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by Sarah J.F. Braley | October 25, 2013

Picture a trade-show floor, one where the last attendee has gone home; one that has been trod for days by thousands of feet, where bits of food have been served and consumed, where tchotchkes have been handed out and Hershey's kisses devoured by the dozens. What's left behind? Detritus that once all ended up in Dumpsters by the loading dock.

Now, a growing number of convention centers are diverting all the waste they can. For instance, the Las Vegas Convention Center currently averages a 65 percent recycling rate for all events, recovering on average 431 tons of cardboard, 302 tons of plastic, 132 tons of carpet padding, 173 tons of mixed paper, 130 tons of various metals and 205 tons of wood annually. Aiding in the efforts around the country is the Freeman Co., which specializes in the nuts, bolts and décor of bringing a trade show or exhibition to life.

"Two years ago when I came over to Freeman, we could identify only about 20 clients in the company who focused on green at their events," says Jeff Chase, above, vice president of sustainability for all the Freeman divisions. "Now we've got about 85 clients doing about 200 shows. A lot of the corporate groups that have it in their mission statements to be environmentally friendly, now are rolling it into their trade shows. They're kicking in big time."

Chase's goal is to get sustainability sewn into the fabric of the company: "I've been going around to all the offices and doing talks and training sessions." For clients on this path, Freeman salespeople have a kit detailing the environmentally friendly booth, using state-of-the-art materials that are reusable and ultimately recyclable.

"We try to look at the complete life cycle of the booth, at what materials we could use in the beginning to build walls," says Chase. For example, the aluminum used in Freeman's modular interlocking system to build frames and furniture for the show floor is made from 60 percent recycled materials and is as recyclable itself as aluminum cans. The panels for those frames, once made from landfill-unfriendly foam core, now can be made with Falconboard, a high-quality cardboard. Those panels, which carry client logos and signs, come from Freeman's graphics department, which produces about 14 million square feet of all kinds of signage a year. "We're trying to find the best substrates that can go into the recycle stream or can be reused," Chase notes. "Falconboard now is being used in many of our cities, and we are working on making it our standard material."

Chase is having trouble finding a material to replace the vinyl used in large banners. But he has found some companies -- such as Sky Group and Relan, both in Minneapolis -- that will take the banners and turn them into linings for pools, materials for roofing, tarps to cover haystacks in farmers' fields and more. Repurpose America in Las Vegas takes the banners and turns them into badge holders.

Carpeting is another big area where Freeman is experimenting to reduce waste. "Typically, carpet is used three or four times, and then it has to be disposed of," says Chase. "It's a big volume, so we're trying to find alternatives for the flooring, to determine what flooring will look like in 10 years. Will there be something recyclable?" Currently, Freeman is offering a speckled carpeting in black-on-black, black-on-gray and black-on-red that has a high percentage of recycled content and can be reused and recycled.

Clients are doing their part, too, by adding charitable elements to their programs. "People are really picking up on the whole CSR aspect at their shows, donating bags, giving extras to local schools or Habitat for Humanity," he says. Freeman helps to gather the materials from the exhibitors, working with the charity and the CVB, and taking pictures to tell the story. Chase is heartened by how members of the local unions get involved, too: "When I go into a city like Philadelphia or Detroit, I give a green speech every morning to all the union guys. I've had so many come up to me after to say that it's the first time they've heard anybody talk about helping the community they work in every day. Many of these union people live in these communities, and they care. It's pretty cool."