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Zero Waste Events Graphics_blog

Planning a Waste Free Event
Creative Ideas to Eliminate Waste At Your Next Event

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Did you know the average event attendee generates around 2.5 lbs of trash per day on-site? When you consider all the plastic cups, disposable utensils, paper napkins, and food waste this figure isn’t all that surprising.  When you factor in event graphics, agendas, and every other disposable feature that makes your event run smoothly, the amount of waste generated from just a weekend meeting can seem staggering! But what if we told you that it's possible to plan a zero-waste event that's both environmentally friendly and enjoyable?

Planning a waste-free event is not always an easy task and there is even some debate about whether or not large-scale events can be waste free when you start to include things like travel emissions.  In this blog, we’ll focus on the on-site changes you can make to minimize waste while striving toward a truly waste-free event.  We're going to explore creative and innovative ways you can use that are not only kind to the planet, but also leave a lasting impression on your attendees. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and let's get started on this journey toward a greener future!

Registration & Pre-Event
As we mentioned in our Simple Switches for Sustainable Events blog, most event planners have already made a waste-free change when it comes to registration.  In the age of smartphones and e-mail, digital communication is not only more efficient, but it’s also greener too!   Here are some tips to ensure your pre-event stage is as waste free as possible:

  • Use an event app to distribute invites, marketing information, and reminders pertaining to your event.
  • When requiring pre-registration, offer digital options.  This applies to tickets as well. Attendees will appreciate being able to pull up their admission on their phones rather than having to keep track of a physical ticket.
  • Use an event website to host all relevant information such as accommodation booking links, agendas, speaker information, and public transportation schedules for your host city.
  • In cases where paper needs to be used, opt for recycled paper, and print double-sided for all event materials.  Don’t forget to encourage your recipients to recycle them when they’re done.
  • Choose a venue with renewable energy options.  Meeting spots that use solar or wind energy or even who use energy suppliers that buy carbon offset credits.
  • Both before and after your event, try to measure your total carbon footprint with the use of services like Greenly.  While this can be a difficult metric to measure, knowing where your event falls can help you plan accordingly and adjust where you need it for future events.
  • Use waste-free verbiage in your RFPs to vendors and venues.  Knowing what is possible from your suppliers can help you tailor your own approach to hit your sustainability goals.

On-site Graphics
At any event, graphics are an essential component of the overall experience as a way to boost your branding and communicate with your guests. While traditional graphics, such as vinyl banners, can have a significant environmental impact there are things to look for when sourcing your event material to help reduce your environmental impact:

  • Opt for eco-friendly graphic materials, such as fabric or recycled paper. Biodegradable options like our SMARTsign ECO are a great alternative to foam signs that quickly break down in landfills.  While some vendors may boast about biodegradable materials, be sure to ask about eco-solvent inks. Even if the material being printed on is eco-friendly, harmful chemicals can still leach into soil and water if the ink is not also eco-solvent or biodegradable.
  • While biodegradable materials are a great pick for disposable signage, an even greener option is to use reusable signage at your event.  Dynamic and durable options like the SMARTsign EDGE or digital displays, such as screens or projectors, can be reused for years across multiple events!
  • Consider displaying your agenda and other lists on a single enlarged biodegradable or recyclable banner or easel sign instead of printing sheets to hand out to each participant.
  • Look for non-traditional, creative ways to elevate your branding around the event in ways that don’t necessarily come with a waste footprint.  Ideas, like branded ice stamps or coffee foam art, are a way to get a big impact from your branding without a big waste footprint.
  • Use reusable name badge holders and collect them afterward for reuse.
  • Look for non-profits to collect non-reusable signage.  Many organizations will take this material for reuse at schools and community art centers.
  • Perform an audit on leftover or underutilized graphics during and after your event to determine if the order can be adjusted or if they can be reused for your next event.
  • If reuse or donation isn’t possible, consider gifting leftover graphics to material upcycling companies like Rewilder or Mile High who can turn things like banners into tote bags for those in need!

A waste-free event doesn’t always need to fall solely on the planner and reports show that getting your audience involved can actually lead to long-lasting results!  One of the most effective ways to encourage attendees to adopt sustainable behaviors is through interactive activities and engagement opportunities. Here are some ways to get your attendees, speakers, and staff engaged in creating a waste-free event and educated in sustainable practices:

  • Incorporate sustainability-focused activities, such as workshops or demonstrations, to educate attendees about environmentally friendly practices like recycling and composting. This can help reduce the amount of waste ending up in the wrong containers.
  • Consider ditching the trash cans altogether and instead offer only recycling, composting, donation, and waste-to-energy options.  Have a plan for all materials after their use.
  • In addition to educational activities, employ volunteers or staff to ensure waste is getting into the proper receptacles.
  • Encourage speakers to prepare computer presentations instead of handouts and make the resources available online prior to the event.
  • Offer resources or copies of presentation materials via email or downloadable from a website rather than physical copies
  • At events where vendors are participating, communicate to them what recycling options will be available and encourage them to only distribute those items (like sampling in paper cups if composting, beverages in cans only if recycling aluminum, etc.).
  • In the same vein, in instances where you’re making use of in-kind sponsorships at an event (like free energy drinks or coffee from a sponsor), check to see that the offering is in line with your company’s specific waste goals.  See if vendors can use reusable or refillable options where applicable and skip out on any physical handouts.
  • Use centerpieces that are reusable or can be taken home, such as branded plants in pots, and raffle them off to attendees.


