Sustainable Event Planning Guide
Phoebe Alley, Alexa Harris, Grace Lacher, Abbey Rahier, Cara Vasso
When planning an event many people likely consider guest satisfaction to be their most important indicator of success, however there is more to evaluate than just the response of your attendees. Whether it’s a backyard wedding or a popular music festival, it’s important to consider the many ways your event will impact animals. In this guide, we offer advice on how to organize an animal-friendly event across five areas of event planning: Consumption of Meat, Food Waste, Non-Food Waste, Emissions, and Noise and Light Pollution. Each of these areas comes with their fair share of environmental consequences.
Meat consumption at events may promote the inhumane treatment of animals, as factory farms house their animals in unhealthy conditions. Meat production also generates pollution and demands unsustainable land use. Such harmful practices can degrade the health of local ecosystems and the animals living within them. Additionally, no matter what food is served, events often end up with significant amounts of leftovers. Such food waste results in emissions of one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Non-food waste has similar environmental impacts as well as others. Producing the non-food items needed for events generates greenhouse gas emissions and also demands the extraction of natural resources, both of which result in habitat loss. If not properly disposed of or picked up, an event’s waste later becomes litter that can be ingested by local wildlife mistaking it for food. This can cause intestinal issues, sometimes leading to death, for the animals, as the trash cannot be digested and may be toxic. Waste from events also contributes to the demand for landfills, which require the destruction of natural habitats.
Events result in greenhouse gas emissions in many ways. The transportation of people and goods to the event, the food that is served (along with the food that is wasted), and the manufacturing of items needed for the event all add to an event’s carbon footprint. These emissions contribute to climate change, threatening animals and ecosystems worldwide. Increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have greatly altered the characteristics of many habitats. Species that are adapted to specific conditions are struggling to adjust to these changes. Climate change has put great pressure on local species which are struggling to survive in their modified environments.
Humans have a tremendous impact on ecosystems. Anthropogenic (human-related) activities have shaped the planet via terraforming and mining, deforestation for development, and litter pilfering through the forests and entering bodies of water. Besides air pollution, food waste, and landfills, other forms of pollution that should come under consideration when planning and hosting events are light and noise pollution. Keeping all of these impacts in mind during the planning process will help to ensure that your event is as animal-friendly as possible.
Consumption of Animal Products
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single greatest way you can reduce your event’s environmental impact. Because the industries behind meat and dairy factories are immeasurably powerful and wield this power ruthlessly, leaving their products off your guests’ plates is really the only way to voice your objection. There are two main facets of the production of animal products that are especially harmful: the direct impacts on the animals themselves and the extremely negative impacts animal production has on the environment.
It is a known fact that what goes on behind the walls of factory farms is enough to make anyone’s skin curl. The animals that are processed into food never know what it means to be free – their lives are defined by the barbaric, cruel reality they live in. Packed so tightly into trucks that they are unable to move, animals experience fear, pain, and anxiety just like humans. Once they are moved into the factory farms, they are fed low doses of antibiotics to prevent disease in filthy, crowded living conditions. Animals are confined to over-populated living quarters, where they must coexist with other terrified species and, many times, with abusive farmers and handlers, until they are eventually killed. Many of the animals, birds particularly, die of starvation, disease, or stress before the slaughter actually happens.
Environmental Impact of Factory Farming
The cruelty of factory farming does not stop at the animals – it is devastating to the planet too. For several decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments have failed to regulate the environmental impacts of factory farms. Since many factory farms operate virtually unregulated, many local communities, as well as distant lands, pay the price. Vast quantities of manure from factory farming makes its way into the local environment, polluting the air and water. Pollution from factory farms also runs off into streams that feed into our major waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and Gulf of Mexico. Such pollution causes algal blooms and dead zones that impact drinking water supplies, aquatic ecosystems, recreation, and people’s livelihoods.
Another extreme environmental impact of factory farming is the decimation of natural landscapes for livestock use. There is constant deforestation happening around the globe specifically to make room for cattle to be bred and slaughtered. According to One Green Planet, in the U.S alone 88 percent of agricultural land is devoted to beef. Because livestock have to eat a lot to survive (and eventually become beef), 85 percent of the soybeans we grow are crushed to make livestock feed. Again, to meet this large demand for animal feed, forest land has to be converted into crop land, demanding more and more deforestation. A staggering one-third of the world’s landmass is designated for growing livestock feed.
