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A Better Way to Collect Recycling & Compostables at Outdoor Events

A big issue at public events (well, ALL events, for that matter!) is bin contamination. Public-facing, unsupervised bins inevitably result in a large percentage of materials getting landfilled. Dirty smoothie cups get tossed into recycle bins, getting goop all over plastic water bottles and cans. Unrecyclable, uncompostable plastic utensils get tossed into the recycle bin. Boxed lunches are stuffed with empty potato chip bags and balled up pieces of tin foil that holds bits of uneaten burrito, and then tossed into the compost bin. There are folks that really don't bother to notice the COMPOSTABLES and RECYCLABLES signs on bins; a bin means 'it's for garbage. Toss in your cigarette butts, chewed gum, candy wrappers, etc.' And if not, oh well, someone will take care of it. Not my problem.

It's a gross, time-consuming, expensive job to pick through contamination in bins. That's why no one does it. It would make waste collection far more expensive in order to cover paying someone to pick through the mess.

So what's the answer? Take away the bins. That's right - get rid of 'em!

We've changed the way we collect waste at most events. When appropriate, we set up a staffed Zero Waste Station tent with a 17 foot flag outside the tent with the words, 'RECYCLE HERE!'. For large events, we set up multiple tents. A table sits at the front of the tent where people drop their waste. Cans, bottles, wrappers, food, gum, whatever. The sorting bins are BEHIND our staff. We sort the waste as event attendees drop it off. No more confusion, no more contamination.


How will people know where to put trash?

Think about outhouses (which are for a different type of waste!): no one expects multiple outhouses to be located throughout a venue. It's common knowledge that the bathrooms are in a central location, and if you gotta go, you go find the bathroom. You hold it until you get there.

Same goes for trash! (We don't like to call it 'trash', but that's the word that people are familiar with). The best way to let people know where to put their waste is to tell them ahead of time. Identify where the waste stations will be on event maps. Advertise on social media, flyers, emails, etc. that this is a 'Zero Waste Event', and tell people to look for the Zero Waste Stations to dispose of trash, recycling, and compostables. We also have 17 foot flags in front of the tents - tell guests to look for the flags! It's easier to do this with ticketed events, because you can communicate directly with attendees via text or email. However, even for events open to the general public, signage will be obvious.

Won't people get frustrated and wander around saying, "WHERE ARE THE TRASH CANS?"

Maybe. But only at first. Think about it, though: why are we making it so easy for people to throw things away, when the planet is literally on fire? Shouldn't we be encouraging folks to slow down and think for a minute about where all this stuff goes? Don't want to walk around with a bunch of trash? Don't make so much trash. Also, this isn't just 'trash'. This is often important, valuable stuff that can be recovered! Let's treat it that way! Bring it to the tent. We'll let you know why the polystyrene fork can't go in the recycle bin, why that Starbucks cup goes in our 'LANDFILL' bin but the certified compostable cup doesn't, and why the polystyrene lid on that compostable cup goes in the 'LANDFILL' bin, but the cup itself goes in the 'COMPOST' bin. Expecting the public to remember all that stuff is unrealistic. Bring us the stuff, we'll take care of it.

What are the benefits of doing things this way?

Well, first of all, it makes things FAR easier for us. We don't have to pick through all the contaminated bins!

For event hosts, it signals loud and clear to your attendees and all your stakeholders that you're serious about sustainability. It turns the old way of tossing everything into the trash at your event into an educational, interactive experience.

It also greatly increases your landfill diversion rate. Clean bins mean your materials actually get recovered. It's a shame to pay our company to divert your waste and then find out 40% of it had to be landfilled anyway due to contamination.

For your guests, it eliminates confusion. Many people really do feel guilty about how much waste events create. It's not that they don't care, they just don't know what to do about it, and they're confused as to what goes where. Many guests are relieved that they can bring everything to our tent, and they thank us for being there.

Pre- and post- event waste can be brought to the tent, too. Event vendors can be told to bring any back-of-house waste to the tent.

Does this method actually work?

Sure does! We had an 89.2% landfill diversion rate at a large outdoor event we did recently with a Zero Waste Station set up.

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