As we get further into 2015, people with upcoming weddings can likely feel their date of choice closing in rapidly. Keeping sustainability in mind while planning an event with family, friends, and a ceremony can be difficult but on average in the US, each wedding incurs between 400-600 lbs of waste (source) and even if you find you typically recycle at home, bringing those practices into a vendor while planning the rest of your event is exhausting!
When my husband and I started planning our wedding, we decided we wanted to at least explore the idea of reducing the waste of our wedding and tie in other sustainable principles. Here are some of the things we explored with some lessons learned along the way:
- Invitations/Save-the-Dates/RSVPs: We used email for “save the dates” for key people. This isn’t possible for many people but to the extent mailing extra paper materials can be avoided, cost and waste can be reduced. We sent paper invitations to some, but they were one sheet of cardstock with our date and website URL/QR code on them since we used the website to communicate most of the details that are typically included via paper in the invitation. Additionally, we included a feature to RSVP through the website eliminating the need for paper RSVPs.
- Lesson Learned: Of course, guest ability to use this technology must be considered and creating the website was somewhat of a project within itself but it was fun for my programmer husband and me, plus there are tried and true services out there that can do this for you (if you’re interested in what we made see this link: https://github.com/thesquaregroot/php-rsvp).
- Location: Another big impact of events is the carbon footprint of the travel. Weddings present a unique challenge since the goal is to bring people together, however it is worthwhile (though not always practical) to consider a wedding location that minimizes guest travel. We chose to hold our wedding in Ohio since we are both from Ohio and didn’t expect many out of town guests.
- “Sendoff”: Historically guests have thrown rice at the couple as they exit their ceremony for good luck. Over time, this has fallen out of favor with concerns for wildlife and food waste, being replaced with different creative options. For us, since we were outside in the summer, we didn’t want to throw anything that would have to be picked up later (like confetti), we didn’t want anything to melt (like sprinkles), and we didn’t want to risk it potentially be forgotten (like lavender). We decided to throw helicopter seeds (seeds typically from maple trees). Though it was very time-consuming to find and collect the fallen seeds, it had the effect we wanted (see the picture below)! Plus it was free and best of all the seeds could stay on the ground where they fell!
- Flowers: We used a small local flower shop called EcoFlora that prides itself on finding sustainable, organic, and in-season flowers from primarily local sources.
- Other Ideas: After the event, the flowers could be composted, turned into jewelry or even taken to a local retirement home.
- Drinks: We sourced our wines and all-Ohio beers through a local wine shop and our liquor though a local distillery. We had already discussed recycling the bottles, corks, and cans from the alcohol and mixers with our venue since they use the city’s recycling pickup. However, the venue required us to use plastic cups. We thought through several methods of recycling the cups, including Terracycle, but the cups they supplied were actually compostable cups. These are not recyclable through the city program or Terracycle, but they were compostable, which got us wondering if Columbus had a composting facility. After doing some research, we found a small business called Compost Columbus that runs a composting pickup subscription service, similar to a trash pickup. We contacted them and they agreed to pick up our compostable waste after our event. They gave us a bin to put all the compostable food, cups, and paper products into and they would pick it up the next day. This covered nearly everything we would be serving, but it became an interesting challenge as we planned the reception further.
- Lesson Learned: At some point during the planning, we decided we wanted cheese stuffed olives for martinis (a classy touch to our event) but as we shopped for bar accessories (think straws, drink garnishes and such) it dawned on us that these would also need to be compostable, leading us to forgo straws and opt for wooden toothpicks. These last minute details could make or break our composting idea, since plastic straws would either ruin the compost or need to be separated by hand.
- Food: Depending on the time of day of the wedding and type of reception you host, there may be food waste. We had our wedding in the evening and served dinner for 130 people. We choose a plated meal in lieu of a buffet, which ended up saving money because our venue ultimately spent less when the food was portioned out by person. Anything left on the plate we could compost!
