody can do, and kind of understand that it will make a difference,” says Burns. “They’re just minor changes in habits.”

During the planning stages, the convention organizers are shutting off the lights when they leave the room, shutting off the air-conditioning during non-business hours, and shutting off electronic devices when they’re not in use, according to Burns. They’re also recycling more and printing less. Their office building is Energy Star-rated, and they’re trying to use mostly recycled office furniture and supplies.

At the convention itself, Xcel is again getting into the game by providing solar and wind power for the proceedings, which are being held at the aptly named Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul from Sept. 1 to 4. All official convention vehicles will be hybrid or flex-fuel, and Bikes Belong and Humana will be providing bicycles here just as they will be in Denver.

Recycling bins will be “strategically placed” throughout the convention hall, and waste “will be recycled to the maximum extent,” according to a fact sheet distributed by the convention committee. Organizers also point out that they’ll be using recycled carpeting and carpet padding made from recycled foam material, and using recycled aluminum for modular structures being constructed inside the center — though Burns says this is typical protocol for the contractor they’ve used for the past several conventions.

The organizing committee has set up a “paperless” electronic system for media and volunteer registration and coordination, and for making housing assignments for delegates. It is also printing maps of the convention hall on recycled paper, and distributing delegate welcome kits online instead via the mail.

The committee is not putting any restrictions on food, Burns says, and it’s not planning to offset delegate travel or the event’s overall footprint.

“I think we need to focus on how we can be good stewards and do the little things that add up and change people’s habits, but we’re not going to shamelessly pander,” says Burns. “I think some of the stuff that we’ve seen come out of Denver is shameless pandering.”

At the end of day, how green can such a massive event be, when 35,000 delegates, volunteers, and members of the media pile into jumbo jets and fly across the country to sleep in hotels and sit around in over-air-conditioned convention halls? Grist will be on the scene at both events, so we’ll be sure to let you know. (And yes, we’ll be offsetting the emissions from our travel.)

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