A 10-Step Guide to a Zero-Waste Event

It’s a cloudy, mid-November day in Houston, and I carefully close one eye and keep the other one open, peeking through my camera lens to perfectly capture the beautiful scene before me. Clancy Nelson, our office’s waste diversion assistant, grins for my camera, as he holds up a bag half-full of trash.

“This is amazing,” observer and University of Houston architecture professor Patrick Peters comments. Peters is referring to the trash generated at Sustainability Fest, UH’s biggest zero-waste sustainability initiative. After five months of diligent event planning and coordination, the sustainability team hosted an event that gave more than 250 guests the opportunity to connect with exhibitors and learn about the latest sustainability initiatives at UH and in the Greater Houston area. At Sustainability Fest 2015, a bag of trash the size of a beach ball was the only waste that didn’t get composted or recycled!

bag o trash

Coordinating a zero-waste event is possible, and the benefits are notable. Zero-waste events can lower event costs, reduce methane emissions from landfills and foster public awareness and dialogue about waste reduction.

Below is a zero-waste, event-planning guide that includes some tips and tricks that I learned while planning Sustainability Fest that can help you incorporate waste minimization strategies into your next event. Reducing waste is not a complicated process, so before you mentally associate words like “tedious” and “cumbersome” with “waste reduction”, don’t. I’ve never worked in the waste management business, nor have I held a position at a composting or recycling facility, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that simplicity is key.


  1. Go digital by sending invitations through email lists and social networking sites. Print necessary papers double-sided and on Forest Stewardship Council certified and 100 percent post-consumer content recycled paper. Print fliers on quarter sheets instead of full pages to reduce the amount of paper waste.
  1. Clearly communicate your zero-waste goal to attendees, exhibitors and volunteers. Ensure that the event description and promotional materials inform guests about the effort. Share your zero-waste priorities with everyone involved in the planning process, and encourage them to limit their use of paper, plastic, Styrofoam, etc. If your event will include exhibitors, request that they have giveaways and promotional items that won’t create additional packaging waste.
  1. Have an exit plan for all of the compost, recyclables and trash. First, make sure most of the products at the event are zero-waste compatible (reusable, recyclable or compostable). The UH solid waste and recycling department accepts single-stream recycling on campus. When requesting trash cans from Facilities Services for your events, you should also order the same number of recycling bins. If you’d like to go a step further and compost at your event, email sustainability@uh.edu at least a week in advance of your event. Our staff will provide training and coordinate pick-up logistics. If your event is off-campus, partner with nearby waste-recovery facilities that accept compost, recycling or waste and understand which items will contaminate the waste stream. Without a clean waste stream, you risk throwing away loads of compost or recyclables that are too contaminated for your waste haulers. 
  1. Prepare your bins and create reusable signage. Depending on the size of your event, you will need to estimate how many bins to prepare and how many composting, recycling and trash signs to make. Utilize compostable containers like cardboard boxes and paper bags as compost bins. You can also transition existing trash bins into recycle and/or compost bins, and be sure to label each bin accordingly.
  1. Cater to the zero-waste taste. Choose food service providers that locally source their foods and offer vegetarian and vegan options, fair-trade coffee, and seasonal foods. To avoid packaging waste, plan a menu with foods that require little to no serving ware, and request washable dishes and flatware. If necessary, opt for compostable utensils instead. At Sustainability Fest, we offered three types of lunch wraps: tuna, vegan and gluten-free/vegan. The wraps allowed us to eliminate the need for utensils, and  we composted the paper that held the wraps together.



  1. Group bins into clusters and place them in strategic locations around the room. Most people will dispose their trash in the first bin they see, so arranging all three types of bins together encourages attendees take an extra second to think about the recyclability of the item and sort their waste in a clear and convenient manner. Use the one-to-one rule. Never have a trash can accessible to users without a recycling bin and compost bin next to it. Display signage directly above or on the bins and next to the food so that attendees know in advance where waste should be disposed.


  1. Promote zero-waste efforts during the event. Make verbal announcements, educate and engage with attendees. For Sustainability Fest, our waste diversion assistant created and displayed an interactive waste-sorting demonstration at the event. The demo was an engaging way to teach attendees about disposing of their waste properly.


  1. Station volunteers at each cluster of compost, recycling and trash bins. Volunteering responsibilities may include assisting attendees and exhibitors with recycling, removing and troubleshooting contaminants, and hauling recyclables, if needed.


  1. Double check the bins for contamination, and make sure everything is properly disposed of. With any event, there will be some degree of waste that is disposed of improperly. For example, napkins, food waste and wet paper are items that can be composted. Have event volunteers sort through the waste, recycling and compost bins to ensure that everything is in the correct bin. Strangely, the feeling of sorting through trash is quite satisfying, so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty (using gloves of course)!

Turning zero-waste priorities into action speaks volumes for not only today’s society but also future generations. Implementing these straightforward strategies will reap many economic, environmental and social benefits. Be sure to work out the logistics well in advance of the event and communicate back to guests the successful outcome of the zero-waste effort. Look beyond the “green” business trends, labels and claims, and use your own judgment when trying to determine the zero-waste compatibility of products. Some additional zero-waste event planning resource guides you can use include handbooks such as Harvard’s Zero-Waste Event guide, RCB’S Recycling for Special Events guide, or the Zero Waste Guide for Event Planners. Keep the entire planning and coordination process simple, and that zero-waste goal will become a reality before you know it.

-Joanne Ma


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