Reducing Waste at Events

The Solid Waste Alliance Communities (SWAC) is committed to reducing wasted materials everywhere.   There are many considerations that go into hosting a “waste-free” event.

Think back to the last time you cleaned up after a party. How many trash bags filled with napkins, plates, silverware, and cups did you toss out? If it was a birthday party, you probably added wrapping paper (most of which can’t be recycled), party hats, balloons, and broken or discarded party favors to that trash as well.

Most of us probably don’t give much thought to what is tossed away, but all of that trash is having an impact on animals and our environment. In the U.S., we dispose of 500 million plastic straws, and 50 billionwater bottles annually — every minute, one million disposable cups are tossed into the trash. Every year, about 8.8 million tons of this plastic trash ends up in the ocean, where it photodegrades over time and turns into microplastics that are virtually impossible to clean up. Microplastics are incredibly harmful to animals, and over 700 marine species are currently in danger of extinction because of plastic pollution. Plastics also litter our beaches, contaminate drinking water, and harm seabirds and wildlife.

There’s no reason to purchase disposable cups, plates, and plastic cutlery when the real things will work just fine. And the bonus is you won’t have to worry about soggy plates or flimsy silverware that breaks when you try to cut into something. If you don’t have access to items from home, you can opt for compostable dinnerware — just make sure you compost it instead of placing it with your regular trash. You can also utilize party rental companies to provide dinnerware and linens for larger events and parties.

Planning a Waste-Free Menu

How to Host a Zero-Waste Party - With a bit of planning and prep work, you can easily create a menu that’s completely waste-free. The first step is to steer clear of prepared items like dips, party trays, and snack items that are packaged in plastic. There are plenty of fun dips you can make at home, as well as finger foods and appetizers that will wow your guests.

If you’re doing a potluck-style party, have guests bring their meals in glass serving bowls and dishes with lids. It eliminates waste and keeps cleanup easier on your end. Also remind guests to bring a reusable container to take home leftovers or special treats you’ve prepared


Add a bit of elegance to your décor by ditching the plastic tablecloths for fabric. Pick different colors and types of fabric for an eclectic look that will brighten up the space for your guests. Finish the look with plants or fresh flowers from your garden or local farmers’ market, and use jars and vases from your home to create a fun mix-and-match look.

Hang banners made out of fabric or scraps of wrapping paper to add a festive look, and use party lights or homemade candles to add subtle lighting. Your local thrift store is a great place to find inexpensive fabric tablecloths and napkins, as well as jars that can be used to hold flowers, candles, silverware, and napkins.

Using Designated Bins for Recycling and Organic Waste

A common misconception is that food waste or items marked as biodegradable and compostable will break down right away when they’re placed in the landfill, but that’s not the case. The layers of compacted trash in landfills prevent oxygen from circulating, meaning these items can take years, if not longer, to break down.

To eliminate landfill waste, have guests place all recyclables, food scraps, and other compostable items in designated bins to be placed in your home composting bin or taken for recycling with your other recyclables.

Low-Waste Planning Tips

  1.  Include and inform everyone involved with the event planning about low waste practices and goals.
  2. Development a waste reduction plan that provides waste reduction for both public areas and private areas such as kitchens.
  3. Work with food vendors and encourage appropriate portion control to minimize food waste.  Request food vendors work with local food donation programs to handle any excess unserved food.
  4. Select food vendors that offer the use of washable plates, silverware and linens  OR;
  5. Choose reusable plates, utensils, cups and packaging whenever possible.
  6. Select venues, including outdoor venues, which offer paper, metal, plastic and glass recycling, along with food waste collection in both public and  private  (kitchen)  preparation areas.  Choose locations where the  cleanup crews are trained to keep recyclable and reusable items out of the garbage OR;
  7. Plan ahead, and if needed, hire pick up services for proper collection and disposal of recycling, trash and compostables.
  8. If it is not possible to use reusable items, choose recyclable or compostable containers or minimally packaged goods instead.
  9. Think of tasks that create the most waste and brainstorm ways to reduce them.
  10. Confirm what can and cannot be recycled or composted and communicate it with everybody involved in the event, including vendors and attendees.
  11. Use technology to reduce waste at your event.  This could include online registrations, advertising, and downloadable online material. Encourage conference presenters to make their material available for online download.
  12. If printed materials are needed, use recycled paper, and utilize double-sided printing. Ask event attendees to bring business cards for insertion into reusable name tag holders instead of printing nametags.
  13. Create “sorting stations” with one recycling bin, one compost container, and one trash can at each. This makes it easy for guests to sort their materials properly. Create an event waste reduction handout that shows number and placement of bins.  Make sure the bins are clearly labeled.
  14. Make sure the recycling and composting options are promoted and clearly marked during the event to encourage proper use of all the containers.
  15. Choose decorations and display materials that can be reused or recycled.
  16.  Make a hydration station using a large vessel for self serve water. This encourages hydro flask and reuseable
    glasses, while eliminating the need to buy bottled water.

