Special events, whether they are house parties, official gatherings, citywide marathons or political rallies, take a heavy toll on the environment. From the invitations, promotional material and signage to food, decor, favours and transportation, events strain natural resources and produce a massive volume of waste. Stay back after any party or public event and the scene: torn banners, trampled buntings, empty water bottles strewn about, trashcans overflowing with soiled plates and cups, is one of utter disarray.
An average wedding generates about 2 kgs of waste per guest which includes waste from food, disposables and decorations, says Lakshmi Menon of Hasiru Dala, which has 500 trained personnel to manage waste at events. That means a multi-day, 1000-person wedding creates waste equal to the weight of two or three compact cars and leaves a giant carbon footprint. Events are major generators of single-use disposables such as plastic cutlery, bottles and decoration and we justify their use by saying that they’re all recyclable. But how many people take the trouble to segregate their garbage so the plastic waste leaving their events is clean, dry and in a condition to be recycled?
Most organisers think of waste management as a zero-cost item. But the cost of responsible waste management is a fraction of the expenses made on hosting an event. By setting aside just 2-5 percent of your total spend, it is possible to have a professionally managed, zero-landfill event where all the waste is segregated and either composted, sent to biogas plants or recycled.
When Rishita Sharma quit her job in the United States and returned to India as a new mother, she quickly found herself in the role of entrepreneur. The Bengaluru resident and her friend and fellow zero-waste activist, Lakshmi Sankaran, were struck by the volume of waste generated by events in their apartment complexes. "It's become commonplace to see each person use and discard 5-6 plates in one party," says Sankaran. Motivated into action, the two partnered to start Rent-A-Cutlery - a company focused on making events as close to waste-free as possible by hiring out reusable dinnerware. A complete dinner set comprising a plate, spoon, bowl, cup, 3 kinds of tumblers and a cloth napkin is priced at Rs. 15 with pick-up and drop and cleaning facilities available for an additional cost. “Concerns of hygiene are what often hold people back from renting reusable cutlery, but do you know that your paper cup could contain recycled landfill waste?” Sharma says. To allay these fears, all their products are sanitised with citrus-peel bioenzyme. Started in 2016, the company has completed over 100 orders, kept 25,000 disposables from reaching landfills, and inspired several apartment complexes to maintain their own stock of reusable tableware for residents to rent. The duo encourage others to emulate their model and provide local solutions all over the city as a way to make these alternatives accessible to more people.
Disposable cutlery is just one waste stream; events also generate waste from food, decoration and party favours, largely non-recyclable and extremely polluting balloons, shimmery buntings and flex all of which are designed for one-time use. To address this, Rishita Sharma started Green Utsav, an event-planning company that specialises in curating eco-friendly events. Sharma organises reusable decor, much of which she designs using recycled material and takes back after the event. She provides sustainable return gifts: potted plants, seed pens and wooden toys sourced from street vendors to replace the plastic whistles and hats commonly used in parties. As a believer in going gift wrap-free, she uses newspaper or cloth bags to package presents.
Where disposables are used, paper cups constitute up to 20 percent of event waste.
To tackle food waste, Green Utsav has aggregated a few home chefs who supply home cooked food for small gatherings. Menus are designed to keep food waste to a minimum, less than than a bowlful of waste for a 100-person party, she says. The food is packed in reusable containers that are returned after the event, thus doing away with the foil, cardboard and plastic packaging supplied by restaurants and caterers.
“When we manage waste at an event, none of it goes to a landfill,” Menon says. With 500 trained personnel and years of experience behind them, Hasiru Dala specialises in end-to-end waste management for events of all sizes. At small and medium-scale events, they supply bins and bags for waste segregation and arrange non-disposable tableware. On the day of the event, Hasiru Dala staff monitor waste segregation stations, conduct the final cleaning of the venue and transport the segregated waste out of it. For large, public events, the company focuses on reducing disposables.
Large buffet spreads create as much as 700 grams of food waste per person. Sit-down meals produce only 100 grams per head.
Minimising waste at different stages of an event requires good planning. Once you estimate all the kinds of waste that your event is expected to generate, focus on how the various streams will be managed and who will collect them. Plan to have designated spaces to collect different kinds of waste. If you are a business or apartment with sufficient space, it is easy to make arrangements to compost biodegradables such as areca leaf or bagasse plates on site. In case of larger events where 100 percent use of reusables might not be possible, partner with vendors who will manage your waste responsibly.
Making an event eco-friendly does come at a cost. There is a premium for biodegradable tableware; reusable options and waste segregation stations, especially for larger events, require adequate, well-paid staff to wash and restock items.
Interest in green events is rising, however, and it has become easier to eliminate event waste. The stores selling single-use dinnerware also carry sustainable options and choices for eco-friendly decor are many. A growing number of hosts are ready to invest in minimising their environmental impact. Hasiru Dala has partnered with venues and corporate conferences keen on responsible waste management and more caterers are supportive of source segregation and reusables. With this new conscientiousness come opportunities for eco-entrepreneurs and green event planners to offer local solutions to reduce event waste or manage it in a decentralised manner.
Make your next event a zero-landfill one with these pro tips:
- Embed waste management in all planning and contracting.
- Have a waste management budget: Set aside 2-5 percent of your total spend to have your trash responsibly managed.
- Make arrangements for waste segregation at the venue.
- Large buffet spreads can result in as much as 700 grams of food waste per person. Opt for sit-down meals to cut food waste down significantly.
- Eliminate paper plates from your party. They’re the easiest to replace with reusable alternatives
- Transparent plastic cups might be the worst offenders as they are difficult to recycle.
- Do away with bouquets: Bouquets and flower arrangements use foam to extend the life of the flowers, but foam has limited use and is impossible to recycle.
- If you cannot avoid paper cups completely, restrict their use to water and beverages. Never serve sweets and desserts in paper cups.
- For small parties, buy packed juices in bulk rather than as individual cartons or small Tetra Paks.