(Near) Zero Waste Picnic
At the annual reunion and commencement picnic, all waste is collected at waste stations and separated, creating near zero waste.
Since 2013, we have diverted at least 3,500 pounds of waste annually from the incinerator during this picnic. In 2013, boxed lunches were distributed, and individuals brought waste to stations in the corners of the event tent for separation. A lot of this waste was recyclable or compostable; we estimate that 90% of waste was composted or recycled through separation by student workers. Students noticed that a lot of people weren't eating all items in their pre-packaged box, and that the inclusion of condiment packets and packaged cutlery seemed to mostly go to waste. In 2014, Bon Appetit experimented with reusable lunch bags, a buffet-style meal, and bulk condiments and utensils, which worked very well and increased diversion even more. The only waste that year was chip bags and plastic wrap for sandwiches. In 2015, we repeated 2014's setup, but included compostable wrap for sandwiches and cookies, so the only waste was chip bags.
There were a lot of negotiations between the Sustainability Office, University Relations (which plans the event), and Bon Appetit (dining services). There was a lot of skepticism in the first year that a buffet-style meal would work, but by introducing new components one at a time over the years, we've been able to see what works. For the first and second years, the Sustainability Office paid students to sort waste. This year, Bon Appetit hired students to manage this waste, with a couple of sustainability student staff assisting. Each table under the tent has a "table tent" to explain the procedure; these are assembled by the Sustainability Office and distributed by University Relations student staff.
MISTAKES & LESSONS LEARNED
It's important to establish good communication channels and assign all tasks up-front. We discovered that we needed signage to indicate where the waste stations were. We haven't yet figured out a good way of collecting waste from individuals who leave the tent (self-separation does NOT work at an event like this).
We'd like to go fully zero waste in the future by eliminating the chip bags. We're also trying to expand this similar model to other events (campus barbecues, etc.), but it is labor-intensive.