Hosting a Zero Waste Beer Event

By Ginger Johnson

The word sustainability is thrown around almost recklessly these days. What does it mean? It means being a good steward to the planet, which is precisely why the beer community is an ideal group of already engaged, passionate people to help further effect positive change. One way to effect this change for everyone’s betterment is to learn how to produce zero waste at events and gatherings—the words garbage and trash can be used here too. It’s easy and simple and requires only a pattern change that everyone can handle.

Get-togethers of friends or even large-scale beer festivals are perfect examples where doing it all from scratch is a huge opportunity to be thoughtful to our planet. You can apply these same principles to just about any event you host, organize, or are involved with.

Having grown up in a family that hosted a lot of dinner parties and weekend guests at the lake cabin, I can tell you that we didn’t do nearly as much then as we do now. That’s OK—don’t be hard on yourself for what is past. Simply recognize the opportunity and the necessity and then make the effort to change the future.

Starting from the Beginning

Zero waste first needs a definition.

“Zero waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. Any trash sent to landfills is minimal. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.” (Wikipedia)

Let’s take it a step further and think totally upstream before we even look at reuse. While the common refrain is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” most people focus on the recycle. Recycle is in fact the third component to this arrow-chasing idea. Think upstream—where and how everything starts. When you examine the consequences of your choices based on the manufacturing process, sometimes it’s much easier to see what a huge difference “small” choices can make.

Upstream in “green speak” means you think about the origins of what’s coming your way (downstream) before you make purchasing decisions. So let’s swim upstream.

5 Things to Consider

Here are five facets to successfully swimming upstream for a zero waste event, be it a beer tasting, a potluck (with beer), a holiday party (with beer), a festival, or any other occasion. Being able to enjoy our lovely craft necessitates that we take responsibility for our actions, and it’s pretty easy to do by simply thinking ahead.

1. Theme

What’s the theme or reason you’re getting people together? If it’s a party like the Fourth of July where there is traditionally waste from fireworks, popsicle sticks or beer bottles, then you already know from prior experience what you need to think (upstream) about.

Do a short brainstorm to think about all the facets that make that particular theme or event successful and see what you can do in a premeditated fashion.

If the event is a decoration-intensive one, rent, borrow, or make the decorations (from materials you already have). Heck, have people make them as part of the festivities at a pre-party.

If the decorations or favors are a foregone conclusion, i.e. fireworks for the Fourth, then examine what kind of waste they will generate before buying and figure out how you’re going to recycle them. For instance, if you buy bottle rockets, keep in mind they fly and land elsewhere, which means someone else gets to deal with your flying trash. Being responsible, again, entails being thorough in your thoughtfulness.

Freecycle and Craigslist are great places to find perfectly good things to celebrate with. When you’re done, list them yourself to be used again by someone else. It can become a fun game: finding, using, and passing forward.

2. Venue

Where will everyone gather? Will it be all held, start to finish, in one place? Will it mobilize, is it progressive, or will it otherwise move geographically?

Examine how the stationary manner or mobility of the event will affect your choices. Being in one place affords streamlining, economy, and efficiency.

If the venue is somewhere like an outdoor park, you’re required to pick up after yourselves anyway, so plan ahead. You can use all permanently reusable things with minimal effort—food containers, coolers, and fabric bags. They all wash and wear well. Borrow them from friends, get some from thrift stores, or—if you have a really active group of friends who regularly gets together—develop a traveling box of supplies everyone can use when they want. I’ve experienced that firsthand and it works like a charm.

3. Guests

Have the guests you’ll be inviting been to a zero waste event before? If so, ask them if what they experienced worked or did not work. Better yet, call on a local sustainability specialist to help you think things through. As a Master Recycler in Oregon, I can tell you that anyone into sustainability is a total green geek and wants to share and help anyone remotely interested in green.

Making the event easy for guests is perhaps one of the foremost concerns for some. And once again, it’s pretty easy to successfully accomplish. The easier you make it, the more successful it will be and the more people will want to do.

One of the things I’ve done repeatedly with ease and success is to have clean, repurposed 5-gallon pails as places for guests to put “compostables,” “garbage” (food waste that can’t go in a compost, unless there is a “hot composting” facility in proximity), and “recyclables.” Have simple, sturdy, wipeable tables and perhaps a bin in which to place dirty dishes, glassware, utensils, and any other washables. Use simple signage to clearly identify the system, and you can even have a willing child or enthusiastic helper guide and direct guests to take care of their things.

