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12 Crucial Strategies to Make Your Event Zero Waste

This post is generously sponsored by Waste Management. As always, EcoCult only works with companies we believe are doing good things for the world. Support our editorial by supporting them!

For the past ten years, Waste Management has sponsored the Phoenix Open, and in the process turned it into the largest zero-waste sporting event in the U.S.

Managing the waste of the Phoenix Open is a huge undertaking, even without the added challenge of meticulously sorting it and diverting as much as possible from the landfill. More than 700,000 total people flow through the golf tournament over the course of the long weekend. The 16th Hole is famously rowdy –– it’s surrounded by stadium seating of cheering and jeering fans more reminiscent of football. The crowd is full of people who aren’t particularly passionate about recycling, and Arizona State University students who are on the far side of several hours of day drinking.

That all is to say, if the Waste Management Phoenix Open can send zero to landfill, and only 9% to a waste-to-energy plant, then your event absolutely can too, whether it’s a music festival, wedding, or conference.

There’s no wishcycling involved here, either. “When people say zero waste, they often send everything to an MRF [material recovery facility, a.k.a. recycling plant] and then they’re done with it,” says Lee Spivak, Waste Management’s Senior Associate of Sustainability Services. “We’re really tracking what goes on afterward in great detail.”

I had the great honor of sharing the tour with Kathryn Kellogg of Going Zero Waste, the absolute best blog on zero waste living in the U.S., in my humble opinion. If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste, definitely hit her up! We got an in-depth tour of the front and back of the golf tournament from Spivak. Fielding all of our questions with relish, he far surpassed even we two nerds in his passion for sustainability. I really wish I had known all this before my husband and I planned our eco-friendly wedding!

So I’m going to help you out, event and wedding planners. I pulled out his best advice into 12 steps that you can use to make your event as close to zero waste as possible, even if you have only 100 people coming.

1. Measure Your Waste, So You Can Manage It

The first thing Waste Management did once it came on as the Phoenix Open sponsor was to figure out where it stood. “We did a baselining process in 2011, which we always recommend to organizations so you know what you’re improving on,” Spivak says. The tournament was smaller back then, but at the time they calculated 106 tons recycled, 102 tons landfilled, and 86 tons composted. That comes out to 35% of the total waste landfilled.

The next year, they brought that down to 3%. They made the bold move of taking the trash cans completely off the public side of the course, leaving only recycling and compost bins. The next year, zero went to landfill. They’ve diverted 100% ever since.

Does that mean they were finished in 2013? Nope. Because they achieved that 100% diversion partly by sending a portion of the waste to a waste-to-energy plant, which responsibly burns trash to produce electricity. This should be the least-used method of diverting waste from the landfill, because, while it does produce some energy, it is not the cleanest or highest-value way to reuse waste.  So their next steps involved reducing that number.

Kathryn Kellogg poses in front of a (remarkably clean) Waste Management truck

2. Talk to Your Waste Hauler About What they Want

Every municipality and waste hauler is different. What works for Waste Management in Phoenix won’t work for Waste Management in New York City. It all depends on what facilities are nearby. Is there a waste-to-energy plant? What can the recycling plant take?

“When you really engage your waste hauler, you understand not only what they’re looking for, but how they want it. That’s when you design the system to be as efficient as possible because you’re considering the backend sorting.”

I’ll concede: Waste Management is its own hauler for this event, so they do have an advantage. But they offer consulting services for event organizers, even if WM isn’t your waste hauler. Options range from a phone call with Spivak, to WM helping plan the event, to WM working onsite during the event. Spivak himself has worked on events as small as 150 people, 2,000-person conferences, high-end galas, a football stadium, and a triathlon. He can probably help you.

Just… don’t ask him for a proposal and then take his ideas without hiring him, something that a couple of events have done. Not only is it unprofessional; you’ll be coming back to WM complaining that it didn’t work, when you could have had them customize their approach to your specific situation and challenges, and held your hand throughout the process.  

Contracting with them one year and then doing it yourself the next after you’ve learned the ins and outs, though? Totally cool. “We’re fine with that. We want more people doing this, with or without us,” Spivak says.

