Green Event Production - Striving Toward Zero Waste

I. Why is Waste an Issue at Green Events?

Waste, garbage, litter, refuse, rubble, mess, dregs, disposables, debris, scrap, trash, junk, decrement, rubbish, landfill... In the United States, these fifteen words and others are used to describe things that we consider worthless and useless. Individually and collectively as a community, we decide something is useless and chose to dispose of it. Often, what we once thought of as useful ends up in a garbage container, eventually ends up in a landfill, and then becomes known as Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). MSW consists of everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, batteries, and any other items we choose to call "waste". These products are hauled to community landfills every week with the assumption that we are throwing them "away". In fact, there is no '"away".

In 2001, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 229,000,000 tons of MSW, which is approximately 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960. (I was unable to find any statistics from 2002-present). At an estimate of 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, every US resident "throws away" 1600 pounds of waste per year - almost one ton of garbage per person!

According to a representative from the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, the landfill fee for one ton of garbage in Sonoma County is $71. The US Census reports that there were 466,725 people living in Sonoma County in 2003. If each Sonoma Co. resident wastes and average of 4.5 pounds a day, that adds up to 2,100,262 pounds of waste per day...translated to 1050.131 tons per day at a rate of $71/ton. Thus, Sonoma County residents spend $74,559 a day to dispose of their waste. Over the course of a year, this amount rises to equal a total of $27,214,035. Twenty seven million dollars is a lot of money to throw out!

In San Francisco County in the year 2000, it was estimated that over 872,731 tons of garbage was buried, burned, or exported for disposal. The integrated waste management fees paid for this garbage to be "thrown away" was $1,169,428. In Alameda County 275,000 tons of organic material was sent to the landfill in the year 1999 (this total does not include food, plants, leaves, paper, cardboard, and other organic items) Organic matter such as this could have been used as compost to create soil. In Marin County, over 250,000 tons of waste was put into landfills in 1999. Again, a lot of money and useful soil wasted!

Click here to learn about your counties solid waste management statistics.

Click here for a map of Northern California Counties.

We are wasting large amounts of organic matter that could be converted to soil for growing and fertilizing food. We are also getting rid of many useful items that could be reused, restored and/or at the very least - recycled. In addition, we are severely contaminating LARGE amounts of land that could be used for life affirming purposes - growing food, building housing, etc. As the amount of waste disposed of and buried in the land increases each year, so does the amount of land being contaminated by these items and the non-organic substances they emit while decomposing.

In thinking about waste, and eventually recycling, one begins to think of the specific composition of each item. Is it made out of paper? of metal? of glass? of plastic? Is it organic - yard clippings, food scraps, etc? Is it something that cannot be put into any of these categories? If so, can it be reused or restored?

I found that most, if not all, Northern California curbside recycling companies accept materials made out of paper/cardboard, metal, glass, plastic, yard debris, and compost. Many of these recycling companies have limitations and specific restrictions on what types of each form of material they will accept. For example - it's allowable to recycle flattened cardboard, but not waxed cardboard or cardboard that has poultry or meat juices on it.

For more details about recycling Click Here

After sorting items into one of these six categories time and time again, I was reminded that there are two main categories for all material items on Earth - Organic and Non Organic. Organic items come from the four elements - Earth, Water, Fire, Air. The more direct the origins of the material, the more purely organic they are.

A majority of the categories mentioned above fit into the larger group of organic products - paper, metal, glass, yard debris, and compost. Plastic is the main category mentioned above that is non-organic and therefore more toxic and harmful to the environment and humankind. Most metals are also toxic to humans. (please note: other categories of waste, such as industrial and hazardous waste, have not been included in this report for the purpose of simplification)

Due to the fact that we live in a closed environmental system, the contamination and pollution of the land transfers directly to contamination and pollution of the human body, mind, emotions, and spirit. It's common knowledge and there have been numerous studies about physical environmental illnesses caused by dioxins, toxins, and other pollutants released from waste. Many forms of cancer can be directly linked to environmental pollutants and there are numerous studies about the effects of metal toxicity in humans. (I have recently learned that I am highly allergic to most metals and am gradually uncovering the effects that metal toxicity has had on my health).

I also believe that pollution has a strong effect on humans mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. There are scientifically proven studies that metal toxicity is a cause for mental, emotional, behavioral defects. Additionally, there is a growing number or research being done to determine the causes of Alzheimer's, ADD, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Autism, and other general conditions like increased aggression in our society.

A level of denial is somewhat necessary due to the depth and intensity of how big the problem of pollution is. The process of watching the Earth being polluted and contaminated is possibly more painful for those who acknowledge the direct level of interconnectedness - how if we are polluting the Earth, we are destroying our home. If we are destroying our home, then we are essentially destroying and killing ourselves. If nothing else, a majority of people worldwide must have an innate feeling of sadness and gloom by watching the Earth and our lives be destroyed by pollution.

As my awareness of interconnectedness expands, so does my awareness of the necessity to change problems like waste, what we call "waste", and what we choose to do with these materials.

