Ask Eartha: Tips for planning a zero waste event from a birthday party to a festival
I saw all the people in green shirts helping with recycling at the Frisco barbecue, and now I’m feeling inspired. I’m planning an event this summer. How do I make it zero waste?
— John, Breckenridge
John, as you know, summer is events season in Summit County. I’m so excited to read that you’re interested in making your event a zero waste affair. No matter the event scope, some preplanning can go a long way in keeping waste out of the landfill.
Size it up
When you say event, are you talking about grandpa’s birthday, a church picnic or the next great beer festival? All are candidates for zero waste efforts, just know that your plan will be different based on the number of expected attendees. No matter the size, it’s wise to offer only recyclable products. Even better? Go reusable whenever possible.
If you’re expecting fewer than 50 people, you’ll likely provide recycling containers (as simple as cardboard boxes) and bring materials to the local recycling center, where you’ll separate items into large dumpsters. This is still an option for events over 50 people, of course, but self-sorting recyclables from dozens of people could be pretty time consuming. If you expect more than 50, it’s time to start weighing the options. If applicable, talk to the staff at your venue or work with town officials during your event-permitting process. They may offer access to single-stream (comingled) recycling, provided you are set up to collect it.
When you start serving upward of 150 people, say at a race or festival, consider contracting directly with a waste service provider. Some businesses simply haul your recyclables out, while others provide bins, staff and educational services. Contact the nonprofit High Country Conservation Center for a complete list of services and businesses.
Create a plan
Some towns require a waste plan as part of the event-permitting process. Even when not required, it’s a good idea to have one. The plan should include where you’re locating waste stations and how many you’ll need. Think about the flow of your event and when and where people are disposing of waste.
Also, consider how you’re hauling materials: DIY to a recycling center or through a contracted service. This will inform what you’ll be collecting and how many different bins you need at each waste station.
Once you know how many waste stations you need and where they will be located, make sure you tell people what goes where. Labels and signs are a great way to do this. It’s important that your labels match what’s accepted at local recycling centers or in comingled recycling. For example, glass is not accepted in single-stream recycling here in Summit County.
If you’re creating signs for a small event, the Conservation Center offers free downloadable signs or you can get inexpensive stickers through Recycle Across America. If you are expecting any materials that might be confusing — milk cartons, for example — tape an example right on the relevant sign.
For large events with food and drink vendors, you’ll want to create a purchasing policy. This could include things like only offering No. 1 plastic cups instead of “compostable” cups. While “compostable” sounds good, these items are not accepted in Summit County’s composting program. In other words, they’re trash.
When it comes to serving food, use products made from recyclable materials. Event directors could ban single-serve packets or even consider a zero waste deposit, refundable only to vendors who comply with the purchasing policy.
Whatever policy you put in place, it’s essential that you let vendors know about your zero waste efforts, any policies they need to follow and give plenty of time for compliance.
And make sure staff, cleaning crews and contractors know how to do their part.
Tips for success
You mentioned the volunteers at the Frisco BBQ Challenge. These folks are a major part of the success with 47% diversion in 2019. If you can, recruit volunteers to assist with waste during the event. This is much easier than picking out contamination after the fact.
Finally, take pride in your efforts. Whether a backyard bash or a full-on festival, zero waste is something we should strive for during all our events. So get your kids, neighbors, employees, vendors and haulers involved, and celebrate the fact that summertime partying doesn’t have to mean heaps of trash in the landfill.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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