Elbow deep in trash: A new approach to waste management
A zero waste philosophy and a focus on 'event environmentalism' are making a big impact at events like Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Art Festival.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - 14:51
WHICH ONE'S THE TRASH?: Patrons at the Three Rivers Art Festival get an unexpected lesson in composting and Zero Waste philosophy. (Photo: Chris Tittle)
"So ... which one is the trash?" a patron asked hesitantly, standing in front of one of several high-profile waste stations located throughout Point State Park. With three bins to choose from, it appeared that throwing away an empty paper plate had never before been this involved. Fortunately, a green shirt materialized from behind one of the receptacles, just in time to prevent paralyzing confusion — and divert a small amount of trash from needlessly going to a landfill.
This year's Three River Arts Festival — now in its 51st year of celebrating the unique artistic heritage of Pittsburgh — continued its dedication to event environmentalism through its Zero Waste Initiative. Now in the third year of a partnership with Zero Waste Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Resource Council, the popular downtown festival successfully diverted over 50 tons of waste from landfills in 2008 and 2009. In addition to the large-scale composting and recycling efforts of previous years, where patrons were encouraged to compost food and concession waste, this year's "Green Team" also hand-sorted unmanned trash receptacles.
According to Zero Waste Pittsburgh's Kyle Winkler, "The trash was never-ending, but the level of sorting allowed for the  Arts Festival to exceed last year's diversion rates."
Yes, hand-sorting garbage. The very same green-shirted Environmental Service assistants helping patrons make educated choices about their waste disposal also had the chance to get elbow deep in some trash. Though scenes of confusion were common throughout the 10-day festival, with thousands of patrons enjoying the diverse array of food vendors in Point State Park, the Zero Waste Initiative and the dedicated efforts of its staff did not go unnoticed.
Indeed, many patrons openly expressed their satisfaction with the festival's efforts at sustainability. In a letter to the editor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lamenting the problems of improper waste disposal, Donna Fisher of Edgeworth, Pa., wrote, "The effort by the Green Team to raise awareness of this problem during the festival was a great start. Let's keep the trend going!"
Zero Waste initiatives like this, defined by Zero Waste Pittsburgh as a "philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource-use systems in such a way that waste is reduced to zero" (emphasis added), are making large impacts at events across the country. The pioneering Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has led the way in event environmentalism for years, but also continues to expand its waste diversion programs and educational outreach. And as large of an impact as such efforts can have by not only diverting waste from landfills but also reusing resources, it is perhaps the redesign of such systems that has the largest potential for change.
Such a large-scale redesign of waste management systems cannot be accomplished without significant public awareness and support. Thus, the real long-term benefit of event environmentalism may be the educational opportunities it represents. Asking people to stop for 10 seconds and consider where their unfinished taco salad and paper bowl are going can lead to significant behavioral change. Just as recycling aluminum cans and plastic bottles is by now becoming mandatory in many places, educating the public about composting and the zero waste philosophy represents the next step in a necessary societal paradigm shift — from overconsumption and overdevelopment to conservation and sustainable design.