The recycle bin often stands as the unsung hero of an event. While the main focus of the audience might not be on waste – and indeed, it should not be – handling of the waste is one of the most visible signs of addressing sustainability.
The first critical step of waste management is to know what your waste footprint will look like. Are you expecting to serve food that provides organic material for composting? If so, you can break out the compost bins. Are there large amounts of cardboard packaging from shipping/receiving that can be reused? As organizer of the event, you will likely be asked to choose between bidding contractors, each of whom will provide different services and quote various prices. You might have a preference for a certain landfill – say, methane-to-energy – or prefer a company that plans to recycle 85% of the waste.
Secondly, once you have a rough idea of the event footprint, be sure you understand exactly where the waste is going. It is easy to envision a public-relations disaster if that 85% is not being reused as you thought. For example, methane-to-energy is a term used for landfills that produce methane gas from decomposition of organic material in the fill. That methane gas is then captured by pipes in the landfill, and burned to produce energy. From a carbon point of view, this is a very efficient process, as the methane (a greenhouse gas) is burned and reused as heat. Waste-to-energy, on the other hand, denotes burning all solid waste at the disposal site…and that doesn’t look so good from a carbon standpoint. As you may have guessed, some contractors still do not distinguish between the two terms.
Thirdly, it is critical to measure the waste produced. Not all waste contractors keep track of truckloads or tons of solid waste, they simply bill for the duration of the event. If you are hosting an event of significant size, disposal companies might not even have had previous experience organizing for such a project. All of which means if you want to track and report your “waste sustainability”, you must be proactive with the measurements you need. For example, sanitary landfills must report and record the amount and nature of solid waste by the ton, and you can ask your waste management company in advance to provide you with this data. Also record the amount of waste diverted to recycling, compost, and other reuse.
Now that we’ve covered how to manage waste from the back-end, let’s turn our attention to what the guests will see. As I said before, know what your footprint will look like. If you will have food and can legally compost (see your local municipality for compost rules) then you will definitely want to provide compost bins at each waste station. Bins can be as simple as a lid-less cardboard box with a plastic bag lining the inside that can be removed when full.
Educate your staff and have clear labeling for visitors on how to use the compost and recycle bins. It is important to list what food can be included (organic waste, peels, rinds, etc.) and what may be recycled. I have seen events with up to six bins at each station; one for aluminum cans, plastic bottles, mixed paper, white paper, compost, and trash.
Sound like a lot of work? To keep your job easy at the end of the day, then, minimize the use of waste BEFORE it gets to the bin. Limit give-aways. Purchase only what is absolutely needed for the event. Try for all-electronic registration and documentation. If you have to use paper, use FSC certified, print double sided, and use the greatest recyclable content your budget will allow.
Follow these steps, and you have tackled one of the biggest components to hosting truly sustainable event.