This is a zero waste table, believe it or not. Why? Because everything on this table is compostable or recyclable and planned for, unlike a lot of packaging out in the real world.

3. Minimize the Amount of Outside Stuff People Bring on Site

You can offer all the compostables you want, but if people walk into the event with disposable packaging from the real world, then that waste is now your problem.

First, provide appropriate alternatives. “Places that say, ‘Don’t bring coffee on site,’ but then don’t provide coffee in reusable mugs are asking people to violate their terms,” Spivak says. “You have to know what you’re typically going to see to try to prevent it.”

Security can also help you here. The PGA TOUR doesn’t allow any bags larger than 10” by 10” through the door, only clutch-sized purses. Still, “We find a decent amount of outside coffee cups. If this process wasn’t happening, we would be finding a massive amount. That’s something a lot of events have trouble with, and we have to work with them to reduce that and manage it.”

So consider what you will do about outside trash that attempts to find its way onsite.

When it comes to food, there are certain requirements by the health department that require plastic. Plan for that, don’t fight it.

4. Don’t Fight the Health Department

The truth is, a lot of that 9% of waste that goes to the waste-to-energy plant is hard to avoid, unless you want to get shut down by the health department. The kitchen operations are required to use things like rubber gloves, hairnets, and plastic wrap, all of which are not recyclable, nor do they come in compostable versions. “You’re talking about something that is touching hot pans and is over hot steaming food. I would love to see a compostable product that could handle that,” Spivak says. “Food and health safety takes priority.”

“We went to some vendors at first and said, ‘You can put chips in bowls!’ And they all laughed at us. They’re not allowed to do that. People want chips, and we understand that.” They’re also a high-margin product on which a ban would provoke a full-on revolt from vendors. So WM works around them as best they can.

5. Don’t Bother With Paper Recycling in Public Areas

Paper is usually a high-value recyclable. But at an event with food waste, it’s not worth trying to keep it separate. “If you’re recycling paper, and you throw Gatorade in there, that paper isn’t easy to recycle anymore,” Spivak says.

So they just put paper in with the compost. “Because it can go to compost, wet paper contamination is less of a concern.”

Bilingual signs help Spanish-speaking temp and kitchen workers manage the waste.

6. Plan to Tear Open and Sort All the Bags

You can make the front-of-house signs as clear and colorful as possible. You can try educating attendees before and during the event. You can even invite only the most environmentally passionate and educated people to attend. But you will still need to resort your waste before putting it on the truck if you want to get anywhere near zero waste.

“We designed a system so that even when contamination happens, because we’re sorting everything by hand on the back end, the materials won’t be ruined,” Spivak says. “From Waste Management’s perspective, we want these streams as clean as possible, because that is when it’s the most valuable. If we can get a clean stream of plastic water bottles, that’s much better than dirty water bottles with liquid in them.” 

At the WM Phoenix Open, back-of-house bins in the kitchens are usually only 15% contaminated, because they’re used by employees who’ve received training. And, they have access to an “other” bin for those complicated items I mentioned before. But front-of-house bins can be up to half full of contaminants. 

The only exception to this rule is if you are planning a high-end catered event with waiters, where attendees never even have to think about where to put trash –– in essence, all bins are back-of-house. In that case, you can have one employee taking a quick check into each bag to pull out, say, a glass bottle that has made its way into the compost, before throwing the bags on the loading dock.

A fancy coffee truck couldn’t get branded, compostable hot beverage containers. So now they hand out reusable coffee mugs that are super cute!

7. Be Helpful but Firm With Your Vendors

In 2013, Waste Management updated their guidelines for acceptable materials to the food vendors: all the disposable items that food vendors give to WM Phoenix Open attendees – cups, plates, utensils, wrappers, napkins, bottles (save for those darn chip bags) – have to be reusable, recyclable, or 100% compostable. Then the guidelines turned into requirements, and finally contractual requirements.