Finally, industrial animal agriculture greatly intensifies the effects of climate change. There are a wide variety of sources of greenhouse gas emissions involved in the industrial agriculture process. One example is deforestation – clearing out forests removes vital carbon sinks, leading to large amounts of carbon dioxide being released that were previously stored within the soil and vegetation. Factory farming also requires extremely high amounts of energy. Feeding the animals takes around 75% of the total energy required, in addition to lighting, heating, and ventilation. But the release of carbon dioxide isn’t the only consequence of factory farming – far from it. Gases like methane and nitrous oxide are also produced in astounding quantities, released through sources such as animal waste and fertilizer use. Livestock farming produces 37% and 65% of our global methane and nitrous oxide emissions respectively. The methane emissions per gram of protein are as follows: 404g for buffalo, 295g for beef, 87g for cow’s milk, 55g for pork, and 35g for chicken. Both methane and nitrous oxide gases are much more potent than carbon dioxide. Being conscious of the food served at an event can significantly reduce your event’s contribution to climate change.
When planning your next event, there is one great way to avoid supporting these disastrous, cruel industries. It’s simple – make your next event a vegan one! A vegan event requires that you do not buy or serve any animal products. Look for local restaurants or caterers that specialize in vegan cuisine. Keeping your food both vegan and local helps to reduce the emissions resulting from your event. Having a fully vegan event is not only environmentally friendly, but it can also be key to your event’s success! Use your event’s veganness as a tool for advertising, as this will appeal to individuals who are focused on being environmentally conscious and animal friendly. Along with labeling your event as “vegan”, you can also use terms such as “plant-based”, “cruelty-free”, or “compassionate-eating”. During your event help people make the connection between their diet and animal welfare – partner with a local sanctuary and either show pictures or bring the animals to the event to help people see the animals they are saving by leaving them off their plate!
Events – no matter what they are for – almost always involve copious amounts of food. Most events would be considered a disaster if food ran out. Therefore, event planners tend to offer more than enough of it. As a result, a huge amount of food is almost always thrown out by the end of the night, destined to become “food waste.” If the food waste ends up in landfills, it directly contributes to climate change. While in a landfill, food waste produces a greenhouse gas called methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is even more powerful than carbon dioxide, and it has a huge effect on climate change. Climate change has already negatively impacted all of the animals on earth, and will continue to do so unless action is taken. Caring about animals goes hand in hand with working to stop the devastating effects of climate change. Any effort to decrease climate change is worthwhile, and can easily be incorporated into event planning.
One obvious way to reduce food waste is to simply order less food for your event. While this may seem risky, there is one trick that will make this an easy switch: ditch the buffets. Having pre-portioned plates of food can still provide people with large servings that leave them feeling full and happy. However, it eliminates the common trend of getting overly excited at the sight of a buffet and filling up a plate with more food than one could possibly eat. As for appetizers, bite-sized options are a great choice. Bite-sized food is cute, fun, and delicious. Plus, it greatly reduces the chances of someone throwing out an uneaten plate of appetizers.
While stepping away from over-ordering is a great start, the biggest food waste reductions pertain to what happens to the leftover food. Caterers and event planners can drastically reduce food waste by donating it to organizations that tackle food security. Not only does this reduce food waste, but it also aids people in need. It tackles multiple environmental and humanitarian issues with no cost to the donor, since the food would have been thrown out anyways. Some organizations that accept leftover food include Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and Food Recovery Network. Local food banks are another great place to donate leftover food. As long as the food is still fresh when it is being donated, there are plenty of places that will accept and redistribute it. It is also important to note that donors are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 if someone were to get sick from donated food. Unlike the misguided notion that donating leftover food is illegal, it is actually both legal and encouraged.
Food that cannot be donated, or “food scraps”, can be composted. Since composting may be confusing for someone who has never done it before, it may be beneficial to hire an organization to implement composting practices and education within your event. Organizations such as Sunshine Community Compost will educate staff and implement zero waste procedures and composting practices. Enabling composting at your event is an easy, low-cost process. It simply requires you to label compost bins, using pictures as examples so that guests can easily decipher where to throw away their food waste. Using clear plastic bags is also suggested as to easily find any misplaced, non-compostable items in the bag before going forward with composting. The event planning staff does not have to be the ones actually doing the composting, as many organizations gladly accept compost scraps.
