Zero-Waste Event Planning

When planning an event, you’re going to organize it, promote it and then people will attend it. From start to finish, there are ways to reduce waste when you’re putting together events for your business, family, for fun, or for your work.

Promoting your event through social media can be an excellent way to target your attendees. If you have an e-mail newsletter, try to ensure you have a targeted option (and provide them with an unsubscribe button), because junk e-mail causes carbon emissions too.

If you’re planning to promote using paper or posters, use recyclable paper (and not waxed-lined), and be sure to go to the places you posted them after to take them down. Skip posting posters outside, people and weather take them down quickly. Post on inside windows facing the street, bulletin boards, and inside stores and shops with permission.

Your event may range from small (a house party, wedding shower, etc.) to large (a conference, work event).

Small-scale events on private property:

When planning an event or party for a small group of people on private property (your store, a house), start by borrowing or renting reusables.

You’ll want: reusable tablecloths, trays for food, serving utensils, flat ware, plates, cups and napkins.

There will be rental services in your area, or you can borrow from friends. With the luxury of a small group of people and a place that’s your own, you can wash those dishes efficiently alongside friends or helpers and the water you’re using from washing them won’t offset the difference.

If there are gifts involved, ask people to use reusable packaging or recyclable packaging and nominate someone to be your sorter. You’ll want to sort landfill trash, reusable materials, and recyclables.

Food waste? Roughly one quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are created by food waste. When food heads to the landfill, it produces a large amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
To prevent food waste, try to estimate how much people will actually eat. Bring old tupperware containers (or ask your friends to bring their own), and send people home with leftovers.

If food waste is created in prep, make a compost pile. If your city has no compost available, pick up compost service, etc. Ask around to see if anyone you know has a backyard compost. Contact a few local farms and see if you can drop it off. Usually, they will enthusiastically say yes.
Want to cause even less carbon emissions? Serve vegan food at your event! It makes it much easier to compost also, if there’s no meat protein in the mix.

By placing your food out on real trays on tables with real tablecloths, not only does your event look pleasant (and more professional if it’s at a small business), but you’ve massively reduced your waste.

Using real plates and utensils for a small event is usually more cost-effective, if you’re borrowing.

You can leave a cute wicker basket out near the food table for when people are done with their napkins and at the end of the night toss the table cloths in and go home to wash them.

As far as cups go: there are many reusable options. You can use thick plastic, thrift glassware, or just use nice-looking mason jars. Again, these can be thrifted at low-cost, or borrowed.

What about toilet paper? I would buy a tree-free toilet paper or recyclable option wrapped in paper like Who Gives a Crap? brand. I would buy hand soap in bulk and distribute it into smaller reusable dispensers in the bathroom. Bring towels, dish soap, and natural dish scrubbers for the kitchen team to clean up efficiently but still green.

A large-scale Event:

You’re going to need to coordinate with your venue. Let them know before you commit to using their space that you would like to divert some of your waste from the landfill. See if they’re okay with that. If they’re refusing to help you accomplish that goal, ask if it’s okay if you shoulder more of the weight personally. Hopefully, they will agree. Depending on the space and how much you’re paying to use it, they’ll respond accordingly.

If the venue agrees to either help you accomplish your waste-diversion, or allow you to do it, try to see if you can arrange a meeting with the Back of House manager / catering manager.

See if you can view the space, and the back of house. Bring a notebook or laptop to record where waste usually happens.

Does the venue already have any kind existing waste policies? Is there recycling? Composting? Do they usually put all food waste into a trash can?

If there is no infrastructure whatsoever, you may be responsible for collecting and transporting recycling and compost out of the space. Can you accomplish this? Who can you partner with? Can you hire people to transport recycling to a recycling center? Can a local large farm take your compost?

If catering is happening on site, meet with the kitchen staff. Train them by letting them know why what you’re asking them to do is important. Provide them with clearly labeled compost bins if none are provided, over clarifying what can and cannot go in them.

