Green events blossom in St. Louis
Public events in and around St. Louis are increasingly, visibly, measurably sustainable. It's a trend that is generating business — including profits and educational gains — for organizers, sponsors and service providers alike.
The Gateway City’s social calendar hums year-round with concerts, plays, art fairs, parades, food and sporting events, along with themed festivals of all kinds. Many events run outdoors, and plenty of them are free. Crowds range from a few hundred folks bringing their own lawn chairs to tens of thousands of people gathered in parks or streets.
Leaders of green event efforts are adapting guidelines defined by national and international zero waste organizations to localize success. That task includes waste minimization and management services, along with the support of product vendors, alternative energy providers and public transportation agencies.
Sustainability in bloom
My organization, the Missouri Botanical Garden, is one of many partners in this effort.
Starting in 2012, we strongly encouraged single-stream recycling and suggested composting. By 2014, we had established a new standard which requires all-compostable food service, with the exception of beverage bottles and cans.
Implementing these strategies required personalized vendor support, combined with our Recycling On The Go (ROG) and product supplier partnerships, which ultimately paid off with an 85-90 percent landfill diversion rate last year. With system modifications in place and participant feedback overwhelmingly positive, both 2015 events exceeded 90 percent diversion.
"Garden events and programs are making strides toward zero waste," said Deb Frank, the garden's vice president of sustainability, adding that diversion and pollution prevention goals are bolstered by event partners and participants who support composting and recycling.
For our signature annual events, Japanese Festival and the Best of Missouri Market, we hire Earth Day’s ROG staff to manage multiple waste stations staffed with volunteers. This investment augments the efforts of in-house facility support staff and contractors focused on composting and recycling over the five-plus days of the events.
During these two events alone, the garden hosts over 40,000 attendees served by more than 70 specialty food vendors. To make these long-running events more sustainable, the garden ramped up waste minimization requirements over a three-year period.
Building a green team
My job in this team effort has been to work with guest vendors to help them understand and use all-compostable products, both for service in our food courts and sampling in our sales tents.
We also work with Garrett Paper and Royal Papers, two local suppliers of disposable goods, to promote local purchasing of relevant products.
Joe Garrett Jr., sales manager of family-owned Garrett Paper, said that recyclable and compostable products now constitute over 20 percent of company inventory.
"Prices on these lines are dropping," Garrett said. "A case of compostable forks that cost $95 five years ago is selling today for $50; the wholesale cost of this product dropped about $10 over the last year."
While it’s hard to put a precise number on the increase in customer appetite for these products, Garret said his base of sustainability-minded clients is strong and growing.
St. Louis Composting is another company that partners with the garden to help us get closer to zero waste. They operate a hauling service and six facilities that annually process over 600,000 cubic yards of organic matter into a compost-based range of products including rain garden, raised bed and potting soil mixes, mulches and other specialty soil amendments.
This business benefits from both quantity and quality of event material diverted. "Our original revenues came primarily from tipping fees and much less significantly from product sales," said Patrick Geraty, owner and CEO of St. Louis Composting.
Now, that ratio has flipped, thanks to demand for compost for soil health restoration, erosion control, non-toxic fertilizer and other applications. Compost-based products are commercially produced to exacting demands.
"Our products must meet consistent standards," Geraty said. "Clean streams of material are crucial to our processing efficiencies. Our public event partners understand these requirements and work hard to send us organics that are free of contaminants."
In order to meet these standards, collection systems at events must front-load all-compostable inputs and diligently monitor collection points. Recycling collection is more forgiving than food waste composting, but plenty of people power is still needed.
Waste stations are staffed by paid and volunteer green teams who prevent and remove contaminating items. More important, we get to educate guests of all ages about options for zero waste.
As a third party partner, the ROG program offers multiple tiers of service that range from a full package of on-site supervisors, support staff and equipment to more economical do-it-yourself collection bins, signs and bags.
ROG service fees augment Earth Day’s grant and sponsorship viability, currently covering 40 percent of program costs, and the group also provides green events training for event organizers.
Semi-annual workshops detail how to work with vendors and sponsors to reduce waste, plan and implement recycling and composting collection and track diversion outcomes. Attendees also get access to an online Event Greening Toolkit.
How diversion promotes prevention
Although most of our efforts focus on waste diversion, greater visibility of composting and recycling at St. Louis public events is also building awareness of pollution prevention options.
The annual Earth Day Challenge solicits festival exhibitor prize donations to reward attendees who bring their own reusable shopping bag or water bottle and use low-impact transportation (cycling, carpooling, transit) to and from the event. Regional transit agency Metro supported the take transit messaging of the festival this year by scheduling a major light-rail station renovation to start after the event.
Every Wednesday evening in June and July, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Whitaker Music Festival welcomes 6,000 to 10,000 guests who bring their own (often lavish) picnic suppers and lawn seating to our free outdoor concerts.
Volunteers staff Waste-Free Whitaker interactive stations to educate guests about P2 options, and adults can enter a prize drawing by pledging to green their next concert visit on the Hit A Green Note webpage of sustainable outing options. Mobile outdoor "coil coolers" and bottle-filling stations in garden buildings offer visitors chilled tap water refills as a free alternative to bottled water.
Local utilities provide important support. Electric company Ameren’s Pure Power voluntary renewable energy program regularly contributes offset credits covering the estimated energy use associated with event production. Utilities that provide cash sponsorship for sustainability-focused events partner with organizers to promote water and energy conservation, alternative transportation, solid waste reduction and other pollution prevention options.
These partnerships benefit both the companies and event hosts by offering huge public exposure to more sustainable practices.
Cultivating a zero-waste culture
Green is growing across St. Louis’ public space and event sector.
Fans of Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals see recycling and composting in play at every home game and experience annual Green Week activities through servicessuch as electronics and shoe recycling. Travelers through Lambert St. Louis International Airport use composting services being piloted in 30 percent of food and beverage operations, as well as single-stream recycling on all concourses.
Pollution prevention and waste minimization practices have become the norm on the corporate and institutional campuses of St. Louis Green Business Challenge participants. Another St. Louis Earth Day program, the Green Dining Alliance, also contributes to public awareness. Over 60 local restaurants, catering services and food suppliers are certified by this assessment and coaching program, geared to serve the unique needs of food-based businesses.
The GDA has established the nation’s first "Green Dining District" in the eclectic suburb of Maplewood, Missouri. GDA certification promotes sustainable choices from waste minimization to local-food sourcing in a cultural niche that commands huge social and conventional media attention. Many of these restaurants also serve at public events, supporting event greening while generating business in two entertainment sectors.
When you see these practices in many public spaces, the sustainable mindset increasingly becomes a social norm. And for partners in St. Louis event sustainability circles — whether your product is compost, corn-polymer cups or an educated pubic — this trend can translate into new business.