While your event may only last a few hours, the trash it leaves behind remains an issue for much longer. Putting on a large event requires a great amount of resources, and a lot of these materials are no longer needed once the event is over. Smaller items like utensils, invitations, and food packaging as well as larger ones like banners and decorations get thrown out, ending up in landfills where they can remain for decades. The larger your event is, the more waste you can expect to be generated, however smaller, personal events may create more trash than you’d think. According to “The Green Bride Guide” by Kate Harrison, the average wedding generates an estimated 400 pounds of garbage. Managing your event waste helps to alleviate the negative impacts it can have on animals and the environment by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving raw materials, reducing the amount of space needed for landfills, and protecting animals from potential harm.
Make Conscious choices When Planning
Reducing the waste before it is even created is the best way to address this issue. Throughout the planning process, be conscious of the ways you could be reducing the waste generated by your event. Producing less trash results in a decreased demand for landfill generation. Landfills can be extremely harmful to animals, as valuable habitat must be converted to space for trash storage. According to the Romanian Ministry of Environment and Forests, replacing natural land with a new landfill can result in the loss of 30-300 species per hectare. As trash breaks down in these landfills, it can release harmful chemicals that may leach into the soil and groundwater and can be carried throughout an ecosystem. Here are some tangible actions you can take to produce less trash.
Reduce paper waste by utilizing digital tools whenever possible. Send event invites and updates virtually in order to eliminate the waste associated with mailing. As an event planner, ask for all vendor contracts and receipts to be sent digitally to further reduce paper waste. If printed paper is a must, make sure to print on both sides. A large amount of the plastic waste generated by events comes from packaging. Purchasing items in bulk is an easy way to address this, as it requires less packaging than smaller, individual units.
As we discussed earlier, food is a huge component of any event, but it’s important to consider not only the type and quantity of food you serve, but how you serve it. Plastic cutlery is commonly regarded as an easy, cheap option for events. However these small plastics likely end up in landfills, as many recycling programs do not accept them. Switching out traditional plastic utensils for biodegradable or compostable ones is an easy way to reduce the amount of your event’s waste that ends up in landfills. These sustainable options are just as convenient as their plastic counterparts, but come with less environmental impacts.
When obtaining more substantial items for an event, try to keep the possibility of reuse in mind. The manufacturing process requires large amounts of fossil fuels, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Producing a brand-new item also requires raw materials, the extraction of which often results in habitat destruction. Reusing items ensures no more energy and materials go into manufacturing a new product. This reduces the greenhouse gases produced by your event, conserves natural resources, and protects valuable ecosystems.
For large-scale events, consider renting items instead of purchasing them – this allows for them to be easily reused for future events and can often be a cost-effective option. Tables, chairs, linens, glassware, cutlery and many other items are frequently offered by party equipment rental companies. Try to find a local rental company who can deliver the requested items to your venue. After the event concludes, donate whatever decor or leftover materials you can. Reach out to any upcoming charity events that you’re aware of to see if they could use the items, or offer them to local schools or theaters.
For the waste that must be generated, ensure that it is disposed of properly. Plastic litter can be especially harmful, as animals can become tangled in it or may ingest it. Eating plastic can cause animals to starve, as they remain trapped in the animal’s stomach unable to be digested. Recyclable goods that are incorrectly thrown out end up in landfills, where they slowly begin to break down. As these plastics deteriorate they can release harmful chemicals that can contaminate the soil and nearby waterways.
To reduce the likelihood of improper waste disposal, make it as easy as possible for attendees to correctly dispose of waste by creating effective signage. Include waste bins for trash, recyclables, and compost and clearly identify what kind of items are to be placed in each. Always place bins of all three types together to ensure guests do not incorrectly dispose of items out of convenience. Also, make sure that the waste disposal stations are plentiful in order to minimize litter.
Getting Partners On Board
Keeping these ideas in mind when deciding on a venue or vendors can also help reduce waste – make waste reduction goals a key component of deciding what vendors to partner with. Within their contracts, include clauses that require partners to commit to a waste prevention program and to properly dispose of or recycle all waste generated by their actions. Prohibit vendors from utilizing styrofoam and unrecyclable plastics, and require caterers to use biodegradable or compostable containers. If you need assistance in creating contract clauses, Stop Waste provides a detailed example of contract language on their organization website.
Greenhouse gases are constantly the topic of conversation. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and water vapor accumulate in our atmosphere, contributing to the harmful “enhanced greenhouse effect”. There are many ways in which humans exacerbate this issue, but one that is less frequently discussed is the emissions from planning an event. For example, the average wedding produces 63 tons of CO2. There can be emissions from transportation related to mailing invitations, people driving to your event, the vendors transporting their supplies to the venue, the decorations, and a whole lot more. These greenhouse gas emissions are the driving force of climate change, which has already proven to significantly impact animal populations. For this reason, it’s very important when planning an event to think about all of the emissions that come with it and to find ways to reduce them.
