Sustainability in Action: Taking out the trash at the Dodge Poetry Festival

Clean Water Fund’s Rethink Disposable Green Team leads zero-waste effort at Dodge Poetry Festival

Have you ever hosted an event or meeting and were left with overflowing trash bins at the end of day? Did you wonder how your event ended up with so much trash, paper, and plastic stuff to throw out in the first place?

To mark Earth Day, we are excited to share the story of how we helped reduce the amount of waste that our own large event produced. In a new video we are sharing today, we showcase what a zero-waste effort looks like in action and documents the steps we took.

Every other year, the Dodge Poetry Program hosts the country’s largest poetry festival, which draws more than 9,000 people to Newark over four days. When that many people come together, they have the potential to produce a lot of trash.

It takes a village

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For the fourth time, Clean Water Fund, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the City of Newark, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Poetry Program teamed up to recycle and compost as much waste as possible from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, held Oct. 18-21, 2018 at NJPAC and other venues in Newark.

We brought on Clean Water Fund as a partner to implement their ReThink Disposable program through their team of volunteers, whom we fondly refer to as the Festival Green Team. Our contract with them supported the coordination of the work over four days with paid staff and volunteers, training and supplies. Since we knew that the Festival would have a lot of visibility in the City of Newark, this was an ideal opportunity to connect the Foundation’s values of environmental stewardship to the city’s own sustainability goals.

The challenge is simple but by no means easy — reduce the use of plastic food packaging, coffee lids, straws, plastic bottles, hot cup sleeves, napkins, utensils, and other items that add up to a big problem not just for Newark, but the entire state of New Jersey.

As we have learned, plastic stays around for a very long time. One of the Foundation’s partners, NY/NJ Baykeeper estimates that at any moment, 165 million plastic bits are floating in New York Harbor alone. Additionally, Clean Water Fund’s study from 2011 estimates that 80 percent of ocean litter comes from land-based sources, and 67 percent of litter in our streets is comprised of plastic food and beverage packaging.

We realize that many people may not know that much of New Jersey’s trash ends up in Newark, at a waste-transfer station and incinerator that burns it, making the air and water less healthy for the residents that live nearby.

Our shared goal was to educate festival-goers, vendors, and NJPAC about the zero-waste practices that could decrease the amount of trash created while also increasing the collection of recyclable items and food waste for composting. Food waste recycling is especially important because it reduces methane — a greenhouse gas — production from landfills.

The approach: Reduce plastic from the start

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Overall, we knew focusing our efforts on reducing the amount of plastic disposable packaging throughout Festival operations would give us a better chance of meeting our goals. Together with Clean Water Fund’s team and NJPAC operations, housekeeping, and catering teams, we devised a plan.

Clean Water Fund’s Green Team advised us not to use compostable cutlery because the composting facility we worked with doesn’t accept them. The better option from a waste perspective is to switch to washable and reusable forks, knives, spoons, and serving ware, whenever possible.

The Green Team worked with food truck vendors so they served in reusable food baskets lined with a single sheet of compostable paper instead of Styrofoam. Instead of stocking individual condiment packets, we created a station with bulk condiments and single-pull napkin dispensers. Inside NJPAC, catering spaces used washable plates and cutlery instead of disposables.

Also, we swapped out NJPAC’s regular trash containers to create zero-waste stations that attendees could bring their trash to and sort accordingly. The Green Team would then take all the separated trash, recyclables, and food to NJPAC’s loading dock to be sorted on last time, weighed and placed in their designated collection bins. The waste-sorting process used ensured little to no contamination of the compost.

Community Compost, a New York-based company, provided five collection bins to store food waste throughout the Festival, and picked them up to bring to their facility at the end of the four days. They also provided detailed posters featuring what items could be accepted and provided compostable bags that were appropriate for their compost facility.

The Poetry Festival organizers contributed to the effort by printing less paper programs and encouraging Festival goers to download their mobile phone app. The programs that were not used were recycled. Additionally, each Festival Poet received a refillable water bottle instead of a disposable bottle to use during their time at NJPAC. Also, the bookstore did not offer plastic bags to customers.

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What we learned

  1. Small changes add up!

We collected 1,360 pounds of paper, 192 pounds of recyclable bottles and cans, and 857 pounds of trash, and composted more than 1,000 pounds of food.

Compared to the 2016 festival, we collected double the amount of paper and double the amount of food for composting. Although the amount of trash collected increased, it could be a result of better sorting efforts.

  1. Identify important partners and create a plan

We started meeting with the Poetry Program, NJPAC operations, housekeeping, and catering services and Clean Water Fund more than six months before the event to discuss and decide on what we would do and what kind of support we would need. In those meetings, we decided what kind of packaging to offer at the concession stands, how to handle the waste sorting, and when and how to train the kitchen staff in the recovery of food waste.

  1. Never go solo in the plaza, lobby, or kitchen

When trash and recycling receptacles were placed side by side, more recyclables were captured without a lot of sorting. When a Green Team volunteer was present to monitor and work one-on-one with each visitor, materials sorting was nearly perfect.

  1. Educate festival goers, staff, vendors and volunteers

Based on feedback from the previous festival, we created more communications materials to explain the zero-waste program. We created a colorful program insert, added information in the mobile phone app and regularly shared information through the Poetry Festival’s social media channels and mainstage. Additionally, the Green Team provided on the spot trainings to all Festival volunteers, NJPAC kitchen and operations staff, and food truck vendors.

Overall, we set a we set a big goal and it seemed hard at first, but with the support of strong and willing partners like Clean Water Fund and NJPAC, we did it. By making small changes throughout the event, they added up to bigger impact.

We hope this information, video and the messages of Rethink Disposable reach far and wide to every festival producer hungry to apply their values related to sustainability to the way they run their event, at the end of the day.

I spearheaded the zero-waste effort at Dodge as the program associate of the Foundation’s Environment program.

We couldn’t have done this without the guidance and energy of Clean Water Fund’s Kim Gaddy, Amy Goldsmith, Jeanette Mitchell, Maura Toomey, and their whole team of volunteers. We are grateful to the staff at NJPAC for adapting to the new practices and all the behind the scenes work they did, including Chad Spies, Ginny Bowers Coleman, Jay Dority, as well as to Anthony Rosa of ISS, David Truesdale of Theater Square Events, and Erin McConnell, Jon Reininga and Margaret Titus, all of NICO.

We are grateful to Newark Sustainability Officer Nathaly Agosto Filion for sharing the city’s sustainability goals with us.

And we are so grateful for the support of Dodge team members, including Cynthia Evans, Martin Farawell, Ysabel Gonzalez, David Mayhew, Victoria Russell, Meghan Van Dyk, and Margaret Waldock for all they did to make this possible.

Our videographer, Nyier Abdou, went above and beyond in capturing this story.

Resources to help you make your next gathering a zero-waste event

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