How to Plan a Zero-Waste Event (and Steps to Getting There)

Author: Jasmine Zhu       

Earth Day just took place on April 22, but as Earth Day Network reminds us, every day is Earth Day. The Network has made 2018 the year we focus on ending plastic pollution.

Julia Spangler, Sustainable Events Consultant ‘Think about [sustainability efforts] as a process of continuous improvement.’

Events play an important role in reducing waste — from finding alternatives to using plastic water bottles and using more compostable materials all the way to becoming a zero-waste event. That’s an event that diverts 90 percent of discarded resources away from landfills or incinerators, as defined by Zero Waste International Alliance guidelines. 

Julia Spangler, a sustainable events consultant, worked with Second Helpings, a food-rescue and hunger-relief organization and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to hit the zero-waste milestone in the annual Corks & Forks 2018 fundraiser in March. The event brought together Indy’s top chefs and drink mixologists to raise money to fight hunger in central Indiana.

Convene asked Spangler to share what it takes to pull off a zero-waste event and how to apply sustainable solutions to events.

Zero Waste 101

The first step to having a zero-waste event is trying to reduce your amount of waste overall, Spangler said. “It’s not just about sorting, it’s about reducing and definitely planning your event to have as many reusable components as possible. Cut down on the amount of disposable supplies, whether that’s food- and drink-ware, or giveaway items or printed items that are just going to be looked at for a minute and then discarded.”

Spangler also recommended that event organizers cut down on last-minute changes, which often lead to unplanned waste. “Any change to your event plan has an impact on the zero-waste effort,” she said, so be aware of making last-minute menu changes or adding last-minute giveaways. “Those need to be factored in, so that you know how to appropriately sort and, hopefully, divert  waste so that it doesn’t end up in the trash.”

According to Spangler, it makes a big difference if the venue where an event is held has the right infrastructure in place, making it possible to correctly sort different types of waste and “get [the discarded materials] to their appropriate destinations.”

The zer0-waste event was a first for Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and will serve for a model for its  sustainability efforts going forward, the venue announced.

“It can depend a little bit on the infrastructure that’s available in your area,” Spangler said. “That’s my only hesitation about saying that every event should try it. I think every event has a responsibility to be aware of its environmental impact, and the amount of waste they’re generating and to try to reduce it as much as possible in their particular area.”

Not One-Size-Fits-All

Spangler recommends event organizers focus on what’s feasible for their own events and think of sustainability efforts as an incremental process, rather than a one-time goal. “I personally encourage my clients to go for whatever level is practical for them, instead of focusing on just that one label or that one milestone — to really think about it as a process of continuous improvement,” she said. “Take the steps that are practical this year, learn from that, and then increase your efforts at the next event and hopefully you can grow to a point where you’ll make that impact.”

Despite some of the potential barriers, Spangler wants event organizers to feel empowered, and try out more sustainability efforts for themselves. It’s a worthwhile effort for any event to explore [zero-waste events.] Don’t be discouraged if you don’t think you’re going to hit that 90 percent mark, because that’s very ambitious to try your first time out anyway. Just taking those steps is great.”