Every being/thing - whether human, animal, plant or otherwise is connected in an infinite number of ways. Every minute action, reaction, non-action, and/or conscious or subconscious form of communication directly and indirectly effects other beings /things - with a ripple like effect. Therefore, the simple act of throwing away one item has an effect that, on a particulate and sub-particulate level, ripples out into our environment in a near incomprehensible way.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this awareness. There is a growing force of individuals and organizations committed to reducing waste and making the terms "Greening" and "Zero Waste" more commonly understood.

The purpose of this project is

- to clearly define what Greening and Zero Waste means
- to share my personal experience in the process of becoming more Green
- to describe how I transformed this experience to the larger scale of Event Greening
- to provide specific and useful information about the act of Greening at Events
     and possibly inspire the vision of Zero Waste at Northern California events

II. Event Greening

"Greening" and "Zero Waste" are relatively new terms to describe the effort in making environmentally responsible decisions and turning them into actions. I began "greening" years before these terms became well known.

I started recycling in 1989 when I noticed a bundle of newspapers neatly bunched up and tied together in my neighborhood dumpster. It struck me as odd that someone would take the energy to pile up their old newspapers, stack them neatly, tie them up with twine, and then throw them away. Without a second thought, I leaned into the dumpster to retrieve the stack of papers. A week later, I had set up my own little recycling center next to the dumpster.

I put out a box for cans, a box for bottles, and a box for papers. People caught on relatively quickly and began leaving recyclables in each box. Each week I would take the boxes to the local recycle center and get a check for about $10 - enough at that time to fill my gas tank. I paid for all of my gas and oil with the profits I made from this one self-created recycling center. Then, in 1992, El Cerrito began curbside recycling and took all my recycling business away. I was happy to see that they were recycling on a large scale, but was upset that they threatened to arrest me when I tried to recycle the cans, bottles, and papers in the area that I had been recycling in for 3 1/2 years.

Since then, I have continued to recycle in my home and have become very aware of cities and towns attempts (or lack thereof) to recycle. I have traveled across the country and back four times and have noticed that a some places don't have any recycling, compost, or waste diversion. Many places recycle, have yard waste bins and some are starting to implement composting into their solid waste programs. I have recently done so as well. In the last two years, I have learned how to compost and as a result, have created an organic garden in my back yard. Through the process of learning to compost, I became even more aware of everything that goes into the ground in my yard. This made me more conscious about how this happens on a bigger scale. What ends up in my garbage can is what ends up in the landfill and thus pollutes the water, land, and air around it.

Over the course of the last year, I have fined tuned my household system of recycling, composting, and waste management. I have three recycle bins in my house for recycling materials - one in the kitchen, one near my desk, and one in the bathroom. Each recycle bin is for paper, cans, plastics, and metals. I have one small wastebasket in my bathroom and a compost bin and one small wastebasket in the kitchen. Each week or so, I take all of it outside and put it into one of three bins provided by the city or into my yard compost. I put all the organic kitchen scraps into my compost bin. (I also put a lot of my yard clippings in my compost as well). I put excess yard clippings, tree branches, and large yard debris into the large green "yard debris" bin. I put all the recyclable materials into the large blue "recycle" bin. Anything left over is put into the small grey "garbage" bin. The city waste management company provides all of these bins. Though the city waste management truck comes by every week to empty these bins, it takes me one month (sometimes longer) to fill up the garbage bin. It usually takes two - four weeks for me to fill up the recycle and yard debris bins.

As my awareness and ability to reduce waste in my own home increased, I was able to extend my experience out into the rest of the world. More specifically, to the many events that I've helped produce in recent years.

This past June, I was the "Green Team" manager of at the Hopland Women's Festival. I was responsible for managing a team of volunteers who assisted me in providing waste management services for the festival of about 500 women during the three-day festival. We were successful in creating a recycle/compost system that diverted about 70 % of waste from the landfill.

I have become allies with many local individuals who have "greened" Bioneers, We the Planet, SolFest, the Health and Harmony Festival, EcoFest, and San Francisco's Green Festivals. Lindsay Hassett, Cybrena Everett, Laura Makaughan, Mary Munat, Hannah Eckberg, and I have worked hard with organizations like the Marin Conservation Corps and the Berkeley Ecology Center to create green stations at these events. Through out the years we have developed efficient, easy to understand, and effective green stations and are constantly learning new ways to improve our chances of reaching our ultimate goal - Zero Waste.

On a more general level, greening involves making conscious decisions and actions that reduce the negative impact on the environment. By conserving resources, using resources efficiently, and minimizing pollution we not only improve the well being of the planet, we improve human health as well.

Greening an event involves incorporating the following principles of greening into all levels of event organization. It means ensuring that the event is hosted responsibly.

The Basic Principles of Greening

1. Environmental Best Practice: Reduce negative environmental impact by employing technologies and behavioral practices that: conserve water, use energy efficiently, minimize and manage waste and pollution, use resources sustainably, conserve biological diversity, and prevent resource loss and degradation before they occur.

