Event Recycling 101

I volunteered at a sustainability conference once and noticed they had zero recycling going on.  It was especially bad because they had a vendor giving away bottled ‘organic’ teas and the glass bottles were tossed in trash bins. I mentioned something to the organizer, who then mentioned something to the wait staff, who then grabbed (very unattractive) blue slim jims and just put them out on the floor ad hoc, with black trash liners.   Later on in the day there was a food tasting with compostable disposable service ware.  All of that was going in the trash too.

That is an example of how recycling at events is typically done.  No forethought into the fact that there WILL be waste generated at your event.  No communication with the location as to availability of appropriate bins.  No communications with vendors as to products/packaging. No communication with event staff or participants as to availability of recycling on-site.

Now lets say you blanket your event space with adequate bins, and tons of signage. That’s good event recycling, right?  Nope, still not enough.  I went to a winter festival last year.  There were a lot of bins for recycling AND compost.  They were all clearly labeled and there were signs EVERYWHERE saying how green the event sponsor was, and not only were they recycling but they were composting, and how great that was, and on and on.  Well, the thing was that every single bin in the high trafficked areas was overflowing!  There was no staff to collect the stuff throughout the day and everything was going into every bin.  In the lower volume areas the separate bins were used somewhat appropriately.  Bottles and cans were in the ‘recycling’ bin, but the disposable ware from the food vendors was confusing.  There were compostable plastic cups and compostable forks and knives and spoons, but then there were paper cups with waxed coating, and foil/paper hot dog wrappers, and ketchup packets, and plastic straws, and plastic baggies, and… well, it was confusing as to what went where so people gave up after a while.

Yes, you must have adequate bins for the material streams you want your patrons to separate.  Yes, you must communicate this to your patrons.  But you must also communicate to your staff and vendors.

At a music festival I went to last month, there were lots of blue bins for ‘recyclables’ and lots of black bins for trash.  They were pretty much grouped in pairs (thumbs up), and each bin was labeled at eye level (another thumbs up).  But the guys collecting the waste were driving around in a golf cart and either dumping both containers into a single container on the cart, or were lining all the bins black and collecting materials together.  Sigh.  There’s nothing like watching your efforts go down the tubes like that to turn a patron against you.

So what can we learn from these event recycling blunders?

  • Think about what waste materials will be generated at your event
  • Make sure the location you’re having the event at can accommodate this separation (if you’re going to ‘compost’ make sure the materials collected are going to a compost facility)
  • Have trash and recycling bins visible, labeled and grouped together
  • Make sure staff collecting bins maintains the separation (and that they know where each material stream goes after collected)
  • Educate your patrons/guests
  • Communicate with your vendors well in advance if you require compostable packaging

I went to a food tasting event last year at Chelsea Market in NYC that executed this spot on.  When I arrived and checked in I was told that everything the food was served on was compostable.  Each vendor not only had appropriate service ware, but told me upon visiting their table that the plastic cup/paper plate/napkin was compostable and that I should put it in the compost bin.  When I got to the ‘recycling station’ there was a trash bin, a recycle bin, two compost bins AND a volunteer standing at the bin to help me figure out what went where in case I got confused.  The only problem I noticed that night was that they had a hard time keeping up with emptying the compost bins because they were full because everyone attending was doing what they needed to do.  

So, yes it is possible to successfully recycle at your event. No, you will likely not get 100% participation from your guests, but you can definitely increase your chances by doing a little planning in advance.


About Amy Marpman

Director of Recycling Services at Great Forest, Inc. in NYC. Continually finding the balance of idealism with the practical realities that make or break recycling programs.
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