Fairs tout green efforts, but some still struggle
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The doughnut stand's exterior was plastic and studded with incandescent lights. It had its own humming generators. And the cold water for sale came in plastic bottles.
But unlike most of the hundreds of vendors at the Illinois State Fair, The Donut Family was in contention for the fair's first-ever Green Vendor Award.
Why? It served its fare in paper, not foam or plastic.
At an institution where recycling became a possibility only a year ago, a vendor doing business without plastic foam is as green as it gets.
It's the same across the country, as state and county fair organizers promote "going green" this summer but many are having difficulty following through.
"It's a learning curve," said Marla Calico, a director at the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which represents state and county fairs in the United States and Canada. "A lot of it depends upon the fair's community."
Fairs in California and Washington are ahead of the curve, installing solar panels to generate electricity and converting used cooking oil into biofuel. Others, like Missouri, are introducing recycling bins for the first time.
The Illinois State Fair began setting up recycling bins for plastic bottles last year. But those are still scarce, compared with trash cans.
This year, the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity set up kiosks throughout the grounds promoting conservation. They have calculators where people can enter numbers to determine their effect on the environment and learn how to minimize it.
"It's a good way to attract families so that they can learn about, you know, small steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint," said Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for the department.
But organizers say the fair itself cannot cut back on energy use, or at least not by much. Vendors need electricity. Barns need to be cooled. If you don't refrigerate display shelves, award-winning pies grow mold.
"There's only so much you can reduce," fair director Amy Bliefnick said. "We've tried to replace light bulbs. We can probably encourage more recyclable materials with our vendors."
And there's an image to maintain.
"Because we're a fair, we like things bright and shiny, lights running and colorful," said Susan Lavoie, vice president of the Eastern States Exposition, or the Big E, a multistate fair for New England.
Only recently have fairs like the Big E begun asking vendors to turn off lights when they're done for the night.
"A lot of them used to just leave them running all night because it looks nice," Lavoie said.
"Definitely we pull a lot of wattage," said Sue Gooding, spokeswoman for the State Fair of Texas. "The rides that come in, when you're talking about the types and sizes of exhibit buildings that we have, it is a massive undertaking."
In California, a solar panel was installed this year that generated enough electricity to run amplifiers for an outdoor concert at Marin County's fair. Organizers of that fair touted their event as the "greenest county fair on Earth."
"We still had to use regular electricity to work the fans, the misters, to keep all the animals cool," said Clara Franco, publicist for the Marin County fair. "It's hard to go completely green. But that's not to say that little things can't be done here or there."
There are hurdles, especially concerning the crowds.
The Big E provides recycling for vendors this year, but it doesn't put out recycling bins for fairgoers -- instead, workers pick out aluminum and glass from the trash.
"We found that to work better because the public doesn't necessarily know the different bins," Lavoie said.
Craig Perkins, director of The Energy Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes efficient energy use, says that if fairs are serious about going green they need to make better energy use and waste management a part of all their activities.
"The most important element is if they're really taking it seriously, or if they're just paying lip service," he said.
There are big financial elements that can make fair organizers take conservation seriously -- it costs Illinois more than $165,000 to haul away the fair trash, 37 tons a day for 10 days.
"Things are different now," said Bliefnick, the Illinois State Fair director. "That's our goal, though, is to change with the times."