The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 12, 2013

Tips for Creating Zero Waste, Plastic-Free Events

Zero-Waste-Event-10Whenever I give my plastic-free presentation, I’m interested to see what the hosting organization will do to ensure the event itself is as plastic-free as possible.  I try to give tips beforehand so I don’t walk in on a table full of plastic cups (which has happened more than once, ironically.)  But lately, I’ve discovered some really ingenious ideas, some of which I wouldn’t have thought of myself.  Some are about reducing plastic, and some are about reducing waste in general.  So I thought I would share my favorites.

1) Ask attendees to BYO: bring their own reusable cups, bottles, utensils, containers, and even shirt!

Green Sangha’s website announcement of its Plastics 360 event in Lafayette last month included the following:

Refreshments:  Light, earth-friendly snacks will be provided at registration (9:00-9:30 am).  BYO lunch!  We will provide coffee and beverages.  (BYO mug if you can.)

And at the Zero Waste Youth Convergence in San Francisco the next day, attendees were ask to do the following:

Bring: $15, plate/tupperware, fork, cup/mug and a plain, light-colored T-shirt for screen-printing your conference t-shirt. Don’t forget a notebook and pen, if you want to take notes; together we will redefine Zero Waste; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.

Yes, in addition to asking the kids to bring their own foodware, they also asked them to bring an old shirt so that instead of acquiring yet one more tee shirt, they could screen-print the conference logo onto a shirt they already had.  For kids that forgot to bring a shirt, the organizers provided second hand tee shirts from thrift shops.  I thought this was the coolest idea ever.  (Yes, the acrylic textile ink comes in a plastic jar and is itself a kind of plastic, but any tee shirts would have been printed with similar ink, whether ordered from a tee shirt company or printed by hand.)





2. Provide durable dishes, cutlery, and glasses.

If  people don’t bring their own foodware, or if you don’t want to ask them to, it’s easy to provide durable, washable dishes.

You can go all out, like the Reuse Alliance’s ReUseConex in Portland, Oregon, last year, where all the foodware was reusable and the spread was amazing.


Or keep it simple and provide finger foods with reusable mugs from thrift shops.  That is what Save Our Shores did at their event a few weeks ago.  More on that later.

3. Charge a fee for compostable paper cups.

Zero-Waste-Event-07Although Green Sangha asked attendees to bring their own mugs, the organizers did provide compostable paper cups for those who had forgotten.  The key was that they charged $1 donation for each cup.  That donation not only benefits the organization but hopefully will encourage people to remember to bring their own next time.  (Note: the compostable paper cups contain a corn-based plastic lining rather than a polyethylene lining like most paper cups.  They are not perfect, but better than plastic cups.  Another alternative are cups made entirely from plant fibers with no lining.  )

4. Provide filtered tap water.

At all the events I’ve attended recently, water was provided in bulk containers rather than plastic bottles.  Containers were glass or metal or plastic.  (Life Without Plastic makes a cool stainless steel bulk water container. LWP is a sponsor of this site.)  Green Sangha provided water from U.S. Pure Water, which came to the event and set up its water bar filtration system in the venue’s kitchen.



5. Provide zero waste or plastic-free food.

Save Our Shores‘s Marina Maze shopped the bulk bins at Whole Foods to provide food for my plastic-free talk in Santa Cruz last week.  No one thought to take a picture of the spread, so this photo of Marina shopping for the event will have to do.  Marina said:

We purchased bulk almonds and put them in an old aluminum cookie can. Bulk dried cranberries and put them in an old glass honey jar. Bulk yogurt covered pretzels we put in an old glass spaghetti sauce jar. Tangerines from the produce section, no plastic bag necessary :). 2 loafs of bread in paper sleeves (the only waste we created). Lastly we ground fresh peanut butter and put it in an old glass applesauce jar.

It was so easy to get it all plastic free! Just takes a bit more planning.



6. Save paper by finding multiple uses for each sheet.

In addition to the ingenious tee shirt idea, the organizers of the Zero Waste Youth Convergence figured out a way to give everyone name tags and also make sure they held into their program agenda.  They printed the agenda on the back of each fold-out name tag.  I think this is a really cool idea.





7. Collect plastic name badge holders to reuse.

I know you were wondering about that plastic name tag holder and wondering if I had gone nuts.  But if organizations would just make a point of collecting them at the end of events instead of letting people walk off with them (people who really don’t want them anyway but just forget to take them off), then they could be used over and over again for future events.  I try to remember to give mine back at whatever event I go to, but it’s nice when the organizers, like those at the Zero Waste Youth Convergence, plan for it.


There are just a few of the steps organizations and individuals can take to reduce waste when planning events.  I plan to use this post as an example for organizers who would like to schedule a plastic-free talk in the future.  What is missing from this list?  What strategies do you use to reduce plastic or waste at large gatherings or public events?

