Greening R.I. Events Takes Commitment

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

For events big and small, going green is often an afterthought.

Plastic utensils, cups and plates, foil serving dishes, and table clothes simply end up in the trash along with uneaten food.

Single-use, plastic and glass bottles, which have a sizable carbon footprint, are sometimes recycled, but rarely replaced with environmentally sound alternatives such as decanters, coolers and bubblers.

Some cities and states reduce waste by requiring event planners and vendors to only offer recyclable or compostable cups, bottles and plates. Recycling bins must also be provided for their empties. In Seattle, serving food and drinks in or on toxic materials such as Styrofoam is prohibited

Rhode Island, however, has no rules or incentives to encourage party planners, food vendors and caterers to cut down on trash.

High-profile events such as the governor's inauguration or large environmental gatherings typically offer only rudimentary waste-reduction practices and fail to set the tone for what can be done to make Rhode Island cleaner and healthier.

Saturday's Save The Bay swim, perhaps, exemplifies the struggle to make functions greener. Arguably the state's most recognized fundraiser, the aquatic challenge was expertly coordinated but lacked serious commitment to sustainable food and beverage services.

At the start in Newport and at the finish in Jamestown, there were no recycling bins. At the post-swim reception, recycling bins were offered for containers that couldn't be recycled, as vendors handed out ice cream, coffee, iced tea and fruit juice in throwaway cups. There was no compost collection for fruit scraps or food, which was served on nonrecyclable plastic plates with plastic utensils.

On the green side, water coolers were available, albeit with plastic disposable cups, for refillable bottles at the reception. The port-o-johns were treated with non-toxic chemicals. Renewable energy credits were donated to offset carbon-based electricity use.

Safety is paramount at the annual swim, which is four events in one, said Gretchen Heath, Save The Bay's planner for the event. Greening the different stages are necessary and "perhaps the movement isn't happening fast enough," she said. "We're trying to improve it every year, but it does take time."

Other event organizers regularly cite costs, the ease of going disposable and the time required for getting all the sustainable logistics coordinated.

But for those events that do it right, going green is simply a matter of priority.

Gold standard for green
Over the years, planners of the Newport jazz and folk festivals have continued to make things greener for the 10,000 guests per day over two weekends. It's done by making sure guests, vendors and sponsors know that environmental practices are part of the experience.

"It is diffiucut to green any event of this magnitude, but at the same time it's something we know we need to do," said Jay Sweet, co-producer of the popular festivals.

In addition to the chemical-free port-o-johns and renewable energy offsets, the jazz and folk festivals have a number of fairly simple practices for cutting waste and trash.

Pooled trasnsportation. Bio-fueled shuttle buses transport patrons and performers from Newport to Fort Adams, water shuttles are located near transportation hubs.

There is a designated bike area.

Locally sourced food and farms supply vendors.

Vendors are based in Rhode Island or nearby and are "firmly and politely" encouraged to use compostable plates, containers, cups and utensils.

Craft exhibitors offer products made from recycled materials.

Bio-diesel generators power all stages and other areas with local fuel.

Beer garden stocked with biodegradablecups.

Bins for recycling and food waste are prominently placed. Last year, 4.1 tons of recycling and 1.7 tons of compostables collected at the two events.

Perhaps the strongest symbol of the commitment to the environment is the portable, multi-bubbler water fountain. Its simple design practically mocks the multibillion-dollar bottled water industry, by offering for free what has become a symbol of the modern convenience-driven, disposable culture: bottled water. Homemade in 1998, it was dedicated in memory of Joyce Wein, the late wife of festival founder George Wein.

"It's a long road to sustainability, but at least we're on the right path," Sweet said.