The wonderful world of sustainability at the Expo

UNEP WED2015 Post 1 of 2 – This post was originally published on the UNEP website, I wrote it in my role as the official blogger for World Environment Day in 2015
Wandering around the World Expo in Milan is a bit like playing “spot the neat sustainability feature”. Some are massive and obvious, like the US Pavilion kitchen garden façade. Some are only revealed when you seek out the sustainability exhibit in the corner, like the photo-catalytic tiles at the New Holland agriculture pavilion. And some are just plain quirky. A highlight of the Expo were the traditional Estonian kiik swings which could generate up to 5 watts of electricity, enough to power a mobile phone!

The sustainability initiatives of the Expo itself echo the aims of World Environment Day – to increase awareness around reducing consumption. The “Towards a Sustainable Expo” provides recognition of sustainable design and practices at the Expo. Among all the countries participating, Mexico and Ireland were identified as leaders in having integrated sustainability into their pavilion design and materials. The program involved the evaluation of participants in the preliminary and definitive design phases of the pavilions, undertaken by the Politecnico di Milano.

This program has successfully improved sustainability outcomes – with 60% of participants installing solar photovoltaic cells, 80% reducing their air-conditioning requirements and 50% installing more than the required amount of green roofing. Given the temporary nature of the Expo, a particular focus was placed on the “second life” or the use of the pavilion after the Expo. Of the 74 program participants, 29 have plans to reuse the entire pavilion after the Expo, with many others planning to reuse part of the pavilion.

Not so obviously promoted were the sustainability features of the Expo more broadly. A chat with the Expo Sustainability Director provided insight into some of the initiatives. The separated waste collection was evidently effective, with clearly labelled bins allowing patrons to easily place their waste in the correct location. Much of the packaging used by caterers was biodegradable or recyclable. Through these initiatives, the Expo is currently diverting 60% of waste from landfill, with a goal to increase it to 70% over the course of the Expo. Organic waste is collected by neat bicycle couriers and composted locally in Milan.

Though pavilions are temporary, the voluntary pavilion sustainability design guidelines encouraged efficient design in order to reduce energy consumption. Most pavilions reduced electricity consumption through the use of LED lighting. Passive designs were also adopted in many pavilions, reducing the requirement for air-conditioning. Notable in this area was the Bahrain Pavilion, which was mostly open to the air but channelled cooling breezes through the space.

Perhaps one of the most secret sustainability initiatives was the water refill stations. Hidden away towards the back of pavilions, they were impossible to locate without consulting a map. But finding one was like an oasis! The taps provided refreshing chilled still and sparkling water, easily removing the need to purchase single-use plastic bottles of water. It’s just a pity we didn’t realise they existed earlier, or I might have avoided heat exhaustion on our first day at the expo.
Last but not least, food! Given the theme of the Expo – “feeding the planet, energy for life”, many stalls had a focus on sustainable food production. This was often (rather deliciously) integrated into the pavilion itself. There were numerous green walls, terrace gardens, innovative growing systems and plain old garden beds located around the Expo. These provide great examples of how food can be produced sustainably and locally. Unfortunately, due to Italian Government regulations, none of the food grown onsite can be sold for consumption due to hygiene and food safety reasons. But this doesn’t stop pavilion staff (and sneaky bloggers) from sampling some of the delicious produce.

The integration of these sustainability features into the Expo meant that it provided an ideal backdrop to the World Environment Day celebrations. Not only did the pavilions exhibit ideas for sustainable food consumption, but also the pavilions and the Expo were in themselves prototypes for sustainable development.
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