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Green Chair Recycling
10 years ago

What a great piece with some awesome ideas; I particularly like the T-shirt and name tag suggestions. Can I also suggest there should be an item 8. Clearly labelled recycling stations. I realise that waste reduction is the ideal, but effective recycling is still an integral part of most zero waste events.

10 years ago

Hi Beth, I got your book from the library after I heard you on WBEZ in Chicago a year or two ago, and after effusing over it to the reference librarian, I went out a bought the book so I can share its gems near and far. So, I see that you are coming to Chicago again, this month!, But how do I find out exactly where you will be? And at what time?

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator
10 years ago
Reply to  nutritarian

Hello! Beth will be attending the Blog Her event. I looked at the website and it doesn’t currently show what day and time Beth is schedule to talk. Keep checking the events page for updates.

10 years ago

Hi Beth – Thanks for sharing this …and all your knowledge! It was great to meet you in person at the wonderful ‘Think Beyond Plastic’ event put on by Plastic Pollution Coalition. I hope you like the STEELYS reusable stainless cup samples we provided, and please consider us as a resource for reusable drinkware and food ware products that minimize plastic waste… Cheers!

10 years ago

This past Friday here in Bozeman, we had the great delight of having Annie Leonard (creator of The Story of Stuff) come to give a talk. She was brought here by a group of local organizations that support sustainable business practices, and gave her talk at our Emerson Center for Arts & Culture that has a small auditorium. Before the talk they had drinks and some food available in the lobby so that folks could mingle and network. When the group was first planning this they were told that plastic cups were always used at such events there and they had nothing of their own to offer. So the organizers began looking into renting glasses for the evening. The price was beyond the budget for the event, so they reached out to the business owners within the organization to see if they would be willing to foot the bill. They did even better than that. They bought glasses to use for this event, and then donated them to the Center so that future events could use them as well! All of this was shared with the audience prior to Annie’s talk, and they finished by saying that when the “City” heard about this they were thrilled and said it would make such a difference by not having all those cups go to the landfill. The power of community! (And Annie’s talk was great and very inspiring — she is a force of nature!)

Dianna Cohen
10 years ago


THinc. Skin
10 years ago

Thanks for always being such a great resource to these wonderful companies / orgs, Beth!

10 years ago

I am from India, and every year I visit India during summer. Last year I bought lot of stainless steel lunch boxes. Earlier I used to give lunch packed in ziplock. Later I switched go plastic lunch boxes. But now I give lunch to my husband and daughter in stainless steel boxes. I will try and send the images if anybody is interested. I just have to pay 2 or 3 dollars for these boxes and they are quite strong and durable. and to my surprise I saw extactly similar stainless steel lunch boxes in container stores in downersgrove, but to me it is quite expensive. Anybody wants these lunch boxes I can bring them from India since i am visitng this summer too and I can give them to you for the same amount for which I bought them adding couple of cents towards local transport which will not go beyond dollar or two.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator
10 years ago
Reply to  Sand

Hello! I also switched to stainless steel lunch boxes and I love that my food doesn’t pick up any of that stale plastic taste nor does it smell of plastic. I’m a big a fan!

Jessy V Mills
10 years ago

thanks! shared on Give a Shit about Littering

Beth Terry
10 years ago

cc The Service-Learning Waste Reduction Project, Jessica Connolly, Amy Zehring, Stuart Moody, Rachel Kippen,

10 years ago

Last year I went to DrupalCon in Denver, and they had really clever (and plastic-free) alternatives to name badges. They had the entire conference schedule and everything you’d usually get in a big envelope in a little booklet. Your name was printed on the cover, and the whole thing was upside down – so when you were wearing it, others could see your name, and you just opened the book to read it.comment imagecomment image

Beth Terry
10 years ago
Reply to  aburke626

What a cool idea. No plastic necessary.

10 years ago

First, just gotta say: I love you, Beth! You are awesome and always inspiring! My energy and inspiration waxes and wanes in keeping myself going in my personal life and speaking up about plastic use in groups, events, situations, etc. that I am involved with. But a post like this boosts my determination immensely and helps me to not feel so alone! For example, a festival that I work with uses those plastic badge holders and I have tried to aide in getting folks to turn them back in when they are done with them — even donating bins where they can be dropped off. It heartens me to hear of others doing just that. At a recent meeting a presentation was made about a new merchandising item, a commemorative Christmas tree ornament. I hesitated, but finally spoke up and asked if they knew how the items would be packaged. They were pretty sure it was just in a cardboard box, and I expressed that I hoped they would make a point of there being no plastic used in the packaging. I was happy to see that a few others were nodding their heads in agreement with me. It can take a lot of energy to keep at it! So, thank you, as always for doing what you do!

10 years ago

Great idea to have people drop off their plastic name badge covers off at the door on their way out. I know of a few organizations that could benefit from this so they wouldn’t have to buy new ones each year!

Eco novice
10 years ago

This is really inspiring. Nice to read about something being done right for a change. I love that T-shirt idea. Many ideas that could be used for any green celebration. Congrats on your many engagements, Beth!