Zero. Ironically, that’s a big goal. That is, it’s a big goal if zero waste is what you have in mind. And that’s exactly what the College’s Office of Sustainability hopes this campus can achieve by 2025.
In order to pursue that objective, staff members from the office are experimenting with zero-waste practices at select events. For the past two years, they’ve partnered with the Office of Alumni Affairs, Dining Services and the Physical Plant to render A Charleston Affair – the College’s annual spring gala for seniors and alumni – a Zero Waste event.
According to Jen Jones, facilities coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, this experiment has been a resounding success. “It took a lot of work and planning, but this initiative has really worked well. Last year and this year we succeeded in diverting over 90 percent of the waste from the event, and that officially qualifies A Charleston Affair as a Zero-Waste event.”
The industry standard requires diverting at least 90 percent of refuse from the landfill.
This year, Jones and Ashlyn Spilis Hochschild (the Intern and Student Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability) supervised nearly 40 volunteers over the course of the gala’s two evenings. According to Jones, they were aided by 30 employees from the College’s Physical Plant who helped to manage waste diversion stations set up throughout the Cistern Yard. (The attendees were invited to discard plates, napkins, and other service materials in the appropriate bins to be recycled, composted or sent to the landfill.)
“We were able to collect 3,920 pounds of recyclable materials, along with 2,050 pounds of compostable matter,” explained Jones. “This is a huge step forward because events represent a pretty significant proportion of the College’s waste generation. For us, it was important to focus on a high-profile event that can serve as a model. Prior to the first time we did this at A Charleston Affair in 2014, the College really hadn’t considered the impact of events from a sustainability standpoint, but this experiment demonstrates that it’s truly worth our while to rethink planning and staging events.”
For this year’s edition of A Charleston Affair, Jones and company made several important revisions. First, they convinced the organizers to replace the recyclable cups with compostable cups for beverage service. “We tend to think that composting is slightly more sustainable than recycling. Some recyclable materials, such as No. 5 plastics, release toxins when the material is melted down.” And second, they paired each volunteer with an employee from the Physical Plant to monitor the waste diversion stations. “One of the most misunderstood aspects of sustainability,” explained Jones, “is community building. You can’t sustain something if people don’t have a vested interest in it, and the shared experience those folks had on those evenings goes a long way toward deepening the investment. This whole event is an exercise in community building, and we absolutely couldn’t have done this without everyone involved doing their part.”
So, will zero-waste practices be implemented at more campus events in the future? “That’s the goal,” says Jones. “And we’re definitely getting better at it. Last year we were on site until 2:00 in the morning each night, but by including more people in the effort this year, we finished both evenings before midnight. And, what’s more important, the people from Alumni Affairs say this initiative has enhanced their event; they got a lot of encouraging feedback from the attendees. So our take is, if we can do this at A Charleston Affair with over 5,000 people attending, we can do this at almost any College event.”
To that end, Jones and others within the Office of Sustainability will spend part of this summer developing a zero waste event kit that can help others on campus implement these practices. “We’ve got a limited staff in our office, and even with a lot of student interns, we can’t be at every event. So, it’s really important that we teach others how to do this. As they say, ‘you can give a man a fish, or you can teach him to fish.’ So we’re becoming teachers.”
For more information about zero-waste practices and the College’s 2025 goal, visit zerowaste.cofc.edu.