Evolution of an Eco Experience

Many of today’s environmental problems are ones that are most influenced by the behavior of everyday people. Our individual actions—mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, driving the car—produce small amounts of pollution that when added together become big problems. These challenges demand a new approach. We must help people understand how their actions influence the environment and then make informed choices to reduce those impacts.

About the Eco Experience
The Eco Experience is the largest environmental event of its kind in the country, attracting 350,000 visitors in both 2006 and 2007 during the 12-day Minnesota State Fair. The 25,000-square-foot building is devoted entirely to educating visitors on ways to lessen their environmental footprint, and features:

â–     A cutting-edge eco home built inside the main exhibit hall;

â–     Displays on renewable energy and organic products;

â–     An outdoor rain garden;

â–     Local and organic food;

â–     The latest in new vehicles and fuels; and

â–     Kids’ activities, speakers, and demonstrations.

The Eco Experience is a model of collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses working together to promote sustainable behavior and products. The partnership includes the Minnesota State Fair and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (the main coordinator of the effort) and nearly 30 exhibiting organizations and over 100 other supporting business, government and nonprofit partners. Total support from partners has been over $1 million each year.

Overcoming challenges
In 2005, MPCA educator Jeff Ledermann approached the Minnesota State Fair with several ideas to promote sustainability. The State Fair liked his ideas so much it gave the MPCA the opportunity to create a comprehensive exhibit that would offer resources and ideas on a range of environmental topics—renewable energy, transportation, green building, etc.—to a broad cross-section of the state’s population. The State Fair draws 1.7 million visitors each year. The Fair offered the space for no charge, but it was up to the MPCA to determine who would exhibit and what the messages would be. The sole purpose of the exhibit would be to educate and inspire action; exhibitors would not sell anything.
The first year involved many challenges, including a tight timeframe and limited resources. But the most critical challenge was making environmental issues interesting to the average fairgoer and prompting them to make a commitment to change their behavior in ways that will benefit the environment.
Time was an important factor. We were given the final okay from the State Fair in February 2006 and had just six months to develop a plan and implement it. A lot was at stake. We had promised the State Fair that we would deliver a quality exhibit and they were counting on it. As project manager, Jeff Ledermann quickly assembled a team that met weekly to coordinate and communicate progress, solve problems, and keep work moving along.
The team first determined who to recruit to be part of the building and the topics to be included (water, wind, solar, transportation, hydrogen, green buildings, waste reduction,and healthy local food). The agency specifically targeted organizations and associations that had the connections and resources to manage a specific topical area. With support and guidance from the MPCA, those partners were empowered to design, develop, and coordinate their area.
Internally, staff developed displays to promote MPCA’s goals of protecting water and air quality, and reducing waste. Communication staff worked to create a consistent image for the building and exhibits and mapped out the layout of the building. The whole group (staff and partners) met three times during the summer to make sure each exhibitor was on track. MPCA staff was also in regular contact with individual partners as they developed their components.

Media outreach
An outside media consultant, Evans Larson, helps support the agency’s media efforts, including press releases, an online media kit (to reduce paper use), and interviews. The State Fair promoted the event heavily through their media efforts. The event generated hundreds of media stories from newspapers, radio and TV—with an advertising value of over $2 million and an impact of 25 to 50 million impressions each year.

Recruiting volunteers
The biggest challenge for many partners was staffing their area for 12 days, 12 hours each day. To make sure there were enough people around the exhibit to create a good experience for visitors, MPCA helped some of the smaller organizations that were particularly struggling with this issue. MPCA recruited 300 staff volunteers and 200 external volunteers by posting a request on www.ecoexperience.org website, sending a notice through the Minnesota Sustainable Communities Network and e-mailing those who had previously volunteered for the Living Green Expo, another event coordinated by the agency. In the end, MPCA was able to coordinate and provide 500 volunteers.
By all measures, the Eco Experience is a success. In both 2006 and 2007, the exhibit drew 350,000 attendees and took advantage of partnerships with more than 140 businesses and organizations. The building was the second biggest draw on the fairgrounds.
While creating behavior change is difficult, studies show that making a verbal or written commitment to take action greatly increases the chances of follow-through. Of those surveyed, 89 % took away one environmental action that they said they would apply to their daily lives—from increasing their recycling and composting rates to driving and idling less.
The Eco Experience is now one of many tools that MPCA uses to promote sustainable behavior:

â–     www.livinggreen.org and www.reduce.org: Information about how to reduce our impact on the environment.

â–     Living Green 365: What began as an e-newsletter full of tips and ideas to live green year-round, has evolved into an agency program.

â–     Living Green Expo: A free, annual event featuring over 200 exhibitors of products, services, and information, along with workshops on a variety of sustainability and green living topics. In 2007, more than 22,000 people attended the two-day event.

Creating a green event
Eco Experience organizers work hard to ensure that they “walk the talk” in the production of the event itself.

â–     Tackling trash: The Eco Experience is a part of a pilot project to increase recycling and composting opportunities. There are three recycling stations in the building, and visitors are able to recycle bottles and cans, clean paper (brochures, etc.) and food scraps and dirty paper (sandwich wrappers, paper plates, napkins). In addition, exhibit partners are asked to reduce waste by minimizing the number of handouts and by distributing materials that have a minimal environmental impact.

â–     Working water: Outside the main entrance of the Eco Experience building, a new, permanent rain garden captures about half of the run-off throughout the year from the roof of the building. Not only will this prevent run-off to neighboring lakes and streams, but it also provides beauty and habitat for insects and butterflies.

â–     Efficient energy: On the south side of the Fairgrounds, the CHS Miracle of Birth Center’s solar installation demonstrates to hundreds of thousands of people the possibilities of energy from the sun. Funded by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and installed by Best Power during the construction of this new building, the solar electric and solar thermal panels supply all the center’s hot water and electrical needs, plus provide additional electricity throughout the year to the local electrical grid. This solar energy eliminates the following air pollution each year: 17,900 pounds of carbon dioxide, 54 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 39 pounds of nitrogen oxides.

â–     Sustainable signage and displays: All Eco Experience signage is produced on materials (paper, recycled content fabric, Tyvek) other than vinyl. Vinyl, the standard banner material, has a host of pollution issues connected to its manufacture and disposal. Computers used in the building are EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) Gold level, and the LCD monitors are Silver level.

This article was written by Theresa Gaffey, information officer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It was excerpted from the PR News Going Green: Case Studies in Outstanding Green Business Practices, Volume 1. To order a copy, visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/.