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South by Southwest attendee bag waste problem lingers

Although there seems to be fewer materials in the SXSW Film conference bag than a year ago, there are still pounds of paper being wasted this year on each attendee.

The sea of attendee bags for the 2008 South by Southwest festivals stretches nearly as far as the eye can see. While attendees of one of the festivals--say, Interactive--get only one bag, those who are attending more than one get a bag for each. As a Gold pass holder, I got bags for Film and Interactive. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--One of the things I left this capital city after South by Southwest (SXSW) 2007 hoping for was that the conference organizers would do something to solve the problem of the massive amount of wasted materials that end up in attendees' swag bags.

As I noted last year, someone here to attend all three of the SXSW festivals--Interactive, Film and Music--would receive three separate bags containing more than ten pounds of newspapers, magazines, fliers, and so much more.

So when arriving here this year for South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), I wanted to see how things had changed, if at all, with the bag situation. After all, green is hot these days and everywhere you look, people and organizations are working hard to get closer to carbon neutrality.

Here's my report: While the film festival's bag seemed a bit lighter this year, I would have to say that, on the whole, the situation is much the same this year. Walking behind a curtain in the bag pickup area revealed, just as last year, a sea of bags nearly as far as I could see.

Two South by Southwest attendees pose for a picture with their multiple bags. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And later, when I took the two bags I was given as a Gold pass holder--for the interactive and film festivals--back to my hotel room, it took me more than five minutes to lay everything from them out on the floor for a photograph.

So I asked someone in the conference's sales department about this.

"There's a huge demand for people to be able to market themselves at South by Southwest," said Luann Williams, who works in sales and marketing for the music festival. "(But) we are very conscious of the green aspect."

Williams told me that the conference has a "carbon neutral" team and that over the course of last summer, as planning was picking up for the 2008 event, that team brought up the problem of the bags' being wasteful multiple times in hopes that something could be done about it.

I pointed out to her that in my previous two years coming to Austin for SXSW, I'd seen many attendees go through their bags and simply pile up the contents--almost all of which they don't want--in the corner of their hotel rooms. And who knows if the hotels recycle those materials.

She responded by saying that the conference encourages people to go through their bags at the Austin Convention Center, where SXSW is being held, because the conference offers places for attendees to recycle what they don't want.

The entire contents of the South by Southwest Interactive and Film attendee bags took more than five minutes to lay out on the ground. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

To be sure, some people do that. But certainly not everyone, not by a long shot.

As I noted above, I do think that the film bag was much lighter this year, and there was almost no overlap between the film and interactive bags. Whether that was intentional or not, it is a start.

Williams also pointed out that the conference bags, which are made out of canvas and have attractive art on their fronts, are commonly taken home by attendees.

"People re-use the bags as grocery bags and laundry bags," Williams said. "I've notice, when traveling around the country, people using South by Southwest bags for those kinds of things."

I asked her if the organizers had considered putting the materials included in the bags on CDs or DVDs so that attendees could look at them on their computers at their leisure, and without so much paper waste.

"We've talked about that, but we haven't gotten there yet," Williams responded. "(We) might do (that) more for Interactive. We're taking baby steps."

See more stories in CNET's coverage of SXSWi (click here).