As a guest or participant, all you can do is refuse everything that is not necessary to keep your waste footprint low. Most of the stuff was bought beforehand and unfortunately you cannot go back in time and undo that.
As a planner, on the other hand, you can live your zero waste lifestyle to the fullest (given that you actually have the power of decision and not your boss). I organized quite a few events for different jobs. Every single one was different, varied in prevailing conditions, budget and freedom of choice. However, I always found a way to reduce trash and save resources. Progress, not perfection, right? 😉
The larger the event, the more complex the organization. If you are planning a small meeting for up to 30 people, you will most likely stay in your offices. There you can design the perfect zero waste meeting.
If you have to pick a location outside of your four (working) walls, there are a few things you should consider:
recycling & disposal
Can you separate the waste and are there enough bins to do so?
Is there a possibility to recycle anything?
Sometimes it is more convenient to collect the trash yourself and dispose of it separately if you see they will just put everything in one big plastic bag. Participants will often bring some kind of single-use items or disposables with them, no matter how hard you tried not to let that happen.
Are there any decorations provided by the location itself and if yes, can you compost it?
Ideally you would use real plants or candles without aluminium shell. If you ask in advance, you will not stand there in between paper garlands and plastic tablecloths.
glasses & cups
To avoid any surprises on the day of the event, order enough glasses and cups in advance! Paper cups or even plastic cups are not necessary and so easily avoided.
If you are looking for a supplier in Vienna and its surroundings, you can find a list here on the homepage of die umweltberatung.
water & juice
For sure, the best and cheapest alternative: tab water. Mint leaves or lemon slices will pep up any jug. It tastes delicious and looks really nice.
Sparkling water can be bought in deposit bottles. If you want to avoid to carry all the glass bottles back to the supermarket, you can either order them with your caterer or borrow a soda machine. I don’t have one, but I am pretty sure you can return the capsule that makes the bubbles in the soda (carbon dioxide capsule? Missing the English word here ^^) and it will get refilled. In any case, it will cause a lot less waste than those PET bottles.
Same goes for any juices: buy them in glass bottles or just go with lemon or mint infused water.
coffee & tea
What kind of meeting would it be if there is no coffee? No matter how you make the coffee, please do not put a machine for coffee caps on the table. If you have catering, let them bring a big machine. If not and your office coffee machine not big enough, just borrow one. It doesn’t have to be a fully-automated coffee machine. Just take a regular filter machine and you are good to go!
A good investment of your event budget would be fair trade and organic coffee. If that is not in your budget (although it definitely should be), choose large packages and loose tea. A little tea bar always looks nice, right? Like the tea blends, you can put milk and sugar in small cans or trays.
Voilà, a lot of waste avoided in no time.
Some meeting last longer than your regular workshop. So, if you “need” to serve alcohol at the evening, pick large containers with a deposit system. No cans! Your caterer can take care of it. Just do not forget to mention that you do not want to see any plastic bottles 😉
snacks & lunch
I never attended a meeting where the participants were not pleased with a few snacks.
- fruit: seasonal varieties are easily bought without packaging, washed and put on the table. Done.
- Pastries, sandwiches and co.: bake them yourself or buy them. You can pick them up at your bakery with your own cloth bags or ask to have them delivered in cardboard boxes without plastic. Do not forget to pre-order them!
- Cookies and salty snacks: I find it especially difficult to find cookies and salty snacks without packaging. If you have a bulk store or market near you that offers these, lucky you. If you do not have this option keep an wye on big and recyclable packaging sizes.
One-day events usually include lunch. You can avoid a lot of waste with your choice of food, dishes and deco.
One of the easiest things you can do, is to use real dishes. Jugs, glasses, cups, small plates and tea spoons can be used throughout the day. It will be cheaper if you wash the dishes yourself and you can decide what kind of detergent you use.
tablecloths & napkins
No question, textile tablecloths do look pretty. Less pretty ones are made of paper. However, sometimes you do not pick the decorations and end up with them. At least, they are better than plastic ones… Oftentimes, caterer will provide tablecloths as well and even wash them.
Cloth napkins are trickier. They are just not really handy at events like meetings or conferences. No one will carry their cloth napkin around and it would be really hard to have a constant supply. So, if you decide to go with paper napkins, pick smaller sizes made of recycled material.
Does anyone know of any other solutions or alternatives?
food & leftovers
Rule number one: There has to be enough food. If not, everyone will be frustrated, no matter how excellent the food was.
Rule number two: There will be less participants at the event than you expected. Order food for less people because the ones that are here will eat less than usual (e.g. for 70 guests, although you have 85 registrations).
Pick a catering company that understands your efforts to produce as little trash as possible. They should offer appropriate portion sizes, have at least the option to pick seasonal and organic food and have a plan for leftovers.
Tip: bring your own containers to take leftovers with you. You paid for it, you can absolutely do that. At the University of Nottingham, they put all the leftovers in the PhD lounge. At my university, we brought huge pots and took everything with us to eat it the next day for lunch or a few lucky ones got a little bit for dinner that night.
goodies & event documents
Food and drinks are surprisingly not all that is important at a conference. I know shocker. A few other things to think of:
Think before you print.
How many signs do you need?
Does everyone need a printed program?
Is it enough if you send the organizational details per email or do you have to print it for everyone?
Experience over stuff.
Is it necessary to hand out goodies?
If it is necessary, does it have to be a plastic pen? Are there any other more sustainable and ecological alternatives in your budget?
Does everyone need their own notepad? Most participants will use their laptops. Just a few notepads and pens as a backup will be sufficient.
If you are missing any important information, please let me know!
What are your most important zero waste aspects when you organize meetings or workshops?