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How to make your school event greener
Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.
Are you planning a school party or event? Set an example for the kids (and parents) and make it green! There are many steps you can take to make an event more earth-friendly – landfill waste diversion, energy and water conservation, transportation, serving sustainable foods - and you don’t have to take all of them to make a difference. Start with one or two, then add another to the next event, if you want.
Appoint one member of your committee to be the sustainability officer, or ask your school’s green team (if it has one) for advice early in the planning stages of your event. Ask the principal or custodians about what programs and resources are available at your school.
- What kind of recycling program is available? Are items picked up from the school, or do they need to be transported?
- What items are recycled, and is sorting required?
- Is composting available, and what can be composted?
- Are there waste, recycling, or compost containers or bags that can be used for the event?
- Are there reusable items like plates or cups that can be checked out or borrowed?
- Are decorations, posters, or supplies available from previous years that can be reused?
- What kinds of materials can be reused – paper or recycled items for crafts, signs?
- Are there email lists, social media, a marquee, or bulletin boards that can be used to minimize paper communications?
- Where are the bike racks?
- Where are AC, heat, and lighting controls, so everything can be turned down or off after your event?
Advertising your event
Use paperless communication options – email lists, school website, twitter, facebook, the school marquee, (reusable) yard signs around the school grounds or neighborhood, and daily announcements. Be sure to tell people you’re striving for zero-waste, and to look for marked containers. If you do decide to send out a flyer, consider using a half or even quarter-paged announcement in a bright color or print up stickers that teachers can place on students’ shirts as they leave school.
Food service items
Reusable service items are the greenest approach. For smaller events, ask parents to lend plates, cups, silverware, cloth napkins and table cloths. At the end of the party, items can be packed up and returned to the lending parent for washing at home. The next best choice depends on what kinds of recycling or composting are available at your school. If composing isn’t available, and you don’t want to wash things out to recycle them, paper goods are probably the best option. Sometimes a paper towel, muffin cup, or coffee filter can replace a plate to minimize waste. Avoid Styrofoam. Keep in mind that compostable items will not decompose if they are sealed in a landfill.
Meats require more resources (water and energy) to produce than vegetables, and beef cattle are major contributors to greenhouse gases, so if you’re serving a meal, think about choosing chicken, fish, or vegetarian options. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website (link below) to learn more about selecting ocean-friendly fish. You can also consider using organic and/or local foods, though these may be priced out of reach.
The greenest option is to use insulated jugs or urns and reusable cups. Depending on your composting and recycling plans, compostable paper cups or recyclable plastic cups are the next best choice (but you need to then recycle or compost them). Bottles and cans can be recycled. Juice pouches are recyclable through Terracycle, but I’ve found the process clumsy (and smelly). While some juice boxes are compostable in commercial compost, most are not. Paper sleeves are available for use with hot drinks and paper cups. Avoid Styrofoam.
Favors and prizes
All of those little plastic things take resources to create and will end up in the landfill or ocean one day (I call them turtle-chokers), so the fewer the better. For carnivals, collect little toys and trinkets from parents and re-use them for prizes. Pencils, pens, erasers, reusable (recyclable) party cups, stickers, paper bookmarks, snacks, books, coloring books or pages, plants, seeds, and rulers all make useful, reusable and/or recyclable favors.
For large events, planning for trash can be a challenge, even without recycling. Reducing waste is always the greenest option. Relocate, purchase or borrow clearly marked containers and place them in the event area. IMPORTANT: if you want items to end up in the right place ALWAYS put all options you’re offering (recycle, trash, and/or compost) at every trash location so people can choose the right container. If there’s only one container standing alone, everything will go in it. Usually it’s better to have only one or two complete trash stations and have someone monitor them, if possible. Consider your event an opportunity to educate people about how your school recycles or composts.
If your school doesn't have a curbside recycling program, and you want to recycle, you will need to find volunteers or hire a service to transport items to your local recycling center. You may choose to limit the items you recycle, for example bottles and cans only, to keep things manageable. Sometimes scout troops can be called on to help.
For annual events, purchase reusable decorations and store them for reuse. Or be creative and reuse newspapers, sheets, tablecloths, and natural plant or flower arrangements for decorations. The backs of deconstructed cereal boxes make great poster material.
Encourage people to walk or bike to your event by providing plenty of bike racks and safe routes to the school. If it’s a field trip, carpooling or buses are the way to go.
After a night or weekend event, turn out all lights and electronics and turn down the heat or AC.
Other helpful ideas and tips:
- Our PTA purchased 100 inexpensive reusable, dish-washer-safe plates for about $25 for teacher luncheons and group events. They are stored in a lidded container, and dirty plates are scraped, placed back in the container, and taken home for cleaning.
- Another school purchased several “party packs”, a container with a full set of plastic plates, cups, and flatware to be checked out and used for class parties. If all the parties happen on the same day, obviously this won’t work.
- Don’t underestimate parents. I once mentioned that we MIGHT use reusable plates, cups, etc. for a party, and parents came forward immediately to lend items.
- Cardboard boxes or leaf bags make great temporary containers for mixed recycling or commercial compost. In many cases, you can throw the whole thing in your recycling dumpster. Mark them so people know what they are.
- Our school has a kids’ green club, and members help at our events. They make labels to clearly mark containers, help collect and rinse recyclables, and help clean up after the event.
- We take samples of the primary items offered at our event – cans, cups, bottles – and attach them to a sign near the appropriate container. People see the items and put them in the correct container.
- For Earth Week, we print our schedule on a bookmark, and we also use other communication methods.
- For our last sports day, we asked kids to bring their own water bottles, which they filled at water fountains or from jugs, reducing our waste to almost zero. Extra bottles were on hand to ensure everyone had one.
- For one space-themed event, creative parents made a spaceship out of tomato cages, which then went right back to the school garden. We also used cardboard boxes collected from businesses for our carnival box maze, then recycled them afterwards.
- For our book fair, we obtained free newsprint end rolls from our local newspaper and used it for decorating, then recycled it afterwards.
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