Working Towards a Greener Lifestyle

The average American generates around four pounds of trash every day. And overall, only about 30 percent of recyclable trash is actually being recycled. Working to increase recycling efforts is one part of the solution, but we also need to work on buying less. Reusing items you already have in your home saves money and helps keep our planet clean.

Thanks to One Green Planet for many of the ideas of on this page.  Read these other One Green Planet articles for additional tips on how you can work towards a zero-waste lifestyle.

event recyclingLarge Zero Waste Event Video - 5 Step Guide to a Zero Waste Event - Nicely done video from Vegware Compostables showing how the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasglow, Scotland, achieved an 81% diversion rate!  While the event did not occur in the United States, the event planning would be similar.

Medium-sized Zero Waste Event Video - This video explains everything you need to know in order to successfully host your next medium-sized Zero Waste event for 200 - 1,000 participants. This video takes you through all the necessary steps from planning to wrap-up to ensure that you, your participants and your vendors know what makes for a successful Zero Waste event. www.


 State of Vermont list of  Mandatory Recyclables

In Vermont, it is illegal to send recyclables to the landfill.  They must be separated from the trash and recycled at a facility approved to accept recyclables.  Here is a list of  items that are required to be recycled.

  • Glass food & beverage containers. Without lids.
  • Plastic food & beverage containers. Without lids. Clean, plastic lids at least 2” in diameter are recyclable.
  • Metal food & beverage containers.   No bottle caps or other metal objects.
  • Aluminum foil, pie plates, etc.
  • Paper used for communication.
  • Cardboard — corrugated, boxboard.  Flatten. Must be clean & dry.

NOT recyclable • Paper cups, plates, bowls, napkins • Disposable cutlery • Straws/coffee stirrers • Wooden utensils, toothpicks • Plastic bags/wrappers • Waxed paper wrappings and bags • Any item that has food residue

compost-events-8.5x11-1What can be composted?

If it’s edible, it can be composed! This includes:

•Fats and oils
•Meat and bones
•Fish and seafood, including shells
•Fruits and vegetables (remove stickers!)
•Eggs and egg shells
•Milk, cheese, & all other dairy products
•Bread, pasta and grains
•Coffee grounds and tea leaves
•Condiments (ketchup, mustard etc.)
•Soups and sauces

Food-soiled paper & compostable packaging

Please recycle everything you can and compost only small amounts of food-soiled paper including:
•Uncoated paper plates
•Greasy take-out pizza boxes (recycle parts that aren’t food-soiled)
•Uncoated paper take-out containers
•Beverage cups marked “compostable”
•Paper napkins and towels
•Uncoated paper bags
•Coffee filters
•Paper tea bags
•Wooden BBQ skewers
•Compostable products such as cups, take-out containers, utensils, etc. (MUST be BPI Certified or meet ASTM D6400 or D6868 testing standards and be CLEARLY labeled).

Yard debris
•Grass clippings
•Garden debris
•House plants
•Twigs less than 1/4 in. in diameter


Contact SWAC if you need assistance planning your event.  We may be able to help you find service providers for recycling, food waste, and trash collection as well as help you with ideas on how to plan your event.