The University of UtahRedthread Home

Waste Not, Want Not: How to Run a “Zero-Waste” Event


Since the day I started working in the Office of Sustainability over a year ago I have been asking myself: ‘how can I reduce the amount of waste produced at campus events?’  One of the perks of working at the U is the plethora of lectures, panels, movies and workshops.  I think I could easily spend 40 hours a week attending such wonderful, and usually free, events.  However, I can’t help but notice that at the end of each event, the trash cans are usually overflowing with plastic cups, plates and forks.  I thought to myself, is there a way to provide food at events and not produce waste?  I mean, I know UC Berkeley can do it, but can we do it at the U?

This time of year is banquet season and I was beginning to plan the first Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund banquet.  I decided I would attempt to make our banquet zero waste to see if it was possible.  If we, the Office of Sustainability, could host a zero waste event without breaking the bank, then maybe other organizations could do it too.  I started the event planning and went through item by item to see how I could eliminate waste.  For the invitations, I used the free web service E-vite, which allowed me to create a formal invitation and track RSVP’s electronically.  It was simple to use and saved time over ordering printed invites and tracking the RSVP cards.

The next order of business was the food and flatware.  I knew I wanted to serve healthy and local food but had a very small budget to work with.  As I called around town for quotes, I had a list of questions for the caterers.   Do you use local or organic produce? Do you have reusable flatware? Do you have cloth napkins? To my surprise and delight, many places did offer reusable flatware, though most did have an upcharge fee for this service.  For example, Chartwells, the on-campus food service provider,  offers this service for an extra $1.25 per person.  After I received all of the bids I chose my new best friend—I mean caterer—Daniel Cantu.  Daniel is the owner of Cantu Catering.  He not only answered yes to all of my questions, he was the lowest bid and was able to incorporate the spinach from the campus gardens into the menu.  The only item Daniel didn’t have was cups.  I said that wasn’t a problem and decided I would use it to my advantage to raise visibility of our zero waste event by asking everyone to BYOC (bring their own cup).

Now it was time for the event.  We held the event in the Sill Center Board Room, a central location and home of two SCIF projects, the campus gardens and the new remote control light switches.  (On a side note, the new switches turned off lights that had been on for 23 years straight!)  For the finishing touches, I was able to find table cloths that were made from 100% RePet, or recycled plastic bottles.  I bought flowers in soil that I will later plant in my yard and found name tags printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper that were also recyclable. 

The event was a huge success.  As people began to line up for food, I heard several people enthusiastically express that it was “real food.”  The only slight hiccup was my brilliant idea of BYOC.  Several people forgot and luckily the Sill Center had plastic cups available.  The cups were plastic #6 which is not recyclable on campus so I made an announcement for everyone to leave the cups on the table. I took them home to my own recycling bin.

I have received positive feedback about the event and plan to host more zero waste events in the future.  It required a little more thought and planning on my end, but the cost was comparable if not cheaper to a “waste” event and people left ours feeling full of chocolate nachos and proud that they didn’t add to a pile of garbage on their way out.