Recycling and composting programs that ask individuals to sort trash and recyclable and compostable material into labeled bins will, on average, yield only about a 75-percent success rate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And mistakes — including tossing trash or non-recyclable material into a recycling bin — can result in everything in the bin, recyclable or not, winding up in a landfill. In the U.S., the rate of recycling contamination is 25 percent.
At Greenbuild, a two-decades-old green building conference and expo, conference organizers have come up with a human-centered way to prevent such errors — volunteers who educate participants about event sustainability practices, including recycling, as part of the conference’s “Green Team.” The volunteers spend time helping participants follow Greenbuild’s sustainability guidelines in exchange for complimentary registration, said Stephanie Barger, director TRUE Zero Waste, market transformation and business development, at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which partners with Informa Connect to host Greenbuild. For volunteers, who are mostly students and emerging professionals, taking on the role gives them access to industry content and connections at the conference. For USGBC, creators of the LEED standards, the initiative helps move them closer toward the goal of hosting a zero-waste event. “It’s a win-win-win for everybody involved,” Barger said.
And there’s a larger purpose to volunteer engagement, she said. “I think what volunteers bring to an event is the customer education — the experience and the understanding of why it’s important to get to zero waste,” she said. “At a conference, another participant might walk up to a volunteer and ask, ‘What bin should this go in?’ And then the volunteer can not only talk to them about which bin it should go in, but why.” They’re able to provide context, Barger said, “because we’ve worked with the conference vendors to make sure the coffee cup and lid is compostable and that it can go in the composting bin.”
The volunteers receive training in the USGBC’s sustainability goals in advance of the event as well as take part in an on-site orientation. What the program doesn’t do, Barger said, “is bring in a bunch of volunteers and expect them to sort crap. The volunteers are champions and educators.
“The great thing for our volunteers is that they now feel they’re part of something bigger,” Barger added. “If they didn’t have the knowledge before, they now have the knowledge after their volunteer experience to go out and help their community, their family, their college. And you need to make that a really meaningful experience.”
Don’t Call It Waste
Although USGBC’s Stephanie Barger was the founder of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council and the word “waste” is in her current job title, she would like to get away from using it as a noun. “We want to value every single item that is coming through our supply chains,” Barger said. And “if we call it waste, then that kind of lets us off the hook — ‘Oh, I’m just going to put this in the trashcan and I’m never going to think about it. But if we rename it ‘materials,’ or ‘resources,’ or ‘commodities,’ then we need to responsibly do something with it. If it’s [seen as] a valuable material, we need to get it back into the circular economy.
“If you’re not tracing where that piece of paper is going when you put it in the recycling bin, and if you can’t buy it back, if you can’t close the loop, then you can’t really count that as recycling,” Barger said. “Because, unless it’s becoming a commodity and it’s being reprocessed and you can close the loop, then it doesn’t count.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.
On the web
View the criteria for the application for Greenbuild 2022 volunteers.