The Green Festival Aiming for Zero Waste

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Green Festival Greening Manager Joe Caristo and two volunteers staff a "resource recovery station" at last weekend's Green Festival in San Francisco. Each station features three carts: recycling, compost and "landfill." Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

Can a two-day festival with thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors go zero waste?

That’s exactly what Green America and Global Exchange are trying to achieve with the Green Festival, the green living events that the two nonprofits organize throughout the country in cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Back in May, the Green Festival hit a significant milestone in its efforts to recycle and compost as much waste from its festivities as possible: The Seattle event produced only 80 pounds of trash – a 99.3 percent recycling and composting rate.

The 10th annual Green Festival was held last weekend in San Francisco, and event organizers were also looking to divert as much waste as they could from this event – probably around 96-97 percent, according to Joe Caristo, the festival’s greening manager who works for event greening company Seven-Star.

Just how does such a large function send so little waste to landfill? Earth911 went behind the scenes at the San Francisco Green Festival to find out.

READ: A Sneak Peek at the San Fran Green Festival

“We don’t have trash cans”

First, recyclables, compostables and trash are collected at 15 “resource recovery stations” scattered throughout the event’s venue, San Francisco’s Concourse Exhibition Center.

“People ask, ‘where are the trash cans?’ when they come to the Green Festival,” says Denise Hamler, green business director at Green America. “We don’t have trash cans here – we have resource recovery stations.”

Each stations features three carts: the first for recyclables such as plastics, glass and paper, and the second for compostables like food, food-soiled paper and bioplastics. Festival exhibitors are required to use compostable food-service products, and Caristo checks compliance the day before the event as exhibitors are setting up.

READ: Recycling Mystery: Bioplastic

The last cart in the resource recovery station, labeled “landfill,” is the destination for items you can’t recycle or compost at the Green Festival: mostly plastic bags and soy milk cartons.

While plastic bags and paper cartons coated with plastic and aluminum are recyclable materials, Caristo says he has not found local companies that will recycle these materials from the San Francisco event.

“It depends on if you have enough [material] or if the [recycling] facility isn’t too far away, to make it environmentally worthwhile for you to try to recycle [the material],” he says.

He says he is looking for Bay Area companies to recycle these materials for the next Green Festival; he estimates that recycling plastic bags and cartons would bump up the event’s recycling rate to 98-99 percent.

READ: How to Recycle Milk and Juice Cartons

Each station is also outfitted with a box to collect Clif Bar wrappers, since the company, one of the event’s sponsors, gives out sample energy bars during the festival. Because the wrappers are not recyclable through local programs, collected wrappers are returned to Clif Bar and upcycled into new products like wallets and bags.

“We need more producer responsibility with our exhibitors. Clif Bar is a good role model for that,” Caristo says.

READ: 10 Crazy Crafts with Candy Wrappers

San Francisco, Green Festival

Volunteers sort through Green Festival waste, making sure recyclables didn't end up in the trash and vice-versa. Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

Volunteers get their hands dirty

To make sure event-goers and exhibitors place their waste materials into the correct bins, each resource recovery station is staffed by 1-2 volunteers who provide instructions on which materials go into each cart.

The Green Festival recruits volunteers from local schools, colleges and conservations corps programs, and Caristo conducts three trainings a day for each new volunteer shift.

Over 800 volunteers helped with waste diversion at last month’s Green Festival in Los Angeles, Caristo says. Though he didn’t have an exact count of volunteers at San Francisco’s event yet, he was sure last weekend’s volunteer team exceeded LA’s.

Once the resource recovery station’s carts are full, the material is hauled outside and poured onto a table, where another group of volunteers sorts through the waste, with gloves, to make sure there are no recyclables in the trash and vice-versa.

If a waste stream is more than 20 percent contaminated with incorrect materials, the recycling and composting companies may reject it.

Though not required for the volunteers, Caristo often stays late, finishing the sorting.

“Some nights, you’ll find me sorting until midnight,” he says.

Once the materials are sorted, they’re ready for pick-up or shipping to recycling or composting facilities.

In San Francisco and Seattle, finding a facility to compost food scraps and compostable plastics is easy for Caristo since the cities already have commercial composting programs in place. But what happens in a city with no composting program and fewer composting facilities?

For May’s Chicago Green Festival, Caristo loaded the food scraps and compostable plastics into a rental truck and shipped it to the nearest compost facility he could find, which was 2-3 hours away.

Once compostables from the Green Festival reach a facility, the material is mixed with wood chips and run through a shredder to make smaller pieces, Caristo says. The material is then placed in windrows and turned occasionally to aid decomposition. After about six months, the food scraps and compostable plastics have turned into a soil product suitable for landscaping.

READ: San Fran Compost Slashes Compost Emissions

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