As I reflect on the 2016 ACS Spring National Meeting, I am now watching a gentle snow fall in Michigan. The San Diego meeting just ended, but it seems like oh so long ago and oh so far away. San Diego did its best to taunt those of us that experience winter with its near perfect climate. No rain of any note and temperatures in the 60s for the duration. The weather and the waterfront location made the interminable walks between venues almost enjoyable. Even in a city as compact as San Diego, the sprawl of an ACS meeting is always a challenge.
An ACS national meeting is largely chaos. A crowd of 15,000 spread across a convention center and every nearby hotel means there is a certain amount of dilution. I look through the program to find the speakers I really want to hear prior to arrival. In the old days, this required looking through an issue of C&EN, highlighting the talks, jotting down the times and locations of all that were of interest, then struggling to see what overlapped and what didn’t. Once at the meeting, it would become clear that only a fraction of the talks could be attended without a Star Trek style transporter.
Technology has improved, though the transporter is not yet an option. Gone are the printed schedules, replaced by an app. The app lets you browse and search, automatically moving things to a schedule it creates. Thanks to the app, I could see the 7 concurrent talks that I wanted to attend on Sunday clearly and easily. In the end, I made it to less than a quarter of the talks I desired due to the overlapping programming and impossible travel, but the app dutifully dinged to inform me of the upcoming events I had selected even when attendance was impossible.
I know that with each passing day, there are more people younger than me and fewer that are older. The crowd at an ACS meeting really reinforces this simple math. The crowd has always trended young. Excited graduate students are a staple at ACS meetings. This is nowhere more evident than at one of my favorite events, the opening of the expo. The expo hall is filled with vendors, all with something to show, many with something to give away. On opening night, there is also food and the expo hall takes on an air of Pamplona. A largely student crowd collects at the doors, jockeying for position more than half an hour before opening. When the doors open, the crowd sweeps into the hall surging to find the food stations set about, grabbing free pens and other giveaways as it sweeps through the aisles. I enjoy watching the sheer spectacle at every meeting.
On my last afternoon, I was lucky to have a single session home to several speakers I wanted to hear. No moving around, just sitting in one place and taking in Science and Perception of Climate Change. No transporter needed. It was a lively session with a very interactive audience and many insights shared. The hypocrisy of a session focused on climate where all present wrecked their personal climate footprint with travel to San Diego was noted. Nonetheless, the session talked through many issues of controlling emissions and the continuing need for education that leads to societal action. The impact of diet was also mentioned.
I attended meetings earlier in the conference where I was put on the horns of a dilemma. I avoid beef as a matter of course, as it is one of the most resource intensive foods. At my meetings, the lunch buffet inevitably featured beef, more beef than the room could consume. Bad as it is for the planet to choose beef over another protein, throwing away beef is worse. I elected to eat other options and later watched woefully as the unfinished beef was carted away, its embodied fossil energy and greenhouse gas footprint having been spent for naught. I attended other social events where the spreads of food clearly exceeded the appetites of those present. Lots of cheese, fruit and other food wasted.
Sitting there in the Science and Perception of Climate Change session, a glorious idea came to me. The ACS convention is a perfect place to attack food waste and its negative climate impact. There are several companies using mobile apps to reduce food waste, allowing rapid responding food banks to get to surplus food. My years of watching the running of the graduate students at the opening of the expo brought the solution to ACS National Meeting food waste issue into focus. The solution is app wielding graduate students. The ACS already has an app that could be modified to “ring the dinner bell”, calling the locust-like swarm of graduate students that sweep through the expo hall to any platter, table or spread of food about to be tossed. Graduate students were hungry in my day, devouring any meeting crumbs placed in hallways after meetings. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we weren’t carrying sophisticated communication devices in our pockets 30 years ago. Today, hungry graduate students can be radio-dispatched.
The Greek proverb was shared during the Science and Perception of Climate Change: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I won’t be bellying up to the trough when the ACS implements my suggested modification to the meeting app to promote food scavenging. I am giving this to the world, seeking no future royalties. I will be responsible for what is likely one of the biggest impacts on sustainability that the ACS could implement, far bigger than badge recycling or biodegradable cutlery. I am the big picture guy with the vision to see a connection between need, demand and the ACS desire to be more sustainable. It is an idea I won’t implement myself. I won’t have to fight through the logistics of making this happen in a way that avoids food fights as multiple hands reach for the last muffin. I won’t have to deal with caterers that simply want to leave as quickly as possible. I won’t have to figure out how to keep the refined ACS evening affairs from being overrun with throngs of food seeking students. I will just have the satisfaction of having done my part for the planet and future generations of chemistry graduate students. It will be shade I never sit in.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.