- Lesson Learned: At first, we wanted to serve local or organic good. But, we figured out it would be too much for our venue to control since they had relationships with their food distributors and already knew how much to order based on the menu. However, it’s a nice idea to explore if this is an available and affordable option for your event and there are an increasing number of caterers that can offer this.
- “System control”: The biggest key to a “zero waste” event is clear communication with the people actually executing the decisions (what I call “system control”). It was imperative that we got the venue on board with what we wanted to do early on, made sure they felt prepared, and expressed to them that it was important to us. We gave them the right information on what to do with the recycling and compost, created signs for them to post for the staff and decided where to place the waste receptacles. It helped us that the venue’s staff typically clears plated meals (versus guests).
- Lesson Learned: Events using disposable flatware make this much harder since it is the guests who control how well the waste disposal is executed. Previous zero waste events I was involved with posted volunteers at the few waste receptacles in the room, had signage, and made an announcement explaining the goal and instructions to guests. This is probably the hardest aspect of the event since it involves thinking through logistics as well as anticipating human behavior! Though our guests didn’t have to be as involved, we decided to make a small announcement since we were trying something different.
- Lesson Learned: Both the venue and the composting company said they thought the teamwork and communication between them could have been better. We tried to ensure both sides had the right information, but this may be something that comes with time as businesses like our venue get exposed to options like composting and businesses like Compost Columbus grow beyond a small operation.
- Centerpieces/Party Favors: We used wooden centerpieces that a previous wedding had donated to the venue. We had a set of bride and groom rubber duckies sitting on the wood along with a sign and a little fact about us. The sign was paper and the sign holders were old wine corks we had tied together and could recollect. Instead of getting additional favors for the guests (since they are not usually taken home anyways), we turned the ducks into favors by writing our name and date on them for the people who actually wanted to take home a favor.
- Lesson Learned: We only had 7 duckies left at the end of the night, so we had a good number of favors without being wasteful or limiting to those that wanted them.
- Gifts: We used a website registry called Zola. While it is up in the air on how much waste it eliminated, it did offer an option for online donations to charities in lieu of gifts.
- Wedding Dress: Although I would think most wedding dresses don’t end up in landfills (if brides have anything to say about it!), there are many options for what to do with the dress post wedding such as preserving it for posterity, selling it, or donating to a charity like Brides Against Breast Cancer or Brides Across America. This is still on our to-do list since we haven’t figured out which option is best for a rainbow dress!
Though it is difficult to measure the impact of some of these decisions, we were able to divert 106 lbs of compost and recycle the remaining waste. As with any event, there were uncontrollable factors, such as a guest bringing in trash that couldn’t be diverted, which was separated prior to composting and dealt with through conventional means.
Some other sources for further information are the ISO Certification for Sustainable Event Management, local green event planning sites (example), and Green Wedding Websites (example). Additionally, we had several other details that were not referenced in this blog because of length, so please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Why should you care?
A WSJ article by our co-founder Dean Fischer talks about a recent report that concludes humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to supply the ecological goods and services humans use. So, it is not only about composting or recycling waste (that may ultimately be in a landfill anyway), it’s about thinking differently, and looking for new or creative ways to use less and create less of an impact while still having the same (or more) fun!
Where to go from here?
Give it a try – making sustainable choices about event planning can be easier than you think! At the end of the day “green” event planning (and event planning in general) is really about thinking through the guest experience, thinking through how small details connect, and who is responsible for what.
The goal is to not to interfere with guest experience, though obviously we were willing to take the risk of trying some of these options on a once in a lifetime event. It is understandable that for some the risk does not appear to outweigh the benefit. However, most of us will be involved in event planning at some point, even if it’s just a small dinner or holiday party. Pick one or a few of these ideas and give them a try, especially since there is an additional benefit that many of these actions double as money savers. The only way to perfect execution of these types of changes are to try them out and spread the knowledge of successes and lessons learned.