“At first, we approached it more…I’ll call it leniently because we understood what vendors were going to have to go through to make this shift,” Spivak says. “We knew it would take a few years with the scale of what we were dealing with.” Now the vendors know that if they want to be at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (and they do, it’s a huge moneymaker for them) they have to play by these rules. “We don’t have to bring [the contract] up very often because it’s so ingrained in the process.”

Waste Management doesn’t dictate what exactly the vendors buy, but to stave off any problems, provides them with a list of outlets that sell approved compostable packaging and tableware, and for the first time this year, requires documentation from the vendors on the products they bought. They don’t want vendors to buy products that are marketed as “eco-friendly,” but are in fact non-compostable.

Then, when the event starts, the team walks around doing vendor checks. “For example, this year a vendor accidentally had put out a case of plastic PET cups, which look just like [compostable bio-based] PLA cups. We had to take that away. If they put that out there, it’s then put in hundreds of bins, which we then have to collect and re-sort. If we can prevent that on the front end, it makes the whole waste process more efficient.” He says the vendor had plenty of the compostable cups and swapped them out.

Waste Management couldn’t pull this off without support from the Thunderbirds, a local charitable men’s organization who hosts and organizes the event. “They really back us on the materials side,” Spivak says. “If we have an issue, first we try to handle it –– because they are extremely busy –– and if there is still an issue, we go to them, and they go to bat for us and remind our vendors that this foundation was all made clear to them, and we need to find a solution, and if it comes to it, a more stern, ‘We need to change this.’ And it’s gotten easier over the years; we don’t get really any pushback anymore. That is invaluable for an event.”

The golf course is remarkably xeriscaped, and actually supports a lot of species that are native to Arizona.

8. Get a Third-Party Certification

Not only is this great to show your attendees and sponsors, getting a third-party certification can actually help you along the process, keep members of your organization accountable, and pull your partner organizations into the sustainability realm.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open has the highest level of the Council for Responsible Sport certification and “Inspire” status; and the first Golf Environment Organization (GEO) certification for a tournament (as opposed to a golf course). In the process of getting GEO, the course, TPC Scottsdale, got certified, too.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open above all gets certified by UL. Yes, that’s the same organization whose logo you see on lightbulbs and electronics verifying their safety. They also have a Zero Waste program.

“The UL validation is very strict, which is why we like them,” Spivak says. “They require you to have that waste-to-energy reporting in there, and they have strict requirements on what counts as waste-to-energy. They want to see the whole procurement side, the documentation side on the front end, the planning, they do an onsite interview and auditing process where they go walking up to different people and ask them about their jobs and check that they’re following the training processes. On the back end, they want to see weight tickets. Weight tickets on weight tickets.  Everything that we collect goes to our transfer station for sorting, aside from food donations. Every bag gets ripped open. They want to see the waste that comes in, they want to see the waste that goes out of there with the materials separated. The outbound tickets when it’s broken down all has to add up.” In other words, nothing can sneak out the back door without UL noticing.

You can get certified by UL too. For example, Waste Management, as part of its consulting process, helped get the Greenbiz Forum in Phoenix certified.

9. Choose Decor and Construction Materials That Are Reusable

Waste Management oversees the full construction and deconstruction process of the Pheonix Open, which lasts from October through June. And they work to catch wood, mesh fencing, carpet, and turf, donating a total of 60 tons of material to charity. “Carpet is a great example,” Spivak says. “I haven’t found one venue or recycler that will take carpet with a bunch of staples in it. Now they staple only around the edges, so they can trim the edges off, roll it up, and put it right into one of our containers.” The containers have bilingual magnetic signs on them, so that they can be easily moved around as needed to different places on site.

Counterintuitively, having an “other” dumpster available during construction that they sort helps lower the amount of waste going to the landfill. “Mesh fencing in particular, if you throw trash in there –– fast food that people bring for their lunch –– it becomes harder for the donation recipient to deal with,” Spivak explains. “And if there’s enough of it, they don’t want it.”

Vendors were saving glass bottles to be turned into upcycled branded cups for swag later in the weekend.

