What do you see in the picture above?

Hint: It’s not often seen by event attendees…

Answer: This is a pile of hundreds of waste bags waiting for sorting at a waste sorting station after a meal serving food on compostable, disposable service ware. It’s also a picture of an event doing “the right thing.”

Here’s What They Did Right

This event took the following actions:

    1. Sourcing compostable service ware instead of single-use plastic.
    2. Ensuring all of this service ware can actually be composted by a certified composter.
    3. Employing waste sorting staff to sift through and re-sort all waste produced by the event.

These are all good things! And are better than the status quo alternative in every case. The only thing missing is arguably the most critical sustainability consideration: reuse and reduction. In other words, sustainable reduction is using reusable service ware.

Challenges to Using the “Best” Disposable Service Ware

Let’s look at some challenges of using even the “best” disposable service ware.

Planning Time and Money

The planners of this event spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars researching:

  • Products
  • Visiting waste facilities
  • Meeting with catering and procurement teams
  • Creating messaging
  • Training waste sorters onsite

Using reusables would save time and money and reduce the event’s waste ultimately using a sustainable reduction strategy.

Embodied Impacts

Although compostable service ware is often made from plants, it still has to be:

  • Manufactured
  • Shipped
  • Disposed of

These carry a significant environmental footprint for products designed for single use and then discarded and thrown away.

Overall Waste Volume

Even if all material compost was perfectly sorted, it still results in more single-use items that are thrown away. At the eight meals in the event pictured above, 45,000 lbs. of waste from 1.3 million+ individual items could have been saved from the waste stream if reusables had been used.


It’s challenging to effectively sort these materials during an event, even with a dedicated secondary staff. In the event pictured, 8-12 staff were employed throughout to hand separate material compost. They ran into several real-life difficulties:

Staffing – As a temporary job with varying hours, finding and retaining sorting staff during an event and properly training sorters when procedures often change from event to event can be difficult.

Total Waste – Just one meal like the one pictured produced 100s of trash bags containing 180,000+ individual compostable items plus all other waste (food, aluminum, plastic wrap, gum, etc.). It cannot be easy to stay positive and properly sort with this size of task.

Thoroughness – Even with an excellent sorting staff, sorting will never be perfect. For instance, at the bottom of each bag pictured, 5+ lbs. of food/liquid can’t be sorted appropriately and go to a landfill. Plus, organic compost in a landfill produces 62x more emissions than in a compost facility.

Recoverability and Contamination – Compost facilities can only accept 1% or less contamination in their compost. If a plastic fork, ball of tin foil, or wrapper makes it into a load of compost, that could mean it’s all sent to landfill. They do this for a good reason: no one wants little pieces of plastic in their garden compost!

Plus…It’s a Dirty Job – Let’s face it: digging in trash is dirty and smelly.

Chart for Service Ware Challenges

* Money is difficult to compare since costs vary between venues. For instance, some venues charge for:

  • Compostable ware
  • Extra bussing/dishwashing staff
  • China rentals

And other items or services and some don’t.

** Staffing for both compostable and reusable service ware can be an issue. Although bussing and dishwashing are more traditional positions that can be easier to fill than waste sorting. More staffing may be required for reusable ware, depending on the venue.

A Final Word – Avoid Single-use

A table using reusable service ware: glasses, plates, silver ware, and napkins on a black table cloth.

Planning a sustainable event doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t have to try and find more sustainable stuff to use. You can think first about how to eliminate the single-use things you use in the first place. Putting together this program was complicated. It required a sustainability person to be knowledgeable during the planning process and present 14 hours/day onsite. By avoiding single-use items and serving meals on reusable service ware, the planning team could avoid all of the time, effort, and money.