BioCycle Magazine

Insider’s guide to compostables collection at events

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An event happens any time a group of people come together for a purpose, whether it is to attend a concert, network at a conference, celebrate a wedding, run a race, etc. Events can range in size from a few people to hundreds of thousands of people, and typically generate massive volumes of discarded materials. According to the Green Meeting Industry Council, event attendees can generate 20 lbs of material per person per day.

The amount and type of organics available in event waste varies based on the type of event, how much food is served and how it is served. For example, a one-day, 1,000 person conference serving continental breakfast, a boxed lunch and two snack breaks with single serve, compostable products can generate four cubic yards or more of organic material. A luncheon for 5,000 that serves a plated lunch on china with cloth napkins will generate less, but heavier, organic material. The luncheon will have more food scraps versus the paper boxes, plates and cups from the conference. Of course, estimating volumes based on attendance is tricky. The luncheon may generate a lot more material if the fish isn’t cooked all the way.

According to the USEPA, organics can comprise over 50 percent of an event’s waste stream: 20 percent in food scraps and another 30 to 40 percent in paper and food-soiled paper products. When paired with recycling, diversion rates of 80 to 90 percent or more can be achieved.

To run a successful compost collection program, three areas need to be addressed: Matching products to infrastructure; Pre-event planning and outreach; and On-site collection and contamination reduction.


Today, there are multiple compostable utensils and PLA (polylactic acid or “plastic look alike”) product options available to events that are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and meet the ASTM 6400 standard for compostability. However, the products alone are not enough. If they go to a landfill, they will not break down but remain intact just as traditional plastics do. In order to convert these products into compost, a commercial composting facility is required.

I learned this lesson the hard way. My first experience with compostable utensils was when a farmer close to Washington, DC agreed to take and process organics, including the utensils and PLA products, from the 2005 DC Green Festival, a large weekend trade show and conference with 20,000 attendees focused on sustainability. He was planning on marketing the material the next year as bagged “Green Festival” compost. He hoped to turn a nice profit in the process.

When I heard from him in February, four months after the event, he was not happy. None of the utensils were gone. They were just in lots of smaller pieces. There was no way he could sell the “compost,” or even get rid of it. I learned at that point that this type of material doesn’t decompose like sticks and twigs. It has to be sorted, amended, ground, receive uniform air and moisture, reach temperature, be turned, cleaned and cured before it will convert back into a natural form.

Unfortunately, most event planners don’t know special processing is required, and assume that when a product package is labeled as compostable or biodegradable, that is enough. To complicate matters further, the products accepted for composting in one location may not be accepted for composting in another location. It all depends on the infrastructure and what a processor will accept as feedstock.

Event planners typically select the type of food to be served, determine how it will be served, and order needed disposable food service products at least three months before an event occurs. In order to increase desirable feedstock and reduce contamination, composting facilities accepting event organics need to establish clear guidelines regarding what will be accepted for composting, and communicate this to the planners well in advance of their event.

Of course, the ideal option for both events and composters is to avoid single-use products as much as possible, and instead rely on reusables, finger foods and paper products for food service needs. A “bring your own utensils” or a “utensil loan” and paper product event might provide more options for composting materials at a greater number of facilities.


The key to implementing a successful compost collection program is starting early. It involves much more than just setting out a container labeled “compost” and hoping people will put their organics into that container. To have the biggest impact and the least headache, establish expectations with food vendors, caterers and venues six months to a year in advance, when contracts for service are signed.

Key questions to ask and answer include: Does the venue collect compostables? Can a separate compost debris bin be brought in? Will the caterer keep food scraps separate from other discarded materials? Will food vendors use Styrofoam™ or paper products? Can sorters work on site to remove contaminants? All of these potential complications and more can be addressed at the time contracts are written. When left until the last month or the last minute, the complications can sometimes turn into complete road blocks for successful compostables collection.