Promotional Giveaways
Promotional giveaways are a common feature of many events, but they can also be a significant source of waste. Smart shopping when selecting your giveaways can not only make for a greener gift but a happier recipient as well.  Here are some ideas to consider when shopping:

  • Opt for eco-friendly materials, especially plastic alternatives.  Biodegradable options like bamboo, wheat straw, and organic cotton all mean the items are durable enough to be reusable but also break down when they’re eventually discarded.
  • Consider giving something that your guests can make immediate use of at the event to further minimize waste.  Options like refillable water bottles, collapsible straws, or bamboo utensils can make for a thoughtful gift with an immediate sustainable impact. 
  • Look for name-brand items (bonus points if they have some type of social initiative) to give to your attendees.  The quality associated with the brand ensures these types of gifts will be used long after the event has ended and are less likely to end up discarded, lost, or forgotten when your attendees head home.  Check out the Brands with Initiatives blog for some awesome ideas to get you started here.
  • Offset your carbon emissions by investing in carbon-positive brands.  Promo companies like Tentree actually plant trees with every purchase and can help offset any waste emissions you may have at your event.  Be sure to let your attendees know this fact as well so they know your company is committed to sustainable values!
  • Consider foregoing traditional giveaways altogether and instead providing attendees with digital resources, such as e-books or online resources. 
  • Donate unused items to local community centers.  There are even companies like SwagCycle that will collect and coordinate donations for you!
  • Once your event is over, conduct an audit as to what is left over.  This includes items tossed or left behind as well.  Use this date to identify areas that can be potentially curbed for your next event.

Food and beverage service is a crucial component of any event, but it is also the biggest contributor to event waste.  A recent study showed that almost 20% of all food produced at an event is discarded!  Solutions like composting and recycling don’t necessarily mean less waste but rather can help turn your waste into something useful for a more circular event ecosystem.  Here are some tips that you and your venue can collaborate on to prevent a big menu from becoming a big carbon footprint:

  • Use reusable options for serving and eating food such as silverware, glasses, mugs, plates, and cloth napkins that can be washed instead of paper, or even reusable coasters your attendees can take with them. If your venue doesn’t offer these options, see if they’d be okay with you sourcing them on your own.  
  • If no kitchen is available, see if a local business might be willing to help wash utensils.
  • If paper is needed consider offering plates, cups, and silverware made of recycled content. Paper products and compostable products also give you the option to compost.
  • Check to see if your venue has a composting program or if they’d be okay with you partnering with a local composter to collect food waste.  Some cities even have curbside composting options! For small events, a volunteer may be willing to take paperware and certain food items home to compost on their own.
  • Avoid plasticware wherever possible. Plastic products are made from petroleum and cannot be recycled or composted (only plastic bottles can be recycled). 
  • Request that your venue provide clearly labeled recycling and compost bins and services for your event. Consider attaching samples of each waste item that will be generated at your event on a sign above the proper disposal container or use volunteers to ensure the proper items make their way into the right receptacle.
  • When planning your menu, think about bite-size or finger foods that require no utensils or choose meals that can be served in large containers (like self-serve pasta in a large bowl or party sub sandwiches) versus over-packaged box lunches.
  • If box lunches are necessary, ask if they’re able to be packaged in recyclable containers or wraps.  Simple switches like recyclable foil over plastic wrappings can significantly cut down on waste.
  • Some modern venues or local restaurants may have rooftop gardens in an effort to be more sustainable (and cost-effective).  Consider partnering with a local “farm to table” for tastier, more environmentally friendly meals!
  • Check to see if any local restaurants may offer discounts to event attendees as a way to skip meals altogether!  Attendees will appreciate the opportunity to explore the local city and you’ll be eliminating all waste associated with a meal!
  • Cut down on wasted food by letting your attendees choose the dishes they want ahead of time.  This not only takes the guesswork out of pleasing everyone but can help reduce unnecessary waste by ensuring what is ordered is actually used.
  • One of the biggest reasons food is wasted at events is because it's typically (and understandably) over-ordered.  Getting an accurate estimate for attendance when placing orders can drastically lower leftover food.  Consider placing a pre-order with your caterer and confirming the total attendance a few days beforehand to provide a more accurate number.
  • See if your venue offers any type of food donation program after your event has ended or partner with local shelters and community centers to see if they’re able to take donations of unused food.  Organizations like the Food Recovery Network can take leftover food that would normally be wasted to give to hunger-fighting partner agencies!
  • Be conscious of your greywater (the water leftover from dishwashing, showering, flushing the toilet, etc.) disposal.  Ask to see if your venue has a greywater recycling program or if there is a local greywater collection center you could make use of.  There are actually a lot of uses for greywater from irrigating crops to refining it into drinking water. Being cognizant of what is happening to your water after its use is vital for a truly waste-free event.

Organizing a waste-free event requires a combination of thoughtful planning, sustainable practices, and a commitment to environmental stewardship.  By following the steps outlined in this blog, you may find you can significant strides towards achieving a more sustainable event, without compromising your focus on the attendee experience. Remember, when it comes to sustainability, every little bit counts, so whether you’re using every step in this guide for a truly waste-free event or simply introducing composting at your next event, your attendees and the environment will appreciate your effort.  If you’re looking for more sustainable event planning resources, head over to our wide collection of sustainability blogs or contact us, and let’s work together to build a greener tomorrow!

Zack Malpass
Written by Zack Malpass

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