Another solution? Have it be BYOD—Bring Your Own Dishes. My husband and I routinely bring a washable fabric bag with plates, silverware, cups, and fabric napkins to potlucks and different events. Even if we get there and realize they are doing a green job, we’ve planned ahead.

4. Fare

What will be served to drink and eat? How will it be served and staged? How will it be cleaned up? Disposables are a misnomer—things never really “go away” and they are only removed from our sight to be disposed of where we don’t think about them.

Avoid disposables and you’ll be way greener in your actions and in your wallet. Items made for one-time use are expensive on your budget and the planet.

You may have seen the compostable cups, plates and utensils available now. They’re designed to be compostable only in a facility that hot composts. They’re plant-based products, many times using corn, and also include other binders and so forth to stay together. Use them if you like when you know that a local facility can in fact compost them. (And, make sure they are indeed compostable, as there are many different kinds of these products on the market).

Gather sturdy, reusable dishes from thrift stores (a great way to support local charities), borrow from others (just be sure to ID them and return them in good order), rent, or buy a bunch of supplies with friends equally divvying up the costs.

Offering cloth napkins will be a greener choice too. Yes, it takes water that has been processed. That said, making brand new one-time use paper napkins takes clean water to produce and they get to languish in a landfill never to be re/used again. You can find inexpensive, long-lasting fabric in the form of broadcloth at fabric stores or by cruising thrift stores where you can buy some ready-made, or sheets or tablecloths to repurpose and make into napkins.

What about utensils? Same idea. Go to the thrift stores in your area, which support more than your shopping habits, and buy a mixed bag of forks, knives, and spoons to use over and over. Heck, you can make a bundle of them to be passed around and used at all kinds of different events and really stretch the small investment of buying them. Plus if they get lost or inadvertently thrown out, you’re out very little. Just restock when you can. Remember to buy a few larger serving spoons and forks as well for platters and dishing up.

Depending on what’s being served, gauge what kind of wares you’ll need.

  • Set up tables using doors on sawhorses, benches, buckets, card tables, and picnic tables. TV trays of old are still a great choice for individuals to use as well as for small stations for goodies, especially if it’s a mingling or move-around kind of event.
  • Staging may require a plug-in for a crock-pot concoction or a beer fridge, so be mindful of where they can go. Using a crock-pot is greener than using petroleum-based fuel and chafing dishes. Have hot pads on hand (so to speak) if necessary for super hot or super cold dishes. Keeping your guests’ hands comfy is a big step in the satisfaction quotient.
  • Kegs will be the most sustainable choice for serving beer at your events. Cans are next in the sustainability lineup and bottles come in third. Kegs obviously retain freshness through no UV exposure (and hopefully low-to-no O2 used to push the beer) and are über-reusable. Cans are low carbon footprint, the most recycled packaging around, protect against any light, and the headspace is low for beer-wrecking “air” exposure. While bottles are still an obvious choice, the days of returnable bottles to the brewer are no longer here (for now anyway).  If you do bottle your homebrew to share, use the 22-ounce ones vs. 12-ouncers whenever possible.
  • When you invite people, ask them clearly to bring a glass or cup they want to drink from. This cuts down on the host having to provide and wash dishes, and has an added bonus of the fun conversation that can be had by a Bring Your Own Glass event to go with that lovely beer.

5. Scale

Is the event small, medium, or large? No matter what the size, being forethoughtful and organized will lead to the success of zero waste. Setting up containers to recapture reusables, recyclables, and compostables will encourage people to participate. Making sure, once again, everything is clearly labeled is a big part of the events success. Host a run-through of the event prior to its actual occurrence to work out any kinks. Having Green Ambassadors to guide larger groups in particular would be smart and an effort well invested to ensure your guests have fun, that everything is truly in its place, and that the grounds are kept clean and safe.

A zero waste event is a simple and easy pattern that benefits us all—especially Mother Earth. Making small adjustments to your actions has an incredible impact on the health of the globe. One step at a time, one person at a time. So go ahead, start today.  Zero-waste it—it feels pretty good because it is good.

Ginger Johnson is a beer enthusiast, the founder of Women Enjoying Beer, and a Master Recycler. She’s passionate about quality beer, great people, and making a difference on this small planet of ours.


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