Planning 101: A Guide to A Zero-Waste Event

Following these six steps to create a zero-waste event.

Zero-Waste Events

I want to take you to an event with me—It’s a dazzling fundraiser set up with 25 food and wine stations from the best chefs in the city. You and 800 other guests are circulating the event floor, moving from one delicious dish to the next.

But there’s one revolutionary detail you might not notice until you look closer: Every trash bin at this event is virtually empty. How was this possible? By following these six steps to create a zero-waste event.

My team and I specialize in executing zero-waste programs at events, and this was one of our most successful.

The event was Corks & Forks, a fundraiser for the Indianapolis-based hunger relief organization Second Helpings. By following these six steps, we succeeded in keeping 91.9 percent of the event’s waste out of the landfill.

This one event wasn’t a fluke—we used this method at multiple events in 2018 and diverted more than 24,000 pounds of event waste from the landfill. So, what are they, you may ask, and how can you apply them at your events?

1) Reduce

You’ve probably heard of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. But, did you know they’re listed in order of priority? Reducing is the most environmentally beneficial thing you can do with event waste, even more so than recycling. To start reducing waste, ask, “What event-design decisions can I make that inherently generate less waste?” Look at areas like your food service ware, signs and banners, and promotional items to identify opportunities to eliminate waste through smart design.

2) Assess

Now that you’ve reduced waste as much as you can, it’s time to assess the remaining waste you expect your event to generate. Mentally walk through the setup, live time and teardown of your event. What is being unpackaged? What are guests and staff throwing away? What won’t you be keeping after the event is over? List every item of anticipated waste, then make your best guess of the most responsible way to dispose of each item: Can it be recycled, composted or donated? This list is your waste inventory and it will serve as the key guide to your zero-waste program.

3) Partner

You probably have a handful of question marks on your waste inventory. Is this item actually recyclable? Would a charity accept this item? That’s where your zero-waste partners come in. Your zero-waste partners are any organizations or individuals who are going to take your waste instead of it being thrown away. Common partners include recycling haulers, compost haulers, hunger-relief organizations and other nonprofit charities. Talk with each of your partners well before your event. Ask them specifically what materials they will and won’t accept, and update your waste inventory accordingly. Work out the logistics of when and how the materials will change hands, as many organizations aren’t staffed during late-night event hours.

4) Communicate

Communication is the lynchpin of a successful zero-waste program because everyone arrives at an event with their own ideas about what can and can’t be recycled. Recycling programs can vary greatly even within the same city, so your guests and staff are likely to have a lot of conflicting ideas. Since you’ve done the legwork of talking to your zero waste partners, it’s your responsibility to clearly communicate what goes into each waste stream in the specific context of your event. Create instructional signs for every waste bin at your event showing the accepted items for each bin. Conduct training with your event staff, venue operations staff, and catering staff about the zero-waste program so everyone is on the same page.

5) Collect

To make waste sorting easy for your guests and staff, group your bins into zero-waste stations. A zero-waste station includes one bin for each waste stream you have. In addition to the signs you’ve posted on your bins, create a zero waste concierge team to monitor the stations throughout the event. Sorting mistakes are inevitable when guests are focused on the content of your event, so your zero waste concierge team should be in charge of graciously correcting any missorted items.

6) Measure

To find out how much waste you kept out of the landfill, weigh each bag of waste using a floor scale, a handheld luggage scale or even a simple bathroom scale. (I promise this doesn’t take as long as you’d think!) Along with the weight, record what type of waste the bag contained. Use this data to calculate your event’s waste diversion rate. Zero-waste events may seem impossible but, in reality, they only take six simple steps to achieve. What kind of zero-waste impact will you have at your next event?