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New This Year

General Assembly showing a more eco-friendly face.
By Donald E. Skinner
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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The programs are great, and the company is unparalleled, but many environmentally aware Unitarian Universalists are frustrated with General Assembly and its mounds of waste paper, its limited recycling, and the constant fight to keep hotels from changing bed sheets daily.

But no more. Starting with the 2005 edition in Fort Worth, Texas, June 23-27, General Assemblies, which annually bring three to four thousand Unitarian Universalists together to do the business of our Association, will show a more eco-friendly face to the world. The General Assembly Planning Committee, with the help of green conference consultant Amy Spatrisano, has been working on ways to minimize GA's impact on the host city while helping convention centers and hotels adopt green practices as good business.

The effort got rolling at GA 2003 when the Seventh Principle Project, the UUA-affiliated environmental organization, surveyed attendees. It found a high level of support for a greener GA and encouraged the planning committee to hire Spatrisano. The committee decided that it wanted to adopt green practices for this year's GA.

And now a caveat: When the decision was made, contracts had already been signed with the Fort Worth convention center and hotels. So nothing is in writing and, Spatrisano says, "We're asking them, 'Will you please do these things?' I don't want to create a huge expectation for a completely green GA at Fort Worth. But at St. Louis in 2006, we'll have green practices in the contract."

In Fort Worth there will be places to recycle paper, cardboard, glass, and aluminum. Attendees will receive instructions on how to ask hotel staff to not leave complimentary newspapers every morning if they will go unread and to not change bed sheets and all the towels every day. Caterers have been asked to avoid styrofoam and to use many locally grown products. "We've given them a list of things we'd like for them to do," Spatrisano said. "We'll get some of them, but not all." Hotels used in 2006 and beyond will also be encouraged to install low-flow showerheads and toilets.

The hope is that green GAs will show convention centers that being green can be good for business, and that doing less laundry and buying fewer newspapers not only helps the environment but also saves them money. "This work provides a tremendous opportunity to educate people," Spatrisano says. "Our ultimate purpose is to help them see the value of being green so that they continue to do it long after we're gone. That's the way that GA can change communities as it moves across the country. We want that to be our legacy."

Spatrisano is in the second year of a two-year contract with the UUA to help the GA Planning Committee learn how to organize green meetings. "She's essentially working herself out of a job," says Jan Sneegas, director of the General Assembly and Conference Planning Office. "We're learning from her, and then we'll do it ourselves."

Fort Worth has proven to be a challenging place to start a green movement. For starters, Fort Worth does not have a recycling program for commercial properties. GA planners found a private hauler who is willing to provide recycling for GA. "He's done a lot of research on his own, and he's looking at the possibility of creating a business for himself with this," says Spatrisano. "This could be a huge success for him as well as for us."

Lyn Stangland Cameron, intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland, appreciates the greening effort. "I have always asked my GA hotel not to launder my linens and towels daily," she says, "and I've tried to be aware of opportunities like recycling when they have existed. A greener GA encourages us all to practice our faith, to take a tiny step toward sustainability together."

Claudia Kern of Lyme, New Hampshire, always takes two things to General Assembly-a refillable water bottle and a card advising hotel staff that she doesn't want her sheets changed every day. As chair of the Seventh Principle Project, she's long been aware of the waste created at GA.

"I feel great pride in seeing the UUA take this step," Kern says. "Greening GA will ripple outward, educating the hospitality industry and, we hope, inspiring a closer look at other UUA practices. Being one of the first faith communities to green our national meetings is something we can be proud of. We can set an example for other groups to follow."

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