How Do Festivals Go Zero Waste?

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Tompkins Weekly         10-26-22n

By Joey Diana Gates

We are blessed to live in a land of great beauty, cultural offerings, and celebrations. It feels like, at any given moment, there is an opportunity to go outside and revel in art, music and amazing food from around the world. The downside to this is the mountains of trash and waste created in our wake.

Festival organizers often must calculate their waste-hauling capacity in the tons! But we can fix this — the party does not have to mean pollution! If there is any place that has the will, the talent and the desire to fix this, it is here.

In event and festival planning, we make a myriad of decisions necessary to meet the needs of sometimes thousands of people. In essence, we must build small, temporary cities providing inputs such as electricity and potable water, as well as hauling capacity for outputs like restroom facility byproducts and gray water disposal.

Festival waste. Photo provided.

At every step, decisions are made and resources are invested in ways that impact the environment, creating many forms of waste. At every step, we have the opportunity to create a new way. What if we took a “green lens” to the planning process, as inaugural professor Dr. Rob Young of the Green Cities class at Cornell University encouraged my classmates and me to do nearly 30 years ago? This approach would allow us to not only mitigate waste but has the potential to create regenerative outputs.

This is not a new idea, and vigorous and energetic groups have worked to divert onsite waste. The Master Composters program, a partnership between Tompkins County and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, provides volunteers to guide folks in separating their food scraps prior to disposing of their service ware.

The incredible success of this program has led to the annual diversion of literally tons of compost from the landfill, just at Grassroots Festival alone. In 2022, 3.4 tons of compostables were collected at Grassroots.

Another example of source-point waste prevention is the Ithaca Reduces BYO (Bring Your Own) Program organized by the group Zero Waste Ithaca. Through their concentrated efforts, working with the Tompkins County Health Department, they have increased awareness and acceptance with food vendors, both at festivals and brick-and-mortar establishments, for customers to bring their own dishes for use instead of using disposable containers.

Dish Truck, founded in October of 2015, began providing dishes at events for folks to use instead of disposables. Originally aimed at festivals, it has evolved into an affordable conference, meeting and celebration option for folks looking to eschew disposables, providing over 100,000 dishes at events up until the pandemic struck. We and the community are now poised to evolve back into our broader mission — large-scale public events.

Work on this larger scale has already begun and is showing great promise for further progress. This year, through the generosity of the Park Foundation, the Ithaca Farmers Market began a zero-waste initiative to help solve its overwhelming trash problem. There, the magnitude of single-use disposables can easily fill a 6-cubic-yard dumpster on a Saturday in July.

The Farmers Market, in partnership with Dish Truck and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Composters Program, has made transformative inroads to reducing waste at the market through back-of-the-house composting, customer composting and the introduction of reusable dishes across multiple food and drink vendors.

Through this combined effort, spearheaded by Coordinator Judy Ward, over 15,000 disposable dishes have been kept out of the landfill, along with nearly 500 gallons of compost, just since August. The work has shown a proof of concept, and knowledge gained can be used to scale up and work on the next phase of waste mitigation can begin.

However, as we relieve the pressure on one part of the ecosystem — landfills — we must go deeper into the life-cycle process to ensure we are not just shifting the pressure elsewhere. Waste takes many forms.

A broader “green lens” perspective on the solving of the solid waste issue reveals that by switching to reusables, other forms of waste are created. These will also need to be mitigated, as what were once externalized costs become internalized locally. One such pressure point is local water usage — both the water itself and the fuels used to heat it.

To wash dishes to Department of Health standards, water must be heated to anywhere from 110 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Currently, fossil fuels are used for this, but what if we used a solar hot water heating system to preheat the water? The resulting greywater after washing the dishes holds waste in the form of heat and nutrients.

In Sweden, a government study was conducted with great success to run the hot water through a heat exchanger to capture the excess heat. Current New York state building codes allow for this. The then-cooled water was run through a system to capture the nutrients and put them to use as well. Creation of a managed wetland or a “living machine,” as pioneered by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, would give us the opportunity to not just flush it all “away,” but to turn this waste into a resource.

Can festivals go zero waste? The short answer is yes, but it will take deeper knowledge, will, and efforts from the community to design and implement the longer answers. The examples listed above are just a few inspirational next steps we are exploring to reduce waste and not just solid waste at events.

If you are interested in learning more or joining this ongoing project, please email Joey Diana Gates at

Joey Diana Gates is the owner of Regeneration & Elements in Design, Inc. Their mission is to work with people, within ecosystems, to find sustainable solutions to pollution, garbage and the environmental impacts of having fun.

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