If you’re catering through outside vendors, see if you can get them to be on board with your waste diversion plans.

I would set up your event so that attendees do not have to dispose of their own waste. In a conference setting, this will be unavoidable. If you’re asking attendees to dispose of their own waste, put bin tops on all your bins and label them obviously.

Clearly provide compost, recycling, and trash bins for vendors/staff. Clearly label them or color coordinate them and properly train all staff to know what goes where.

Make sure everyone knows that single-use items are not being given or served at this event. Depending on the size and venue, some things are unavoidable. Usually catering is served on real trays, in real chafing dishes with real serveware. The plates, cups, flatware, and napkins are where you can run into issue.

Consider your options: reusable, recyclable, compostable, trash. Since you’re trying to avoid landfill trash, plastic or paper options will be your last choice. If a city-wide compost is available to you, composting may be your easiest route. You can get compostable napkins, plates, and cups with ease. You can even use compostable flatware.

The issue with compostable bioplastics or other materials, is that not every compost can compost them. Usually, only a city-wide compost with a strict monitor of heat and oxygen can compost bio-plastics and other commercially purchased compostable items.

A recyclable option may be better. If your event is so large that it would require more energy to properly wash reusables, it may be better to buy recyclables. The kicker here, however, is that they must be rinsed and dried before being recycled and they can have no food particles on them.

Reusables are great because they do not produce waste. However, a lot of times, the energy and water required to properly wash them at a large event is substantial. If you’re at a venue that normally uses real items and has a dishwashing staff and a commercial dishwasher, I would allow this to happen knowing that water and energy was used but in an efficient manner.

Navigating real vs. compostable vs. recyclable is tough, especially in places with poor systems. Oftentimes choosing real items when you don’t have access to a proper municipal compost is the best simply because our recycling systems are overwhelmed and inefficient.

Reduce food waste by encouraging people to RSVP electronically. If you can reasonably estimate how many people are in attendance, you can order a more accurate quantity of food.

If volunteers are available, use them to help people navigate the trash bins correctly. See if you can have a team of people sort the trash in the back from the bins to make sure an accidental drop doesn’t ruin a whole batch of perfectly good recyclables.

I would suggest removing trash cans from the public. Back of house will need them, as will your vendors. But, your attendees should only receive compostable or recyclable or reusable items. You can provide them with a clearly labeled compost bin, recycling bin, and a bus bin.

Is there a way to utilize clean energy? This is something I know very little about but it’s worth looking into. What is clean energy?

Buy carbon offsets! Consider vendors, attendees, speakers, participants, all traveling to and from the event. Think about the energy required for water for the event, for compost and recycling. Buy offsets for it.

Check out this post on Going Zero Waste for “where to buy carbon offsets and why you should.”

If you’re working for a large company that frequently hosts events and you want to continue hosting low-waste events, considering obtaining certifications if there are any in your area. These are tricky because you have to commit and abide by the specifications. But, certifications can help you with additional resources, advertisement, and more.

At the end of the day, try to use the event to educate your vendors, venue, and attendees so everyone can start thinking more intentionally about their waste. Work with people, trying to push for the most sustainable option available, within reason. Try to reuse leftover items, decor, etc. from the event.

If you’re using flowers at your event, buy what’s in season and see if you can donate them after the event is over. If you suspect you’ll have a lot of food leftover, is there a soup kitchen or other such organization that will take it? Do you have the resources to deliver it quickly?

Do you need to give a swag bag? If you’re hosting a conference with donations, maybe ask your donors to send unwrapped items. Can anyone sponsor a reusable tote instead of a gift bag or plastic bag to put these items in? It’s worth having the conversation.

I know that I posed a lot of questions, some of which I didn’t have the answers to (see clean energy), but thinking thoughtfully about event planning will help you reduce your waste. It can be overwhelming when planning a large event, but if you’re even doing a few things to reduce waste, that’s amazing and incredibly beneficial for the earth.

Good luck, and happy event planning!


Emily McCollister