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The rise of zero waste events (and how to make your next BBQ a zero waste affair)


by Dominiqe Bird

Dominiqe Bird works in the Social Enterprise sector and is the General Manager of Events at White Box Enterprises. His passion is to create meaningful experiences that amplify innovative, practical and sustainable solutions to social and environmental issues. When Dom isn’t running events, you can find him at home listening to obscure soul records and pottering in the garden.

It’s likely that each and every person reading this article has experienced an event cancellation this year. Was it a wedding, a milestone birthday party, a beloved annual music festival? 

Twenty-twenty is the year of the postponed or cancelled event. While many of us mourned an opportunity to be together in-person, en masse, this pause has also provided the time to reflect on the wasteful nature of these events, and to nurture our collective potential to experiment with and exemplify waste-free systems. Before lockdowns and social distancing measures hit pause on events worldwide, a waste-free movement was slowly taking place. 

A few years ago, images of the Spendour in the Grass and Melbourne Cup aftermaths sparked outrage from a broad spectrum of the Australian public and international community. While these images were nothing new, the empathic public response was. This led some event organizers to take this “waste” challenge to heart and examples of zero waste innovation started popping up around the world.

The aftermath of The Melbourne Cup 2016, Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne.  Image credit: Simon O'Dwyer

The aftermath of The Melbourne Cup 2016, Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. Image credit: Simon O'Dwyer

In 2016, a massive fire at Deonar landfill in Mumbai prompted 34-year-old Divya Ravichandran to launch Skrap, a sustainability start-up. The sole aim of Skrap is to reduce waste at large-scale events and manage whatever waste is generated responsibly and sustainability. Throughout her work, Ravichandran highlights the importance of pre-event preparation. “The process of organising a zero waste event is divided into three phases, pre-event, event and post-event. Being involved during the planning of an event is the perfect time for us to intervene. Pre-event includes working with the organisers and ‘assessing’ the kind of material used during the event. We identify non-recyclable items and recommend reusable or compostable alternatives,” Ravichandran says.

 

Skrap team at an event


Divya Ravichandran (left) founder of Skrap who is diverting waste from landfills before, during and after events. Image credit: Skrap

In addition to composting waste, event organisers can upcycle. In Manchester, business-owner Nathan Larkin, created a Facebook group Wasteman of Manchester to upcycle venue waste. The initiative began when Larkin noticed that bars only use the peels from oranges for cocktails and would then have a surplus of the actual fruit. He asked, “why not share the peeled oranges with the cafe across the road? In return, the cafe might have an abundance of spent coffee grounds that would be perfect for an upcycled Espresso Martini recipe.” Larkin claims that one fundamental and often-overlooked aspect of running a zero-waste project is community. By empowering businesses to band together to upcycle instead of waste not only trims the bottom line but forges stronger community bonds.

Sporting events are getting in on the upcycle action too. Wimbledon and venue partner, All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club are working on four major sustainability targets to create a zero waste Wimbeldon by 2030. The ultimate goal for Wimbledon is to “design out waste”, keeping products in-use so that nothing goes to waste. Targets include working with suppliers to eliminate single-use plastic packaging; collecting food waste for anaerobic digestion producing high-quality fertiliser for agriculture and horticulture purposes; introducing a return process for staff uniforms; and assisting guests in understanding their own carbon footprint. To this end, Wimbledown aims to exemplify best practice through day-to day-actions and decisions – important work considering major international sports events create an average of 50 tons of plastic waste per event.

Wimbledon’s sustainability targets and the actions they will take. Image credit: Wimbledon

Wimbledon’s sustainability targets and the actions they will take. Image credit: Wimbledon

In Australia, the iconic festival WOMADelaide aims to be a completely zero waste-to-landfill event, and currently diverts 98% of all waste away from landfill. As part of the waste management plan, food and beverage vendors only produce biodegradable and recyclable wastes – this includes cups, plates, crockery, serviettes and any items sold in packaging. The festival also partners with the award-winning cleaning and waste management service, Australian Green Clean. They help WOMADelaide divert waste away from landfill to more sustainable pathways, such as hand-sorting of waste on-site. Australian Green Clean is also on-hand throughout the festival to help educate and direct patrons on waste streams and recycling efforts. 

WOMADelaide - Green and Global since 1992. Image credit: Andre Castellucci

WOMADelaide - Green and Global since 1992. Image credit: Andre Castellucci

Whether you’re hosting a backyard BBQ, a dinner party or a wedding reception, targeting a zero waste event is possible and doesn’t have to make life difficult. For events large and small, private or public, consider these factors to get started:

  • Think holistically. Take a closer look at where you're sourcing things. Where are your goods coming from and do they have an end-of-life plan? Give yourself enough time to find the right supplier to make sure that each product is reusable or compostable. 
  • Think circular. Need an item for your event? Perhaps you can rent it, share it, reuse it, repair it, repurpose it, redesign it, or get it second hand. Everyone loves a good op-shop.
  • Embrace technology. Avoid the use of printed material at every stage. Instead use emails, websites and social media posts to keep attendees informed about the event. 
  • Send the right message. Place recycling points at strategic spots (e.g. close to the food and drinks area) and ensure instructions for proper sorting of waste are clear (colour coding is an excellent tool to direct people to appropriately sort). 

When it comes to waste management, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, look to the preexisting solutions to the problem of waste. Transitioning to a waste-free event is mostly a matter of re-thinking 'business as usual'. The current pandemic has provided an opportunity to reflect on what we do, how we do it and why we do it. As in-person events start to return, I for one, would love to see zero waste initiatives at the forefront of event design.