WHILE ONE CRITICISM of the event industry is its tendency to create waste, many event professionals are developing more environmentally sensitive special events. Here, event experts describe the steps they are taking to reduce waste and to ensure the longevity of the planet, as well as the profession.

APPETITE FOR CHANGE

Catering companies are at the forefront of the movement to make events more “green.”

“The reality is that the catering industry inadvertently contributes to the unnecessary overuse of landfills as a means of waste disposal, the release of greenhouse gasses due to plastic plate and utensil usage, and the general waste of food on a grand scale due to the nature of our business,” says Laura Lyons, managing partner at San Francisco-based Global Gourmet Catering.

However, it is possible to take steps that reduce both financial and environmental costs. Lyons notes that most cities in the United States now have a composting program available to caterers, which “is not only a more environmentally sound manner of disposing of your waste, [but] can greatly reduce your waste removal fees.”

Additionally, the company has partnered with its rental companies, which have agreed to lower rental charges on certain segments of their inventories so that Global Gourmet can give clients the option of using real glasses, plates and utensils or biodegradable disposables, without the higher costs normally associated with these items. “Knowing that we have reduced our unnecessary waste as much as possible makes it easier to be in this industry and gives us much peace of mind,” Lyons says. The company will soon add a “Global Goes Green” banner to its Web site, where it will promote its line of biodegradable plastics for picnics and casual events.

EARTH FIRST

There is a trend among both caterers and clients toward more earth-friendly fare. While Rising Sun Catering in San Francisco does not specifically advertise itself as an organic caterer, its use of organic products “came about more because of quality,” says Heather Harris, the company's dining specialist/owner. “It definitely raises prices, but it's a better quality product, and clients recognize that.”

Nor does the company consider itself a vegetarian caterer, but it does offer a complete vegetarian menu. And as far as the touchy subject of veal is concerned, Harris says that it would be a “tough decision if a client came to me and requested veal; we are a very people-pleasing company, so we probably would [serve it].”

The company makes it a habit to support local family farms, as they are more likely to be organic, use humane practices in raising animals and avoid use of chemical pesticides that harm the land and water. Creating menus from foods that are both seasonal and local is also a priority, although Harris acknowledges that the abundance of fresh, organic produce in her northern California location makes it easier for her than for caterers located elsewhere.

Laurence Whiting, director of marketing and media for Global Gourmet Catering, agrees that there is “more of an interest from clients and more certainly among folks in our industry in exploring organics.” However, in spite of this interest, “The biggest obstacle is cost, as organic products can be significantly more expensive. It's a Catch-22 in a way, but I believe that over time, organic foodstuff will become more readily available and at a better cost.”

WATER WORKS

The Fazio Canyons golf course, located at Barton Creek Resort and Spa in Austin, Texas, recently received certification as an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary, an award that is given only to sites that meet strict environmental and conservation measures. A good example of this, according to Heather Powell, director of catering and golf sales at Barton Creek, is that the resort's laundry facility uses an ozoneator to reduce both chemicals in the water as well as the amount of water used, and recycles gray water to irrigate the golf course. Additionally, both hotel towels and linens used in the banquet department are recycled when they become too shabby for guest use, and the facility makes every effort to recycle paper, cardboard and aluminum.

The certification has also had an effect on events held at the resort, such as the practice of filling water glasses only when asked instead of handing them out to every guest, which often results in waste. When it comes to client requests for food, “I think that one good point is that we try and keep food at a minimum before the event even starts by encouraging clients not to order too much up front,” Powell says. “People think that they have to have a beef dish, a chicken dish and a fish dish in addition to a number of others, but that's not true, so we try and limit what they order in advance.” The venue also orders as much produce locally as possible, encourages guests to take excess food home and uses unserved food from events in the employee cafeteria.

ON LOCATION

There is no argument that “going green” for events is easier in some parts of world than others. “One comment of note is the encouragement we receive having our business in San Francisco, which is light years ahead of most cities in terms of recycling,” says Whiting. In fact, figures from San Francisco's Department of the Environment for the year 2001 show that for the first time, the city recycled, composted and reused more waste than it threw away, diverting 52 percent of waste away from landfills.

Harris agrees, pointing out that when she lived in South Carolina, it was “a hassle to recycle.” Now, however, she says she always recycles, and goes out of her way to promote the practice.

While event professionals may experience some initial resistance toward efforts to create less wasteful events, there is evidence of a definite movement toward greater environmental consciousness. There is also the question of how important the issue of sustainable events is to those involved. Rising Sun's use of organic products is “something that we do personally, for ourselves,” says Harris. “It gives us a good feeling, and we sleep well at night.”

Sometimes the hardest part of effecting change is taking the first step.

“The efforts that we've made so far, and those of others who are paving the way, prove that even in small steps, improvements can be made,” Whiting says. “It's a matter of having the will and the desire, under which circumstances, anything can be made possible.”


RESOURCES

Barton Creek Resort and Spa, 800/336-6158; Global Gourmet Catering, 415/701-0001; Rising Sun Catering, 650/589-0157

GREEN SCENE

Seven ways to turn special events into lean, green machines:

  1. Recycle all paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and aluminum possible
  2. Use local, organic and seasonal food whenever possible
  3. Donate unserved food to local food banks or shelters
  4. Minimize water use
  5. Suggest use of real china, glasses and utensils or biodegradable disposables
  6. Compost food scraps
  7. Find ways to reuse items instead of throwing them away — for example, reuse old towels and linens as rags