Local ordinances banning products that cannot be recycled or composted, like San Francisco’s ban on Styrofoam™, can help pave the way for events to use compostable products, producing a cleaner organic feedstock. This can also level the playing field for vendors with multiple event choices. From a vendor’s perspective, it is much easier to do “business as normal” than to source different, sometimes more expensive, compostable products in order to work an event. To assist food vendors and caterers, composters, municipalities and events need to provide technical assistance and product information in order to ensure vendors select appropriate products for a compost stream, before event products are ordered. Unless you are in the industry, the terms compostable, biodegradable and degradable all tend to sound the same.

If a composter will only accept products that are properly labeled and are BPI certified, it is a good idea to notify the event, and vendors involved in food service, at least three months in advance. Mandatory vendor meetings, emails and phone calls are a good way to share product information. To help eliminate error, an event can provide food service vendors with order forms from trusted, compostable product distributors to reduce the possibility of noncompostable products.

Health and safety must be considered any time food is involved, so make sure the local health inspector knows what you are planning, especially when offering foods, drinks or condiments in bulk versus single serve packaging. Let attendees know what to expect too, via communications about the compostable collection plans and products on the event website, program book and press releases.


There are typically two streams of organic waste at an event: front-of-house, where food is consumed, and back-of-house, where the food is prepared. Collection in each area can vary significantly, and present specific challenges and opportunities. Typical challenges and corresponding solutions for each area are presented in Table 1. Both areas involve people as well as infrastructure, and a successful collection program must, by necessity, cover both.

Front-Of-House — Attendee Collection

There are two main ways to collect compostables from attendees at an event. The first is at an ecostation, also known as a resource recovery station, with separate containers for recycling, organics and trash. Or, it can be collected as trash and sorted to recover the organic materials.

The first method provides an element of public education but still typically produces contaminated compostables, which require sorting as well. Most people spend less than one to two seconds at a trash can, and because this is such a frequent activity, it barely registers as a conscious action. At an ecostation with multiple options, people may feel inconvenienced or confused and toss everything in the container nearest to them regardless of what container it is. For this reason, both the trash and compost bin materials need to be sorted to recover all organics.

The second method is a no-brainer from the attendee point of view, but can require significant labor on the back end to sort through everything. This is especially true for large events that produce 20 to 100 cubic yards or more of material a day.

Most events prefer the first collection option for the sake of education. Therefore, some good practices and tips for collecting compostables as a separate stream are included in the accompanying sidebar. If the second method is utilized, events must allow extra time at the end of an event to sort materials.

For large events that require 10 or more ecostations, it can be difficult to recruit enough volunteers to cover every station. For example, a 2-day, 8-hour music festival with 60 stations would require a minimum of 240 volunteers, assuming each volunteer shows up and works a 5-hour shift.

In these situations, an event can elect to place a limited number of monitored ecostations in key areas for educational purposes, and collect materials in other locations as trash. This can eliminate the need to sort through two streams (compost and trash) from every station instead of one stream (trash) from unattended stations to remove contaminants and recover compostable materials.

Back-Of-House Collection

The annual Marin County (California) Fair implemented a compostable collection program in 2008. The back-of-house stream was destined for an anaerobic digester as a pilot, and could only contain food scraps and paper. The front-of-house stream was destined for a commercial composting facility, and could include food scraps, compostable utensils and service ware.

Even after three months of outreach to the 30-plus food vendors working the event regarding appropriate, compostable products, it was challenging to explain to the food vendors why they could not put their compostable forks in the back-of-house containers. (It was difficult enough to get some to put their food scraps anywhere other than the trash, much less explain the need for two separate streams.) However, after checking in with each food vendor at least twice a day each day and working with them to address challenges, the back-of-house organics collection steadily increased from 600 lbs the first day to 1,300 lbs the last day of a 5-day event. It is always important to remember that people are a key component to collection success.

Organics collection at events takes time, effort and vigilance, but by matching products to infrastructure, planning in advance, communicating goals and expectations to vendors and attendees, and helping both groups along the way, it can happen and be very successful and rewarding. It is helpful to consider all stakeholder needs and concerns, and design program communications that both address these concerns and provide incentives for participation. It is also wise to start small, do things well and build on success instead of trying to do too much at once, causing problems for everyone involved. The more successful a compost collection program, the more often it will be utilized by others, until someday, collecting organics as a separate stream becomes “business as normal.”

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