As many of us suffer through the final clouds of Alabama pollen, the lure of getting outdoors is irresistible, particularly with the plethora of outdoor events, festivals, and concerts. In addition to good times, such events can also produce large amounts of trash. However, with a little bit of planning and conviction, anyone can easily host a near-zero waste event. 

The first step is determining what is available in your community in regards to recycling and composting. While recycling centers are becoming more commonplace throughout Alabama, commercial composting still resides in the future. For those of us unfamiliar with commercial composting, these facilities can handle much more than your backyard compost pile due to the much larger volume of organic materials being composted. Composting temperatures can reach over 150°F at these facilities, thereby allowing us to compost paper plates and cups, pizza boxes, and compostable plastic cups and cutlery, all of which are not recyclable. Commercial composting facilities make hosting a zero waste event plausible.

When’s the last time you saw steam rising from your backyard compost pile?

For those of us without a commercial composting facility, plates and cutlery will be destined for the landfill unless you’re able to use reusable plates and cutlery. Food festivals have a tendency to waste more than necessary because there are numerous stations for food samples. Rather than offer plastic cutlery at every station, your guests can be given their cutlery at the entrance. Reusable souvenir cutlery can also be provided so that your guests are reminded of your event throughout the year. 

For beverages, it’s best to stick with containers that are easy to recycle, such as aluminum, PET plastic, and HDPE plastic. The type of plastic is usually imprinted on the bottom of the container with one of these codes. 

If you intend to serve fountain drinks or draft beer, then I recommend offering refillable souvenir cups. Just make sure they are recyclable at your local recycling center before purchasing them because not everyone will take their cup home. In lieu of bottled water, I recommend encouraging your guests to bring a refillable water bottle and have water coolers throughout your event. For those that forget their bottle, they can purchase a souvenir cup for less than the price of a bottle of water. 

The next step is to determine how you will collect recyclables and transport them to the recycling center. Some recycling centers and municipalities have event recycling bins for rent or loan. There are even businesses that will handle the setup, collection, and removal of recyclables from your event. In some instances, you may be at the mercy of the venue in regards to who handles the trash. If this is the case, then it is important to understand what services they are contractually obligated to perform. I was at a music festival last year that did a great job setting up recycling bins, but neglected to communicate this to the company responsible for trash. The result was overflowing recycling bins, but frequently emptied trash cans. 

Now that you have determined what is recyclable and how you will collect it, this will need to be communicated to your vendors. If you have hosted this same event in the past, then you know what to expect in regards to trash. Rather than focus on what is accepted at the recycling center or what is generated by your past vendors, I recommend narrowing the list of acceptable items to those that require minimal additional effort to handle. For example, many outdoor events have eliminated glass because it is heavy and can present a hazard if broken. Others ask their vendors to not offer giveaways since these items tend to become litter or produce excess trash due to their individual packaging. 

One waste stream you can almost always count on from vendors is cardboard. Cardboard can be a bulky material to collect. While you can setup a centralized location for your vendors to take their flattened cardboard or encourage them to take it with them for recycling, you’ll save yourself a lot of work by requiring your vendors to leave their cardboard at home and bring their goods in reusable totes. This is required of vendors by car manufacturers like Honda and Mercedes where they completely eliminate waste by not allowing it to come to their facility. In the world of recycling, this is what is referred to as reducing and reusing. After all, if you don’t have any trash to begin with, then you won’t have any trash to handle. 

It is this kind of forethought that will allow you to host a near-zero waste event. With proper planning, you will have a cleaner event with less hassle and, hopefully, happier attendees that will want to come again next year.