No Napkin Left Behind: Why Zero Waste Matters

Two women wearing green shirts reaching into large blue recycling bins

Photo: April Janssen, Bright Beat

In December, we hosted the first-ever Chicago Community Climate Forum. This event, which took place on the eve of the North American Climate Summit, brought together nearly 1,500 community members and 70 organizations under one roof—an encouraging sign of Chicago’s commitment to take action against climate change.

We knew we had to walk the walk—host an event that wouldn’t send additional waste into our environment—so we decided the Climate Forum would be a Zero Waste Event. What does that mean? A full 90% of all waste—any paper fliers, unfinished food items, and really anything deposited in a receptacle—had to be diverted from landfill. By working with local specialists Bright Beat, we were able to achieve that at the Climate Forum: the event passed with flying colors, with a 95.3% waste diversion rate. In other words, 1/50th of one pound of waste per attendee went to a landfill, while the remainder was reused, recycled, or composted. 

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A pie chart showing the different materials that were diverted from landfill. The largest is Recycling, at 43%, followed by Organics/food waste at 36% percent.
Breakdown of materials sorted at the Climate Forum. 95.3% of materials were diverted from landfill.

The goal of a Zero Waste Event is clear, but the “how” is another story—it can sound like a pretty daunting task. Ultimately, it boils down to advance planning and bringing together all of the stakeholders to strategize how to:

  • Minimize all possible waste by sourcing only products that can be reused, recycled, repurposed, or composted
  • Separate discarded materials during the event to minimize contamination
  • Bring discarded materials to a location where they can be sorted, weighed and properly routed

We were able to achieve our results by having strong waste diversion practices and infrastructure already in place, as well as above-and-beyond support from the Museum’s in-house caterer Field to Table, run by Aramark. The vast majority of materials used by Field to Table during any event are compostable, recyclable or reusable—just like the materials you’d use if you had a meal at the Museum during your visit! Durable containers and cardboard boxes used for transporting equipment and materials were saved for reuse wherever possible. All other materials in use were separated throughout the evening from set up to clean up. Lastly, a communication plan was in place to ensure all event personnel understood the Zero Waste goal and their role in achieving it.

While important conversations were happening during the event, there was also a lot of work going on behind the scenes: people were ready at three diversion stations strategically placed around the event space, as well as in a back-of-house staging area to do the sorting, weighing and transferring of materials to appropriate bins on the Museum’s shipping dock. Our preparation really paid off during the event, with managers, bartenders, and porters going beyond their usual duties to ensure that the only materials headed for the trash compactor were truly unusable. 

Most importantly, we gained valuable insights into operational procedures that can be applied to future events, which will help as the Museum seeks to continue improving its overall waste diversion efforts. 

In the bigger scheme of Zero Waste, the Museum’s 99-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic solar array—solar panels—and REC purchases (renewable energy certificates) offset greenhouse gas emissions related to the building’s ongoing energy usage. For good measure, carbon offsets were also purchased for the keynote speaker Mustafa Ali’s air travel, through the Good Traveler Program.

Wondering about how to make your own event Zero Waste? Start with these tips

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A row of people lined up wearing t-shirts that say "Eco Educator"

Thanks to Field to Table staff Brian Rathbun (General Manager), Linda Kingsley (Catering Director), Nicholas Bajal (Executive Chef), Tim Bratley from The Field Museum, and Stephanie Katsaros and the team from Bright Beat.