Tiny business diverts more than seven Super Bowls’ worth of waste

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By Davis Burroughs (@davisburroughs)

Even the world's most well-intentioned events leave behind a big mess. From the fossil fuel-fired vessels transporting attendees to and from a venue to the oodles of disposable cookware needed to feed people fast and cheap — it’s easy to pass off event waste as a mere byproduct of having fun.

Fans lucky enough to score a ticket to the Super Bowl, for example, collectively generate 40 tons of garbage by the end of the game. But events don’t have to be so trashy. Super Bowl organizers just got the memo; in 2018, the game’s corporate sponsors (which include giants like Pepsi Co.) launched Rush2Recycle, an initiative to recover more than 90 percent of the waste generated on gameday.

That’s a great play, one Waste-Free Earth CEO Marina McCoy has used for almost a decade. She’s not kicking field goals (as far as we know), but she’s definitely kicking the cans — far more than you’ll find at the Super Bowl.

In December 2018, Regeneration founder Kyle Calian and I went behind the scenes at WinterWonderGrass. The folk music festival had retained McCoy’s sustainability consulting and event production company, Waste-Free Earth, to take responsibility for its environmental footprint.

Lo and behold, we found ourselves encapsulated in a jam-packed spectacle that was noticeably free of human leftovers. Despite hosting 2,000 people per day, there were no cups on the ground. No big, stinky, mixed-waste garbage bins. The festival was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air; better even than what we expected from a rubbish-free guru who has been fine-tuning event-waste programs for her entire adult life.

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Photo by Kyle Calian 

Based in Burlington, Vermont, Waste-Free Earth integrates the principles of triple bottom line sustainability to help its clients make environmentally conscious choices. Using educational outreach, carbon footprint analyses, and waste reduction and diversion processes, they help companies and organizations of all sizes make decisions that benefit people, planet and profit.

For small events of less than 15,000 people, McCoy's business handles all sustainability operations, waste management and diversion procedures (compost, recycling, donations and landfill).

For bigger events, they act as a liaison between production companies and contracted waste-management companies “to make sure all parties are following Waste-Free Earth's sustainability guidelines for high-waste diversion and elimination practices,” McCoy explained. High-waste diversion means about 80-90 percent less trash ends up in the dump.

McCoy’s five-employee company also works closely with state, local and federal governments’ environmental and health departments to overcome regulatory hurdles and, in certain cases, to secure grants to kickstart creative event-waste solutions.

From 2016 to 2018, Waste-Free Earth diverted nearly 592,000 pounds (296 tons) of garbage from landfills. That’s equivalent to 7.4 Super Bowls’ worth of trash, using 2018 figures. Of that sum, about one-third was recycled and another third composted. They turned 3 percent of that trash into treasure (donations), while the rest went to landfill.

While many differences exist between standard events and those managed by Waste-Free Earth, the culture of cups stands out as one of the most noticeable shifts.

Thanks to ubiquitous bans on carrying liquids onto airplanes and other security concerns surrounding the weaponization of water bottles (seriously), it’s common practice to discard drinking vessels prior to entering most security lines.

But when we got in line at WinterWonderGrass, which had its own robust, private security check, we were handed a metal cup before we passed the metal detectors. Whoa!

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Photo by Davis Burroughs

The cost of the cup, made by Klean Kanteen, is built into the event ticket price, so every ticket holder gets one. The cups have a simple, durable and timeless design. Though made of steel, they are extremely lightweight. Each cup is also emblemized with an event-specific design, so it has nostalgic as well as functional value.

Compared to other reusable bottles, these cups don’t require too much energy to manufacture. Plus, at the end of their lifecycle they can be recycled just like a can of Coke. That’s not the case with a lot of other products on the market — especially insulated bottles, whose many layers and materials all but guarantee death by landfill.

The open-lid design of these cups can be limiting because you have to finish or discard your drink before you can go hands-free. However, no lid allows for super-fast cleaning, after which the cup can be easily stowed. Or you can spend a few extra bucks to add a band and carabiner, so you can clip the cup to a bag or belt loop (totally worth it, for the record).

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Photo by Davis Burroughs

I’ve been using that setup for about two months now. So far, so great!

Vendors at Waste-Free Earth events can’t serve beverages in plastic cups. No plastic cookware is permitted at all. If an attendee loses their Klean Kanteen or personal reusable drinking vessel, they’re charged an extra $1 for each compostable cup served thereafter. “We hope this method encourages people to think about single-use waste — even if [the cup] is compostable, it is only made for one use,” McCoy said. She added that since implementing the dollar-per-compostable-cup rule they have seen a significant decrease in single-use cups.

Waste-Free Earth prefers reusables over anything else, because waste facilities don’t love a sudden surge of compostable items that they’re (usually) not equipped to process after a big event, McCoy said. That makes sense. The size of the festival we attended in Stratton, Vermont, was at least 10 times the population of the 200-person town. 

McCoy chose Klean Kanteen over other bottle brands because they do “such transparent lifecycle analyses,” which makes it easier for her business to calculate the cost and benefits of using their product as compared to paper, plastic or other single-use norms.

As with most Klean Kanteen products, the Waste-Free Earth cups are made from biodegradable stainless steel, so if one does end up lost, forgotten or otherwise turned to litter, the earth’s natural recycling systems will turn it to dust in just 14 years. In comparison, a glass bottle takes 1 million years to dissolve, according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

For a three-day festival like WinterWonderGrass, the mandated use of reusable cups eliminates tens of thousands of plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans from the waste stream. Touchdown. 

But McCoy isn’t just looking at the numbers for each event, she’s also considering the non-tangibles, namely influence. She’s witnessed a massive culture shift since she first began distributing reusables at events five years ago. “People will come back to us years later with the same cup ... and we get tagged on social media all the time with pictures of people using their event cups in their everyday lives.”

McCoy’s cup plot is just one of the many unique systems she’s created to help people come together and celebrate life without leaving a stain. Follow Waste-Free Earth on Instagram @wastefreeearth to see more of her latest solutions.

Correction: This article was updated on Feb. 6, 2018, to clarify the timespan through which Waste-Free Earth achieved its 596,000-pound waste diversion figure.