Zero Waste Events

Once upon a time, we thought differently. The oceans are so vast that dumping in a little trash here and a little trash there couldn’t hurt. Today, that line of thinking has led to 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface.

We once thought that organic waste in a landfill would naturally biodegrade. We now know that, when crushed under tons of garbage, organic waste decomposes without exposure to oxygen. This process, known as anaerobic decomposition, releases methane gas into the atmosphere, which is 21 times more harmful to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide.

We need to make some changes, or our way of life could be severely threatened.

That is the motivation behind zero waste events. A zero waste event – one where the goal is to dramatically reduce the amount of waste sent to a landfill – takes planning and forethought. It means working with like-minded vendors and being willing to get a little dirty (someone has to pull that glass bottle out of the composting bin). However, the goal is not impossible, or even as daunting, as it may initially seem.

Start with Organization-Wide Buy-In

Creating a zero-waste event is a worthwhile endeavor, but it is also more difficult than creating a traditional live event – which already takes a ton of work. However, when everyone believes in the premise and works toward the common goal, it becomes much easier to achieve.

For example, in 2013, Duke University began its Zero Waste Game Day initiative. The goal is to ensure that 90 percent of the waste for all home football games is either recycled or composted. 

As part of the initiative, members of the Duke football team donate some time to create gameday zero waste packets. The packets include education and materials that help explain how to dispose of recyclables, compost, and trash. They are then distributed to tailgaters to help minimize landfill waste from those in the parking lot before the game.  

The efforts are paying off. According to an article published on Duke Today, Rebecca Hoeffler, Program and Communications Coordinator for Sustainable Duke, said “she’s heard from student volunteers who have approached pregame tailgates, ready to hand out recycling, compost, and trash bags and inform fans about how to sort their waste so less of it ends up in the landfill, only to have fans say they’re already on top of it.”

Make Attendees Aware

The efforts of the Duke football team and everyone involved in Zero Waste Game Day reinforce the importance – and effectiveness – of ensuring that attendees are informed of the zero waste efforts. Make the fact that your event is a zero waste event a significant part of your pre-event communication, so attendees are prepared when they arrive.

Zero Waste Game HERO.jpg

Photo Credit: Duke Today

Communication at a zero-waste event makes signage extremely important. Not only will you need signage by the waste bins to ensure that attendees understand what refuse goes where, but signage should also be placed near food and beverage stations to reinforce your zero waste efforts. You could even include some helpful trivia like, “Each ton of recycled plastic saves the equivalent of 2,000 pounds of oil and the energy used by two people in a year.”

Don’t Make Trash Bins an Option

Everything that your attendees receive will either be recyclable or compostable. This means there is only a need for two bins: recycling and compost.

Still, even with everything clearly labeled and clear signage posted throughout the venue, guests will still mistakenly throw a compostable plate in the recycling bin or toss a can in the compost. To combat this, have an employee or volunteer stationed by the bins to monitor guest behavior, gently try to prevent mistakes, and reach in the bins to correct misuse and avoid contamination.

Work with the Right Venues and Vendors

The venue you find will likely be very adaptable and willing to accommodate your zero-waste initiative, even if it does not typically have many green programs of its own. However, you will need to become very familiar with the venue’s layout and typical waste disposal routine, especially if the staff is just being introduced to a zero-waste concept. Old habits are hard to break, and some people will always take the easy way out and throw everything in the garbage.

Unlike the receptacles used by your attendees, you cannot remove the trash receptacles from the back of the house. There are laws specific to food preparation techniques, such as staff needing to wear gloves and hairnets and to use items like plastic wrap. While you can ensure that this waste is diverted from landfill and sent to a waste to energy plant, you need to make sure that the trash receptacle is not over- or misused. This leaves you with two options: have someone from your team stationed by the back of the house waste receptacles or go through these containers and re-sort the waste once the event ends.

The good news is that most venue staff are receptive to and willing to learn about zero-waste efforts. Before your event begins, hold a meeting where you go over everything that is compostable compared to recyclable and how to properly dispose of these materials. Be sure to communicate your reasons for hosting a zero-waste event. Making it personal can help motivate behavior change in others, even if it’s just for the duration of your event.


Photo Credit: Saint Louis City Recycles

Fortunately, you have more control over the vendors you select. Before signing any contracts, carefully research all vendors to ensure they are 100 percent green. Make sure all of the products they use are certified as compostable, recyclable, or reusable. Then, on the day of the event, you should inspect to ensure that the vendors are maintaining the “compostable, recyclable, and reusable” standards they agreed to follow. If any vendor is found not to comply (maybe they were unable to acquire compostable plates and chose to run to the store as a last-minute option), close their booth until they meet your standards.

Partnering with the right vendors can also add true value to your event. For example, this year, Subaru’s National Business Conference was a zero-waste effort. The event attracted more than 2,000 attendees and was able to divert 33,000 pounds of trash away from landfills. This was achieved, in part, through a partnership with TerraCycle. TerraCycle’s mission statement is to take material that most believe cannot be recycled and find a way to reuse, upcycle, or recycle it. One of the company’s programs is to partner with municipalities to recycle cigarette butts, which TerraCycle uses to make park benches. For the Subaru National Business Conference, TerraCycle collected everything that would have gone to a landfill.

Energy Use

Work with your venue to find an energy provider that offers renewable energy options. If there is an aspect of the event that is not renewable – or that you cannot control, such as attendee travel – buy offsets to naturalize your carbon footprint.

Anytime there is a large gathering of people, there is the potential of a negative environmental impact. However, through zero-waste initiatives, event planners have the opportunity to avoid negative effects and replace them with positive outcomes.