2. Social and Economic Development: Promote social and economic development through environmental best practice. Select environmental best practice options that also raise awareness, involve communities in decision-making, conserve cultural diversity, improve human health, create jobs and stimulate local economies.

3. Education and Awareness: Communicate greening plans and progress to relevant audiences. Explain why greening is taking place and why it is beneficial to the audience. Aim to change behavior.

4. Monitoring, Evaluation, and Reporting: Assess the effectiveness of greening activities throughout and after the greening process. Make people accountable for their actions and encourage constant learning by communicating findings.

5. Leaving a Positive Legacy: Ensure that both the short and long-term impacts of decisions and actions are positive. Implement activities that lead to sustainability.

An Example Audit from an Event

On April 20, 2003, a waste audit was conducted at the We The Planet event in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Significantly, "We The Planet" was the largest public event in San Francisco to implement a full-scale composting and recycling program. Most disposal stations contained receptacles for compostables, mixed recyclables, and trash. Additionally, volunteers monitored the disposal stations during the entire event to educate the public and ensure the receptacles were not contaminated with inappropriate materials. Paid custodial staff emptied out the receptacles into the compost, mixed recyclables, and trash debris boxes on an as-needed basis.

The waste audit consisted of periodic inspections of the disposal stations and debris boxes, interviews with volunteers and paid custodial staff, and an inventory of the materials distributed by vendors at the event. The following discussion highlights the successes of the composting and recycling program and offers recommendations for improvement.

Diversion rate: The public event achieved a remarkable rate of 70% diversion from landfill. According to Norcal, the service provider, the waste consisted of approximately 1,570 pounds of trash, 1,080 pounds of mixed recyclables (mixed paper, bottles, and cans), and 2,660 pounds of compostables (food scraps and compostable food packaging). It should be noted that Blue Water Network disposed of a jet ski, which weighed approximately 250 pounds, into the trash. Therefore, the trash generation weight does not include the weight of the jet ski.

Material composition in receptacles: In general, it appeared that the recycling, composting, and trash receptacles had an extremely low rate of contamination. That is, materials were consistently placed in the appropriate containers. The composting receptacles contained food scraps, compostable dishware and utensils, and paper towels. The mixed recycling receptacles contained bottles and cans, aluminum foil, and mixed paper. Trash mainly consisted of Clif Bar wrappers that are not compostable or recyclable, and plastic packaging. The images below reflect representative mixed recycling and composting receptacles.

Keys to Successes: Volunteer participation. The monitoring of the disposal stations minimized the contamination of the various receptacles. The volunteers educated the public, answered questions about how to appropriately discard compostables and recyclables, and many times sorted through the waste to reduce contamination. The presence of the volunteers was crucial to minimizing the public contamination of the receptacles.

Vendor cooperation: All of the food vendors served their products in either compostable or recyclable packaging. Requiring food vendors to use biodegradable food packaging facilitated the process of discarding food scraps in the composting receptacles. Additionally, most of the non-food service vendor booths (i.e., environmental organizations) distributed mainly recyclable materials, such as paper brochures or reusable bottles. The only material noted to be non-recyclable were CD's at a particular booth.

Planning: It was evident that the recycling program was planned well - the volunteers and custodians were properly trained, a sufficient number of receptacles were provided, and there was adequate oversight of the waste management.

Recommendations for improvement: All trash containers must be positioned next to recycling and composting containers. Several trash bins located throughout the park were not positioned adjacent to composting and recycling bins. These trash bins were Recreation and Park's permanent trash bins, and independent of the toters that were supplied by Norcal. Given this, my colleague Julie Bryant and I moved the trash bins to locations that were either out of sight or out of the path of foot traffic, so that the public would use the recycling and composting stations instead. Recycling and composting receptacles should be placed near the entrances and exits to the event. The entrances and exits have the heaviest traffic. Opportunities to capture recyclables and compostables were missed because recycling and composting receptacles were not stationed at the exits and entrances. Also, monitors would have been very helpful in these areas, especially at the beginning and end of the event. Paper towels can be composted. Only some of the volunteers were aware that paper towels could be composted. It may have been useful to position composting receptacles near the hand-washing areas with a sign reading "paper towels only." However, it is more effective to have monitors educate the public on the placement of paper towel waste in the composting receptacle.

Overall, the waste audit revealed that the composting and recycling program was a success at We The Planet. We The Planet can serve as a model for future public events. Feel free to share this information with other event planners. I am hopeful that the lessons learned will ensure future success in public recycling and increase diversion of waste from landfill!

To view additional waste audit reports Click Here

To view a list of annual Northern California Green Events Click Here

Go to >>> Ecopalooza

Go to >>>
Bioneers Greening Page

Go to >>> We The
We The Planet Greening Page

Go to >>> SolFest
SolFest Greening Page

Go to >>> Green Festivals - SF
Green Festivals Greening Page

Go to >>>

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Written, edited, and created by Kirsten Michel All rights reserved ©