Event Recycling & Sustainability in Salt Lake City

By David Johnston

It’s hard not to enjoy the myriad public events offered in Salt Lake City. From music festivals and farmers markets to movies in the park, cultural celebrations, and so much more, SLC really does offer something for everyone when it comes to special events. Such events were sorely missed last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept us closed away in quarantine and, after months of isolation, left us wondering if social gatherings could even be done safely.

One thing that was not missed: the waste impact from these events! In 2019 alone – the last “normal” year we had for public events in SLC – more than 74 tons of waste was generated over the course of 115 events serviced by our Waste & Recycling Division. Thankfully, we were able to divert about 23 tons – almost a third of that! – through recycling, sending the remaining approx. 51 tons to landfill.

As Permits Coordinator for SLC’s Waste & Recycling Division, event recycling and sustainability is a major piece of what I handle in my work. Pre-event garbage, recycling, and sustainability planning; logistics of bin delivery, services from our trucks, bin pick-up; decontamination checks early morning following events; post-event planning for future improvements; I’ve been involved in each and every part. Boiling down what’s become most obvious to me in my 3+ years in this role: maximizing recycling and sustainability success at public events requires everyone’s participation. So to help you play your part, whether you’re an event organizer, vendor, or attendee, I hope this article will offer you some insight into what it all takes and what you can do to help ensure a cleaner, lower impact event.

What’s Required?

[Look at all that aluminum – please recycle your (empty) beer cans!]

If you are applying for a special event in Salt Lake City and your event is anticipating more than 100 attendees, chances are you’ll be working with our Waste & Recycling Division’s Permits Office – that’s me!

Tracing it back to the source, SLC’s recycling and sustainability requirements for events come straight from our city code – Ord. 9.08.200 – which is available for anyone to read through. Precisely, event organizers are required to:

  • Provide recycling containers for use by both event attendees and employees, volunteers, contractors, and participating vendors
  • Ensure convenient access to recycling by providing recycling bins in equal or greater number to garbage bins
  • Ensure recycling and garbage bins are always grouped up, so neither sits alone
  • Ensure garbage and recycling containers (and any other bins, such as compost) are appropriately marked with signage that identifies which items are accepted
  • Ensure, in conversation with contracted waste and recycling haulers, that collected recyclables are delivered to a recycling facility and not to landfill (Do note that events are not required to contract with our division, and have the option of working with a private hauler)

To ensure plans are in place for all of this, event organizers are asked to complete a waste management plan (WMP). This form, along with consultations during the process of its approval, lay the groundwork for details such as numbers of bins, delivery and collection details, and everything else. Furthermore, the form asks event organizers to identify what sorts of waste materials their event will be generating, what other sorts of measures event planners will take to ensure a sustainable, low impact event, and much more.

What’s Trending: The Good

Now let’s dig into just what I’ve seen in my event work – don’t worry, it’s not all bad. In three short years, I’ve seen some terrific positive trends:

The amount of plastic foam (i.e. Styrofoam) plates, trays, cups, and other products winding up in recycling bins has come way down, as events seem to be opting for more sustainable options. [As a reminder for our SLC readers, Styrofoam and other plastic foams are not permitted in recycling bins. Most other cities do not accept it either. If you’re unsure whether it’s accepted in your recycling bins, please check directly with your waste/recycling haulers.]

Food waste winding up in recycling bins as contamination is still an ongoing issue, but does seem to be slowly improving as well. More on this down below in “The Bad”.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many events were reducing, if not outright banning, vendors from selling single-use water bottles, and instead providing water refill stations and encouraging attendees to bring their own reusable water bottles. Of course, this pandemic forced some of our events to forego this and permit such bottles to encourage public health and safety, but I’m hoping to see events returning to this practice soon, and hopefully more events joining in!

Another trend that the pandemic’s been shifting is the implementation of Green Teams. These event staff and volunteers at some of our city’s larger events help direct attendees to proper use of recycling and garbage bins and otherwise work to ensure everything runs as well as it can sustainability-wise over the course of the event. Again, with public health a major concern in this pandemic era, some events eliminated these teams, but will surely be bringing them back in the near future.

What’s Trending: The Bad

[Clockwise from top: bagged recyclables should be dumped loose into the bin, and bags should go in the trash; plastic film of any kind belongs in the trash or, better yet, sorted out and taken to one of our CHaRM’s; liquid messes (or is that mud?) can spoil clean recyclables]

For the most part, the following persisting problems are things all city events can continue to improve upon, meaning that everyone, regardless of the events you choose to attend, can remain conscious and help improve upon these whenever they are attending an event.

The main area for improvement: persisting contaminants that we keep on finding in recycling bins (and in rarer cases, compost, glass, and food waste bins where they also don’t belong!). These include:

  • Food waste (no, your pizza crust is NOT recyclable)
  • Liquids and ice (PLEASE  finish your drinks before throwing them in the recycling!)
  • Greasy or wet food containers (or any container with food still in it!)
  • Coffee cups (sorry caffeine lovers, but your cups are made from paper AND plastic and thus are not accepted in our recycling bins)
  • Plastic foam products (no Styrofoam, including cups, trays, and block Styrofoam)
  • Plastic film (plastic bags, bubble wrap, shrink wrap, etc.)
    • Bagging recyclables to carry them across event grounds to a recycling bin can be convenient, but those bags need to be removed and recycled separately (not in the bin) before you drop your recyclables into the bin.

On the flipside, it’s similarly a bummer to find so many recyclables winding up in the garbage bins. Especially at events with alcohol vendors, beer cans, plastic cups, and drink bottles are common, but even cardboard and other recyclables are too often found in the trash.

Last, but surely not least, is the continuing issue of litter. This is by no means as prevalent an issue as recycling contamination, but there remains room for much improvement. The effort it takes you to take your trash to the bin instead of throwing it by the tree will save park staff and our staff from cleaning up after you. And if you’re modeling Donovan and miss the long 3, please follow-up your shot, pick up your waste, and put it in the right bin!

Additional Resources

If you’re looking for more resources on event recycling and sustainability in SLC, check these out:

And for everything URA: