Zero Waste Event Productions

Ok.  So, no.  No, not really.  

No, to be honest, I had not given much thought to the waste problem at major festivals and events.  Waste being a vague amorphous term for just about anything discarded or left behind – beer bottles, drinking straws, food scraps, tents, tarps, plastic cups, boxes, bins, plates, foil, lids, papers, socks, sunglasses, packaging, prophylactics, sunglasses, and shoestrings.  

Festival-goers, I learn, are prodigious rubbish producers.  In the United States, festival attendees generate about 53,000 tons of waste each year – the equivalent of 450 blue whales.  As the world’s biggest mammal, blue whales can top off at just under 200 tons.  Now, that’s heavy. Two Boeing airplanes worth of heavy.  So nearly 1,000 mid-size Boeings full of debris fly out from the hands and mouths (and, uh, other places) of revelers and enthusiasts of all stripes, each and every year.   

Like many people, I do my bit to recycle with only a fuzzy sense of why it is so critical, or so difficult.  My conversation with Tyler Bonner, founder and CEO of Zero Waste Event Productions, was a fresh breeze of knowledge, like the wind swaying my backyard tree branches as we spoke by phone.

Zero Waste Event Productions is a social enterprise based in The Plains in Athens County, Ohio.  The company helps festivals to decrease their environmental footprint by diverting waste from the landfill through waste reduction, recycling and composting. 

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Tyler’s entrée into the world of waste was as an AmeriCorps member with a community agency, Rural Action.  He spent two years there, working most often with rural dump site clean-ups. As he spoke, I pictured the deep roadside ravines with debris painting the slopes and running into culverts and watersheds. Tyler recruited volunteers, organized cleanups, and raised awareness.  He also worked with a few local, small-scale, events to help them recycle waste.   He enjoyed the world of festivals and felt there was also an unmet need there. 

At the end of his second AmeriCorps year, he pitched a social enterprise venture idea focused around festival and event waste management and recycling to his organization, Rural Action.  Rural Action agreed to provide start-up capital in the form of initial salary support and other assistance.  That support provided a bridge for Tyler to assemble a team, attract customers, and hone his concept.   Rural Action remains a partner investor organization and receives a portion of generated profits.

Zero Waste Event Productions began with events in the southeast Ohio region, but soon attracted customers and contracts across Ohio and a number of other states in the Midwest and Southeast.  In 2019, the company contracted with 40 events.   The organization provides a start to finish, full service experience for the events they work.  They consult with organizers before and between events, manage onsite materials collection and disposal, and provide post-event reports and feedback.  

Their aim is to be a highly visible presence at these festivals and activities, offering accessible collection points for recyclable, compostable, and reusable materials.   They collect materials throughout the event and also set up centrally located processing locations so that attendees can see the sorting at work.   For many events, Tyler and his team also developed a portable conveyor belt system that moves, weighs, and assembles like materials.  As Tyler said, “it’s quite a spectacle.”   At first, organizers often want to hide these sorting stations out of sight, but the visibility is key to their mission, says Tyler.   By showing the process in action, the work helps to educate attendees about recycling and composting and helps change the behavior of patrons.   And the company gets results with their waste sorting and diversion model – 90% of waste from the festivals they serve has been diverted from landfills. 

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The journey has not been easy.    Zero Waste Event Productions struggled at first to get clients – “we were the people nobody had heard of.”   The company had a number of leads and contacts – but those usually broke into two camps – the ones who cared about their mission and what they were doing, but had no money to pay them; or the ones who did not quite understand their value, and were reluctant to contract.

Tyler and Shannon Pratt-Harrington, his partner from the beginning, had a steep learning curve.  They “didn’t know anything about business” and had not really planned to build a company, but simply were motivated to apply what they knew to help festivals and events reduce waste.   As a result, they continue to learn, picking up skills and knowledge one step at a time, as needed.

However, their business is hands-on in the best and fullest and dirtiest sense of that term.  Once clients see them on site, in action, then, they, “begin to get it”.  They see the level of cleanliness and care that is modeled and most of their business is repeat customers, referrals, or people who have seen them at work.

Their service also makes a difference with event patrons- who see them at work.   They see Shannon and Tyler’s team and volunteers combing the grass for cigarette butts, snagging stray litter from thorns and thistles, and patiently sorting the dirty detritus of the day’s festivities.   For patrons, Tyler says, this begins to bridge the line between fun and purpose.   They, too, “begin to get it”.   

Shannon Pratt-Harrington is now Chief Sustainability Officer for the company.   As she describes it, “Nothing makes me happier than watching volunteers move from “this is gross” to “this is the best thing ever!” in the span of a few short hours.”

Sometimes the work shifts to a communal effort as patrons bring a greater level of awareness and care to their own trash, sorting more, tossing less, even picking up loose litter.  For the company, this is why they do they work, as it is infectious and rewarding to see partiers and families of all ages and stripes, “begin to play along”.

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The company’s focus is educational, long-term, and results-oriented.   They have worked with the Nelsonville Music Festival for 7 years.  Over that time, the company has become a part of the festival’s ethos and fabric.  Shannon, Tyler, and their team have worked hard to make waste reduction a visible element of the event.  Attendees expect waste reduction, sort waste in the festival grounds and at their campsites, and take pride in helping to make Nelsonville Music Festival remarkable for being a clean and sustainable event.  As one example, 45% of the waste generated at Nelsonville Music festival is composted every year. The company works hand-in-hand with festival organizers, designing vendor contracts that require only compostable serviceware, from straws to coffee cups.  In some instance, they have helped organizers and vendors shift to reusable containers, such as mason jars at the wine stations, souvenir multi-use metal cups, and multiple water refilling stations.

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For Shannon, Tyler and their team, COVID-19 comes at a tough juncture.  The company was “poised to hit the ground running” with at least another 40 events, a number of strong new partners, and now all on hold.   In the best case scenario, “festivals really won’t kick back up until July”.  And that is the best case.  And the delay costs jobs.  The company was going to gear up full time and part-time seasonal hiring in March, including a number of returning staff members.  Instead, they have been forced to delay hiring.  This is a serious obstacle, as staffing has been one of the company’s greatest challenges.  It is hard to find dedicated people who are able and willing to do the dirty, strenuous work of waste sorting and diversion.  In 2019, the company’s success enabled them to hire full time staff for the first time.  

As a whole, the company will take a financial hit and lose revenue this year, but as Tyler says, “we are small enough and scrappy that we can re-direct and weather this out.”  Right now, the event industry as a whole is “holding their breathe” and the sense of uncertainty will remain for the medium term, and perhaps beyond.  The concert industry as a whole may see 2020 losses totaling as much as $9 billion.

For Tyler, his company also has “other irons in the fire” as they look for opportunities to extend their mission in other ways, with possible new sources of revenue and impact.   As one example, they have been working with design engineers in Columbus, Ohio on the on-site conveyor belt system they developed.   This could become a product with a number of applications, from crisis sites to large-scale events.  In addition, Shannon, Tyler and team have been exploring contract-based consulting work with universities and private industry to share their knowledge and offer technical assistance as “process consultants”, helping organizations develop their own zero waste programs.   That work may include data tracking websites to help organizations aggregate and report data, and to document larger impacts of their work across events and organizations.

Zero Waste Event Productions continues to look for ways to evolve and enhance their impact.  Plastics recycling is another such example.   They have been working with a global organization, Precious Plastic, and using their resources to construct shredders, extruders, and possibly other machines to enable them to begin their own small-scale plastics recycling program.   One example might be using plastic materials recovered from festival waste streams to make plastic products such as frisbees or cups.  At first, the goal might be awareness and visibility through product displays and even giveaways to event patrons, highlighting the potential usefulness of diverted plastics. 

This also responds to a larger need – plastics recycling in the United States is at a critical station.  Since 2018, China has ceased accepting US plastic.  Moreover, mixed plastics, including containers not marked #1 or #2, are increasingly seen as a contaminant rather than a recyclable. Many municipalities have stopped accepting mixed plastics and  fewer than 5% of mixed plastics in the United States are reused.  

Tyler recommends that other social entrepreneurs build a network, attend events, and don’t wait until they have it all worked out.  At one event, for instance, he met a small media company that had just received a grant, and offered to create an introductory video for Zero Waste Event Productions:

Networking also exposed Tyler  to partners, clients and funding sources.  Grants from entities such as the all-one foundation have helped the company grow by adding staff and equipment.  In the early years, the company’s lone vehicle was a borrowed truck from another non-profit.  The economic future remains uncertain but I was struck with how Tyler described his company as small and scrappy, not as a detriment but as a decided advantage.  Zero Waste Event Productions is well prepared to make do with less and not at all afraid to have dirty hands.