Large events make a large impact on the earth, water and air around us. As an event producer it’s my responsibility to plan how to reduce impact on site as well as make suggestions for pre- and post-event travel. Here’s a few ways that I’ve made events more sustainable (and bozo mistakes I made along the way).

Borrow, Rent, Reuse

Buying brand new items for events is usually the easiest and fastest but it usually the most wasteful. Whenever possible, I borrow, rent, or reuse items for events.

For community-created events I’ll put out the call to the entire guest list with items we need. Depending on your community, a sound system, bunches of napkins, or 100 canning jars might be as easy as just asking to get.

If my budget is limited I’ll try to rent equipment from individual artists working the event instead of a rental house. This gives extra income directly to the artists and gets me lower rates on the equipment we need. Occasionally I’ll get stuck with broken equipment and no easy way to swap it out, so for mission critical equipment a rental house can be more reliable.

Once, I thought buying $1 champagne glasses from IKEA would be easier than dealing with a party rental supplier. But now I was stuck with 50 flimsy IKEA boxes falling over vs. rental glasses coming in stackable trays. Now my catering staff has to wash every glass before and after the event vs. rental glasses arrive clean and go back dirty. Finally, I had to take responsibility for getting the glasses donated to somewhere that could reuse them vs. just sending them back to the rental house. Generally you’ll get a higher quality item, lower your impact, and lower your staff time with party rentals for one-off events.

If you cannot rent or borrow the items you need, consider buying items second-hand. Instead of buying a new dinnerware set, create a mix and match set from a second-hand store. Instead of buying decorative moss and centerpieces from a craft store, find a landowner that will let you harvest some existing wood on their property.

If your event reoccurs, see if you can save as much as possible and reuse it between events. A small storage unit or corner of someone’s garage will save you on every item you can reuse again. If you threw a one-off event, find a group that throws events regularly and ask if you can donate your extra materials to them.

Reduce Travel Impact

Attendees and staff flying and driving to my event impacts sustainability in more ways than I had thought. Here’s a few things I’ve tried to reduce the amount of gas, oil, and energy consumed by travel:

  • Assist attendees in ride sharing with an online rideshare board and free parking for carpools.
  • Provide private bus service to and from the event. This consolidates dozens of cars into one large vehicle that can be very economical to run. This will reduce the amount of parking spaces you need and decrease the chances of someone driving intoxicated.
  • Hire staff and choose vendors who live closer to your event instead of needing to travel across the world.
  • For large events, hire a tow truck to be onsite to help stuck vehicles and help you move incorrectly parked vehicles. This saves on travel & time from multiple tow truck companies coming for lock-outs, gas, etc.

Food Waste Reduction

Even the cleverest of Chefs will have ingredients leftover from cooking for a group. Over a multiple-day event, extra food can be a significant waste. Here’s what I’ve tried to reduce food costs and waste at our festivals and retreats:

  • Plan recipies so the same ingredient can be used over multiple meals. For example for 3 breakfasts I’ll do oatmeal, oat muffins, and fruit crisp with oat topping. This allows me to buy a larger amount of oatmeal (reducing cost and packaging) and be more flexible on how I use my ingredients. So if it rains on the second day, I’ll use extra oatmeal to make more muffins since people will be staying inside.
  • Serve less options. I base my menu around vegan gluten-free dishes and then make proteins & bread available to add. Simple dishes make it easier serve large groups with a variety of allergies and preferences. Label buffet dishes with ALL ingredients to help eaters pick the right options for their diet. Or use volunteers to serve each dish and reduce waste. Servers will can do portion control of certain items (making sure everyone gets at least two strips of bacon) and can answer questions about what is in the dish.
  • Plan for a shopping trip instead of getting your order perfect. If you know that you can buy more of something if you run out, you can slightly under order your initial ingredients and see how much you end up running through. This also gives you a chance to bring in fresher fruits and vegetables later in the event.
  • Connect with a local food bank to donate unused ingredients after the event. See if you can create a way to give away uneaten meals during the event.
  • Arrange to compost food waste or donate compost to animal farm as feed.
  • Check out my simple recipes for groups of 50+ campers.

Recycling & Waste Management Basics

Trash is sometimes a party’s dirty secret. I once did a yoga event where everyone was required to wear natural fibers but we went through hundreds of disposable water bottles…not a good feeling.

  • Provide recycling stations and compost collection for food waste.
  • Require reusable or compostable plates, utensils & packaging.
  • Provide free filtered water to refill water bottles. Encourage attendees to bring a reusable water bottle or provide one when they arrive.
  • Schedule staff or volunteers to proactively sort trash & recycling throughout the event.