Kansas City's Folk Alliance International Conference Goes 'Green'

Feb 15, 2017

A few thousand folk musicians from around the world are preparing to gather at the Westin Hotel in Crown Center for the 29th annual Folk Alliance International Conference. Over the next five days they're going to make a lot of music, but they're also going to make a lot of paper flyers and garbage. But hopefully not as much as previous years.

This year the Folk Alliance has launched its Green Folk Initiative, meaning they want their conference and their office practices to have less of an environmental impact.  

Executive Director Aengus Finnan, who grew up on an organic vegetable farm in Canada and lived in a house made out of recycled telephone poles, says this move to committing to green practices fits is in line perfectly with the folk tradition.

"I think there is a grassroots aspect to folk music that includes being mindful of community, being mindful of social issues of the day," says Finnan.

This is Finnan's third year working as Executive Director for the conference. But before he was leading the ship, he had attended the conference as a folk musician for a dozen years. He says the annual conference is like a big family reunion, if the family had 2,500 people from 20 different countries. They're expecting a record number of attendees this year.

So to reduce the impact of all these people, Folk Alliance partnered with Bridging the Gap, the Mid-America Regional Council Solid Waste Management District, and the Westin to install monitored recycling stations with different bins for plastics, glass, compostables and non-recyclables. It's an effort that will divert an estimated five tons of garbage from landfills.

They've printed their event programs on 100 percent recycled paper with soy-based ink, eliminated disposable cups and  have encouraged people to bring their own water bottles. They're encouraging participants to use digital methods or recycled materials when printing the flyers for their showcases. They even made sustainable wood hotel room key cards.

"It's a small item," says Finnan. "But when you consider that when thousands of people are using them every day, and they get disposed of every day. It all adds up."

According to Visit KC, Kansas City's tourism bureau, Kansas City hosted nearly 300 conferences last year. They say hotels are making an effort to be more energy efficient, but they don't keep data about how organizations are making their conferences greener. 

But one researcher in Switzerland, is studying the environmental impact of the conference industry.

"You can clearly see that the main impact comes from the number of people that have to travel to your conference site," says Roland Hischier a researcher for the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.

In Hischier's study, emissions from planes, trains and automobiles from people getting to and from the conference accounted for 96 percent of the environmental load. 

"We try already in our publication to say, 'What could be alternatives?' We were looking at if you switch completely to a virtual conference, obviously then you don't have all the travel," says Hischier.

But he admits, virtual conferences contradict from the main point of a lot of conferences, which is to bring people together. And it would definitely not be in the spirit of Folk Alliance, says Finnan.

"A digital conference format would lose the family reunion aspect of it. It might be the most environmentally responsible thing to do, but it might not generate the inspiration and traction that ripples back out into grassroots level change in the same way," says Finnan.

So for now, things like reducing printed materials and waste, encouraging people to carpool and use rail to get to the conference are steps in the right direction. Finnan hopes the next few days will not only be a fun event where great music happens and people connect, but also an event where people are inspired to take these simple green practices back to their regular lives when the conference is over.

Suzanne Hogan is a contributor and announcer for KCUR. She does not have Twitter.