Sustainable America Blog

Staff Challenge: Plan a Sustainable Event

Sustainable America gala program

All photos by Jay B. Wilson

For Earth Day this year, we Sustainable America staff members decided to challenge ourselves to work on ways to be greener in our everyday lives. Inspired by a mantra from our friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Greening is a journey, not a destination,” we each chose an area to improve upon, from composting to eating less meat.

Today we hear from Heide, our office manager, who set the goal of making our first gala as low-imact and sustainable as possible. Here’s what she wrote in April: “Parties customarily generate a tremendous amount of waste. For Sustainable America’s inaugural gala, I am working to reduce waste and source local and sustainable components for décor, etc. It is a challenge and I am learning a lot, and I’m sure that there will be many more surprises along the way.” Here’s how she did it…

Preparations for our first fundraising gala have been the focal point of my work for the past few months. While I have organized many events over the years, this has been my first large event with sustainability as a primary focus. I found that minimizing waste and increasing sustainability requires extra thought and planning, but it has been a fun exercise.

It is said that parties and events are second only to the construction industry in the amount of waste generated. With that in mind, we worked to deploy strategies that minimized waste in all aspects of the event, from food to décor, and especially in printing and paper collateral. Here are a few examples of ways we did things differently with a view to reuse, repurpose, and recycle.

Gala attendees bidding on their phonesAuction: A major part of this event was our live and silent auctions. In the past, I have done this the old-fashioned way with bid sheets, posters, and lots of signs on the silent auction tables ensconced in petroleum-based Lucite frames. Needless to say, these strategies would not have been suitable for this party, and creative problem solving was in order. One of the first things we did was to contract with Bidding For Good to use their mobile bidding application. Our guests were able to read detailed descriptions online and bid from their phones, thus minimizing the need for posters, bid sheets etc. And instead of using large posters to showcase our live auction items, we displayed a video loop of photos and descriptions on flat-panel screens we borrowed for the event.

Centerpieces donated by Geiger's LandscapingDecor: Décor was another area that required creative strategies to avoid waste. Geiger’s Home and Garden, a landscaping company here in Connecticut, graciously donated dozens of live potted trees and plants which were an integral part of the décor. We still had flowers and greens to make our space festive without the downside of cut flowers, which are energy intensive to grow and then thrown out when the party is over.

Since our event was held in our offices and not a typical event space, we needed to lay down carpeting for acoustic reasons. When I head that the carpet company typically throws out carpet once it’s used I made some calls and was able to instead donate the carpet to Habitat for Humanity. Sustainable America Logo made out of moss Although we couldn’t entirely dispense with signage, we worked to increase the sustainability in two ways: First, we ensured that any signs we had made were as general as possible so we could reuse them at future functions. We also used recycled paper and other media to maximize sustainability in production. We even made a “barn star” from our logo using moss and cardboard boxes that were headed for recycling. We were pleased with how they came out, and they met our goals by being both recycled and reusable.

Catering by Maison PriveFood: For dinner, we hired a local leader in sustainable catering, Maison Privé. Husband and wife team James and Jennifer Vellano work closely with a network of local farmers and producers to support farming techniques that are sustainable, organic, and regenerative. We didn’t even know what would be on the menu until a few days before the event! In addition, all the food scraps were composted, and about eight trays of uneaten food were donated to a shelter a few blocks away from our office.

While we’ve helped other organizations produce zero-waste events in the past, we certainly learned a lot from this experience. Hopefully, this gives you some ideas for an event you’re putting together, even if it’s just a backyard barbecue. To see more photos from the event, check out our album on Facebook.

Heide Hart
Sustainable America Office Manager

Staff Challenge: Go Zero-Waste for a Month
Staff Challenge: Grow More Food!
Behind the Scenes at a Zero-Waste Event

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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