A step-by-step guide to zero-waste events

Gordon Murray
Lee Spivak from Waste Management gives a zero-waste tour at the GreenBiz 18 conference in Phoenix.

A zero-waste event. It may seem daunting, or even unachievable to some. However, it isn’t as strenuous a task as you would imagine, and we need you to make this change.

It is well known that methane is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of climate change, and when biotic waste is forced to decompose anaerobically in landfills, massive amounts of methane spew into our atmosphere. Thus, I challenge you to make it your personal responsibility to make zero-waste events your company’s new norm.

My first large-scale zero-waste experience was at Second Nature’s Presidential Climate Leadership Summit in 2017, at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel outside Phoenix. I partnered with GreenLight Solutions Foundation, Yellow Chair Events, Recycled City and Keep Phoenix Beautiful to divert 203 pounds of compost and 38 pounds of recycling. I later learned that I worked exceedingly harder than I should have at this event.

Fast-forward to the 2018 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, held at the Doubletree Tempe, where we diverted 110 pounds of compost and our efforts ran much more efficiently. Since then, I’ve translated my lessons learned into best practices that I feel responsible to share with you. Following is a general framework for zero waste that can be modified for any type of event or venue.

Collaborate with the venue

Meet with your point of contact at the venue in advance and make them aware of your waste-diversion goals. I suggest meeting with whoever oversees the "back of house" processes. Tour the space, noting all areas where waste will occur. Even if the venue’s staff has not engaged in anything sustainability-related before, you would be surprised at their adaptability and openness to learn. Nevertheless, it is important to find feasible solutions together that work for both parties.

Ask questions such as these:

  • What type of waste infrastructure does the venue have in place? This will tell you what type of collection services you will have to set in motion and be responsible for (composting and/or recycling partnerships and pick-ups). I recommend carts to transport the bins, if this is applicable to your situation.
  • How is food waste normally disposed of? Will attendees dispose of their own food waste or will servers take care of it? I recommend keeping the composting at the back of house, making contamination much less likely. Teaching 20 kitchen staff proper food disposal methods has less room for error than trying to bin guard for hundreds of partygoers.
  • What are the points of intervention to intercept waste on its way to the landfill? Where are the waste bins located normally and have we completely intercepted them? Being thorough and detail-oriented is key. Be familiar with the venue, its procedures and where and when waste will occur. I recommend acquiring an event program and a map of the venue, if applicable.
  • What is on the menu? Will any packaging be involved at meal time? Know your waste, which means knowing your inputs and materials. It is important to research what can be recycled and composted in your area in terms of the specific waste facilities you are working with. This could mean contacting your local recycling or composting company, or just reading up online.
  • How can we can make sure that every new shift follows the new procedures?
  • For meal prep, is there a compost and recycle bin in the kitchen for food waste and packaging obtained at this stage?

Train the back-of-house staff

Training the back-of-house staff should only take 10 to 15 minutes, including time for questions. Make sure to include the following:

  • Enlighten the new zero-waste practitioners. Run through a list of what is compostable and recyclable and how to properly dispose of the materials.
  • Include ethos. Share why what they are doing matters and that their efforts really do make a difference. I could include what I said here, but I think it is valuable to keep this open for personal interpretation. I always like to make a quick shout-out to watch "Before the Flood" and "Racing Extinction," two of my favorite films on climate communications.
  • If the Super Bowl can do it… Add that responsible waste management is becoming the new norm.

Set a higher standard for vendors

If you will have outside vendors at your event, collaborate with them about your waste diversion plans as well. Follow the above procedure by asking similar questions to those you asked your venue contact. Again, know your waste — which means, knowing your vendors’ waste.

Once you find the right vendors that share the same values as you (or once make the necessary changes with your existing vendors), you will have to make that vendor transition only once and you’re set for future events. Tell them why what they are doing matters and that this is critical for their involvement with your event. Education and giving them enough time and support to make necessary changes is crucial (See Nos. 1 and 2 above).

Final recommendations

  • Bin guarders are not optional. If you leave it up to the attendees to dispose of their waste, it is crucial that you have bin guarders and signs. I cannot stress this enough. The attendees are not taking better habits home with them if they are not recycling and composting correctly; make this a learning opportunity for everyone attending the event.
  • Raise awareness. Make it known to the attendees that it is a zero-waste event; this means beforehand and during the event, but also make your successes and lessons learned public after the event.
  • Convenience is key. Generally, people will not recycle or compost unless bins are directly next to the trash bin, as opposed to having them at opposite sides of the room. Hence, make sure you have enough compost and recycle bins for every trash bin. However, I recommend not making trash bins available at all.
  • Allow for adaptation. Engage in an iterative process. After the event, get feedback from volunteers, partners and the venue. This is incredibly valuable moving forward as you continually improve your zero-waste efforts.

Your event could have great impacts, well after the attendees have left the venue. The vendors, venue and attendees might even adopt these practices in their normal routines thanks to your event. Start that conversation with them and, better yet, support their transition if you have the capacity. Following our event, the Doubletree reached out to us showing interest in composting regularly.

All it took was communication, asking the right questions and putting the right procedures in place. Like any routine, it does get easier with practice, and before you know it, zero waste will become second nature to your company.

Just like sending out invitations, gathering RSVPs, securing vendors, creating a program and so forth, zero-waste efforts must be an automatic standard for all cutting-edge companies. Making your events zero waste can be the next honorable achievement in your CSR repertoire — and maybe your easiest, most tangible feat yet.

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