Last Thursday through Sunday, I was in Portland with a group of high schoolers for the JEA/NSPA National Convention (it’s a convention for student journalists and high school newspaper advisers). We’ve been planning for this convention for months, and with it came all the typical convention “stuff” – hotel arrangements, eating arrangements, and the ubiquitous convention flair that is so a part of our culture. My experience at this convention, which was really no different from any other such gathering, got me to thinking about how truly peculiar are some aspects of this tradition. And though the convention took place in one of the country’s greenest cities, much was to be desired from an environmental standpoint.
When we arrived at the Oregon Convention Center, we made our way to the registration desk, which was all the way at the back of a room the size of a football field. To get to the check-in desk, we had to wind our way through booth after booth of vendors wrangling for our attention. It was no easy task keeping a group of seven high schoolers focused through this gauntlet, let me tell you. After checking in, we each received a name tag – a piece of paper enclosed in a plastic protector – and a convention lanyard. Then I, as the adviser, was given a gift bag – a neat black and orange tote bag emblazoned with “Yearbook It!” Of course, the Jostens yearbook company logo also makes an appearance on the bag, because in the world of student publications, yearbooks are where the money is at. Nevermind that I am a newspaper adviser….
The bag was stuffed full of the usual – coupons, flyers, brocheres, pens, fake tattoos, a rubber band bracelet, a convention program, etc. Most of this stuff I can use, and most of what I can’t use was easily recyclable, but still – I don’t really need a rubber band bracelet or a fake tattoo, do I?
The vendors aimed at the students were much, much more blatant. The students didn’t get gift bags, but by the end of the convention, they might as well have. One booth was giving out lime green reusable grocery bags (neat!), and by the end of the day Friday, I’m pretty sure that each of the 5,000 attendees was carrying a bright green bag around. They stuffed the bags with free flair from other vendors. Some of the giveaways were neat (metal backpack buttons), others downright ridiculous – fake plastic press badges featuring a photo of the student, plastic glow sticks, or light-up guitar pins (what do guitars have to do with journalism, again?). Other typical items were given out, including tons of pens and candy.
I’ve been to many of these events – most of us have – and this particular convention wasn’t worse or better than all the others I’ve attended. I’m not pointing fingers at this convention, but rather at convention rituals in general.
Because really, it’s necessary to ask ourselves how our educational gatherings reached this point. These types of events are so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to recognize them as absurd, but seriously – why do I/we need to be bribed with free plastic crap in order to learn something new in a field we’re interested in? I paid $95 to attend this convention, plus food, hotel, and transportation costs, and I signed up to go because I wanted the opportunity to learn cutting-edge information in my field. I did not sign up for the free goodies that go along with the classes I paid to take.
One side of me, the environmentalist, feels annoyed at all the waste so unnecessarily generated by the cheap plastic giveaways these companies spend thousands of dollars on. The other part of me, the well-trained consumer, understands the pull of freebees. After all, why pay for something when you can get it for free? Any teacher will tell you that these types of events are like hitting the pen/pencil jackpot – load up on free writing implements, and your classroom is stocked for a year.
The point here is that our love of cheap junk runs deep, and we need to extricate ourselves from this web. How much better would it have been, for example, for all the vendors to have spent their promotional money on causes that matter – clean drinking water for all, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless? The trash problem is not just a matter of reducing our dependence on overpackaging. It’s also about creating a willingness to invest in things that matter, rather than coveting throwaway goods.