How to Green Up Your Festival

Left to right: Vasilios Contis, Paul Michaelides, and Ernest Malle at the Greek Festival. Photo by Angelike Contis

BURLINGTON, VT – This year, at our church festival we made less than ever, and we’re really proud. Less garbage, that is! Often, in the rush to prepare gyros, bake karidopita and enlist volunteers, the last thing people may think about is trash… But what is the use of making thousands of dollars for your church, when along the way, you leave behind dozens of bags of trash for future generations?

At the end of our annual Greek Food Festival at the Dormition Greek Orthodox Church in Burlington on July 29, we ended up with one small dumpster of trash (8-9 bags), one modest pile of curbside recycling, two large bags of compostable trays/plates/bowls and about 70 gallons of compostable food scraps.

Why am I sharing all this? I’m not writing to brag (well, maybe a little), but to give some tips to others on how to green up their event. While our festival and small New England city may not be as large as others, we still had hundreds of people passing through.

“Why bother?” some may ask. For one, you may find investing in sorting waste may just save your event money when it comes to dumpster rental and trash removal. Another reason is that your festival will come closer in line with His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s frequent calls for greater environmental action.

Here are a few steps your community can take in greening up your festival.

Take stock. How much trash, recycling, compost do you currently generate at the festival, including preparation? What are some obvious ways you can cut down on waste?

The entire curbside recycling, after hundreds of people visited the Dormition Greek Orthodox Church’s Festival on July 29. Photo by Angelike Contis

Check in with local authorities. Ahead of your event, speak to your area’s waste management organization about how to reduce trash. In Northern Vermont, the Chittenden Solid Waste District gives great tips online about reducing waste at events and lends collection containers for free.
Rethink disposables. Are there any items you don’t really need, like straws or plastic sauce containers? We try to order only compostable plates/take-out trays/bowls. (Be sure to check if containers can be composted locally before ordering). For our festival, we offer metal cutlery that is washed throughout the day, and only provide plastic cutlery if requested for take-out. We phased out small plastic cups for tzatziki and salt/pepper packs. Future goals include phasing out water bottles, with water stations and cups instead, and recycling plastic bags. Compostable containers are more expensive. But these costs can be offset by green savings like no longer needed to rent as large a trash dumpster.

Clean house. If you can, the day before your event, have volunteers bring in all recycling and compost (and even trash) to local collection sites. Or at least have them all packed up and put aside. That way, on festival day, you only have to deal with one day’s waste.

Strategize collection site. Make sure to have clearly-labeled recycling/trash/compost bins side-by-side in as few locations as possible. Do not leave any random trash cans throughout the grounds, as these will fill with random waste. It also helps to have a table for visitors to stack plastic reusable food trays, compostable plates and a container for metal cutlery.

Get the word out. It works best when festival leadership informs the many volunteers in different areas of the festival about what we are trying to do with trash reduction and what waste goes where.
Volunteer power. We have volunteers always manning the trash collection site, giving advice to visitors, helping them sort items. They aren’t afraid to reach (with gloves of course) into clear collection bags to extract items in the wrong place. It helps to have enough space for volunteers to work under a tent, and to consolidate trash, recycling, and compost as you go. We set aside cans and bottles to be redeemed and keep a bucket of water handy to quickly rinse out dirty recyclables, such as plastic frappe cups.

The volunteers at the Greek Festival in Burlington, VT. Photo by Angelike Contis

See trash through. Make sure that all your hard work doesn’t go to waste, by ensuring that each type of waste collected goes to the right place. Nothing would be more of a bummer than finding that someone unwittingly dumped a day’s work of sorted compost into the dumpster!

Record your results. After the event, take a final tally of the number of trash bags, recycling and compost produced at your event. Our trash volunteers also keep mental notes on which foods or items are trashed the most, to let festival planners know about for next year.
Pat yourself on the back. Did it involve more work and planning? Certainly. Did it need some education about often complex rules about what goes where? Sure, it did! But was it worth it? What do you think?

Angelike Contis is a journalist and documentary maker based in Northern Vermont. She is the executive director of public access center Mt. Mansfield Community Television and a member of the Dormition Church’s environment committee.

With the trash station set up under a tent, father and son Peter and George Bonacos await the crowds. Throughout the day, they helped the public and sorted waste. Photo by Angelike Contis
The food line at the Greek Festival in Burlington, VT. Photo by Angelike Contis
Tammie Valadakis and daughter holding trays of koulourakia at the festival. Photo by Angelike Contis