10. Work With Sponsors to Green the Swag

The swag industry –– full of throwaway branded products made of virgin polyester and plastic –– has been called an “environmental disaster.” Maybe for your event you can pull in environmentally-minded sponsors who will give away fancy reusable water bottles in organic cotton totes. But the Phoenix Open has a wide variety of sponsors that appeal to more golf-minded spectators. It’s also among the top charitable givers of PGA tournaments, donating $12.2 million in 2018 alone to a long list of charitable organizations. So Waste Management has to balance its goal of reducing waste against the overarching goals of providing 700,000 people with a good time, and encouraging the biggest charitable donations as possible. In other words, don’t be a party pooper.

They request that sponsors only bring swag onsite that has at least two sustainable attributes: reusable, compostable, recyclable, containing recycled content, or made up of another sustainable material that Waste Management approves.

A good example of evolving swag is portable phone chargers. One sponsor gave these out a couple years back, but people who took them didn’t realize they only could be recharged at certain charging stations, and threw them in the recycling bins. Last year the sponsor set up charging stations instead, but attendees were frustrated that they had to leave their phones there or wait around. So this year, the sponsor rented out portable chargers for free, but took attendees’ credit card information so they could charge anyone who didn’t give them back $20. Voila, happy attendees, and no chargers in the recycling.  

Waste Management also came up with a lot of its own circular-economy swag. They collected wine bottles from a corporate event on Tuesday and gave them to a local business, Refresh Glass, who turned them into high-end, branded, reusable glasses, which they gave out at the WM Sustainability Forum on Thursday. They worked with the PGA TOUR and Puma, who came up with baseball caps made of recycled PET that comes from a facility where Waste Management sends the plastic bottles it collects. The recycling and compost bins are even made from recycled cardboard that came from the same facility where Waste Management sends the cardboard it collects.

One thing to note, because one of the largest Phoenix Open sponsors is Coca-Cola, the vendors sell Dasani water, and Waste Management does not offer water refill stations on site, though they revisit the idea every year. Again, they have to balance their waste reduction goals against getting hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to a local charity. (But I personally encourage you to reach out to Coca-Cola/Dasani and ask them if they would ever consider doing canned water, which is a more sustainable way to package water!)

11. Make It an Educational Opportunity for Your Community

There’s a lot of confusion in the U.S. around what is recyclable, what is compostable, and what is neither. So be cognizant of what attendees will learn at your event.

“Contamination is something that is affecting every community, every business. We want to reduce that, not muddy the understanding of how we do things. Pictures of our bins are just everywhere,” Spivak says. “People come on site, and then they go back home or to their work, so we want them to think of what we do as best practices.”

Remember those bags of chips? They’re the only thing that Waste Management allows front-of-house that doesn’t belong in either composting or recycling. WM used to include a picture of the chip bag on the recycling bin, to speed along the sorting process. But that was confusing to attendees.

“We got some feedback internally, like, ‘My clients see these bins,’ or ‘My city sees these bins, and they say, well, they take wrappers,’” Spivak points out. So now there aren’t instructions for what to do with them, and attendees can just throw them in wherever. “We’re able to pull them out, and they go to waste-to-energy,” Spivak says. “It’s a material other events would probably have to ban, because it’s a source of contamination if it’s put in recycling.” (Side note: if you love potato chips, as do I, email or tweet your favorite chip brand and ask them when they’re going to come up with compostable chip bags!)

A liquid collector is at the exit gate, so that attendees pour their alcohol out before putting cans and cups in recycling.

12. Get Started Early

Technically, you can bring in at least a couple of these elements at any point in the planning process, especially if your event is small. But the ideal time to start thinking about zero waste is before selecting your venue. “We support event organizers in different ways throughout the entire planning process, though if an event approaches us with a shorter timeline, we try to recommend best practices and conduct a baselining evaluation, Spivak says.

If you’re interested in working with Waste Management Sustainability Services or want to talk to Lee Spivak, drop him an email at [email protected]. Just be ready for a very enthusiastic conversation about, well, waste.


  • Alden Wicker

    Ruth Alden Wicker is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of EcoCult, and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back. She also writes for publications including Vogue, The New York Times, Wired, The Cut, Vox, and many more.

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