Leading by Example: DEM Event Sustainability

Green Certification logo

On May 9, 2023, Governor Dan McKee signed Executive Order (EO) 23-06. It challenged state agencies to “lead by example…to move Rhode Island toward a cleaner, more affordable, reliable, and equitable clean energy future.” Further, the EO directed government agencies to “cooperate with Lead by Example and make every effort to support sustainable initiatives within their own facilities.”

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) already had a strong head-start on implementing a public sustainability initiative. Going back to 2008, the DEM Office of Customer and Technical Assistance (OCTA) partnered with the Rhode Island Hospitality Association to offer the Green Hospitality and Green Hotels programs. They focused on preventing pollution and “putting into practice the commonsense idea that the best way to manage waste is to avoid generating it in the first place” and “the best way to mitigate pollution is to eliminate it at the source.”

Golf courses
By becoming part of the RIDEM program, golf courses can measure their environmental performance over time and use it to educate members and market their sustainable efforts.

The next year, OCTA produced a Green Event Checklist to help organizers adopt best management practices (BMPs) to hold sustainable festivals, conferences, and meetings in Rhode Island. And in 2011, OCTA followed up by partnering with the Rhode Island Golf Course Superintendents Association in launching the Green Golf Course Certification Program. Its aim was to assist golf courses in reducing water use, fertilizer use, pesticide use, and greenhouse gases.

Over time, these measures helped dozens of organizations protect natural resources, reduce trash, and increase awareness in environmental sustainability.

The crowd claps while the stage of the Newport Folk Festival stands in the background on a beautiful day in Newport, RI
Newport Festivals Foundation (NFF) is leading by example on sustainability, and not only is DEM grateful, but we also are working on incorporating sustainability practices at other events, large and small, held throughout the state park system.

After the Governor’s Executive Order took effect, however, DEM examined programs and customer touchpoints across the agency to see how it could scale up “leading by example.” One clear opportunity emerged: integrating the green event BMPs developed by the Customer and Technical Assistance team — which is in DEM’s Environmental Protection Bureau — within the Division of Parks and Recreation, which is in the Bureau of Natural Resources. No DEM division interacts with more customers than the Division of Parks and Recreation. Over 9 million Rhode Islanders and out-of-state travelers visit state parks, beaches, and campgrounds every year, and every year, these properties host more than 1,000 events of varying sizes.

Anyone wishing to hold an event at a state park must secure a special use permit. These permits are managed through the Division’s RecDesk reservation system. In the summer of 2023, the Division of Parks and Recreation took reservations for 1,292 events totaling 1,492 event days with a total expected attendance of more than 415,000 visitors. Reserved events ranged in size from 50-person company picnics to walkathons for charitable causes. The Division of Parks and Recreation also is host to large-scale events like the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz festivals, which draw tens of thousands of visitors to Fort Adams State Park. As a pilot program, DEM reached out to a cross-section of around 25 special use permit applicants from the larger pool and provided information on how to hold a green event at a state park. Nineteen out of 24 events — accounting for 49 event days and more than 170,000 people attending — received green certification.

Green Event Certificate
The Organized by Sail Newport and 11th Hour Racing, the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in 2015 at Fort Adams State Park was the first green-certified event held at a state park. Now known as The Ocean Race, it has become the model for large-scale green events.

This means that, with technical assistance from DEM, organizers ran events that reduced or eliminated single-use plastic water bottles, provided water refilling stations for visitors bringing their own reusable bottles, eliminated single-use plastic straws, provided ample opportunity for attendees to recycle and compost trash and leftover food items, and did many other things to shrink the event’s carbon footprint and reduce trash.

DEM will reach out to more and more event organizers every year, guiding them on how they, too, can lead by example. The Volvo Ocean Race stopover held in 2015 at Fort Adams State Park was the first green-certified event held at a state park. Organized by Sail Newport and 11th Hour Racing, the stopover for this event, now known as The Ocean Race, has become the model for thoughtfully designed, well run green events. That it is a large-scale event — spanning 12 days and attracting more than 100,000 visitors — shows that all events can set and achieve ambitious sustainability goals.