For a typical event, transportation takes the heaviest toll on the environment, making up around 70% of the CO2 emissions from that event. In order to mitigate this, consider transportation emissions when picking the venue. For it to be animal-friendly, having a centrally located venue is ideal. This can help reduce emissions as guests will likely have to drive shorter distances to get there, using less gas. Another option would be to use a carpool system. Sending out an email with a spreadsheet allows people to easily sign up to drive and pick up others going to the event. There are also car-sharing apps that can be used like liftshare. Having the option to use public transportation is another great way to reduce emissions. Make sure to provide your guests with information regarding train and bus routes that could take them to the venue. If the event is large and people are flying in for it, ask them to pick direct flights to minimize the fuel needed. Also, if it is ever possible for people to attend your event online, make that an option! This eliminates the need for any transportation at all. Emphasizing your environmental goals to your guests and giving them animal friendly options for modes of transportation is key to reducing your event’s emissions.
Transportation doesn’t just involve the people attending the event, but also how food, decorations, furniture, and other materials get to the venue. The best way to minimize these emissions is to shop local. Think about how many steps it takes to get the supplies to your destination. For example, fruits bought from a different country must first be flown out and then driven to the grocery store, where you or your vendors must drive to get them and bring them back to the event. Instead of buying fruits from a different country, you could go to a farmers market or a nearby store that sells locally-grown fruits. This eliminates the added, unnecessary transportation, thereby cutting down emissions. This sort of thinking should be applied to everything you purchase for the event. Buying local, in season flowers or food does not only support the environment but also your local community. Even when it comes to decorations, support local businesses or artists that can help decorate your venue. As you can see, there are a lot of ways in which events can impact the environment. In order to host an animal-friendly event, you need to take into consideration not only how people will be getting to the event, but how your supplies are getting there as well.
Light and Noise
For thousands of years, fauna and flora have adapted to the day-night cycles, with bright days and dark nights. Ecosystems are deeply affected and start to collapse due to the interruption of this long acquainted cycle. Sea turtles scour for dark nesting grounds and are turned away from bright cabana lit shores and yachts. Birds may register spring starting earlier than it does, as artificial light mixes with late winter hazy sunlight, and mate prematurely. Light pollution presents other issues for birds as well. Similar to humans and other creatures, birds are drawn to light and have been reported to circle light fixtures and well-lit buildings for hours. For migratory birds that depend on the Milky Way Galaxy and constellations, light pollution blocks out much of the cosmos that can be seen from Earth. Nocturnal animals such as some frogs and bats are also impacted by light pollution. In Switzerland, lights were installed along hedgerows on flight paths that both the European lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus Hipposideros) and other species of bats use to find insects. The lights were meant to mimic the spectral intensity from orange-tinted streetlights. Well-lit spaces are avoided by some bats, like the lesser horseshoe bat, to avoid predators, while others thrive on the human-induced concentrations of insects attracted to the lights. The experiment ultimately concluded that the lights created a more detrimental impact on the bat species, driving the flying mammals closer to extinction.
What the International Dark-Sky Association defines light pollution as “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light”, is an issue for many other species. Reducing light provides an opportunity to lower energy consumption and costs. By leaving on the light, we contribute to air pollution from burning fossil fuels to provide energy. Burning the midnight oil has a new meaning. In a 2008 survey, Austria concluded that public lighting was the leading source for the government’s greenhouse emissions. Solutions include shielding light sources to keep light pointing down versus up into the night sky, limiting lumens per acre, and having a light curfew, similar to Paris, can help with light pollution. Although known worldwide as “the City of Lights” Paris now requires office buildings and storefronts to turn off their lights between 1 am and 7 am. These solutions not only reduce light pollution and rebuild some ecological integrity, but also help communities save money, energy, and work. When hosting and planning events, it is recommended to try to hold them in allocated areas, and during the daytime to avoid the use of artificial light. If using office space or any other indoor facility, speak to the foreman or custodial team to let them know you will turn off the lights after your event is over.
Animals use sounds to communicate during mating rituals and to detect prey and predators. Anthropogenic noise from urban cities, boats, events, and other activities all interfere with animal communication and normal rituals, therefore also their ability to survive. Noise is invisible pollution that many overlook since we do not usually measure nor can we capture noise in a physical form. Noise pollution is a disturbance, undesired for the surrounding ecosystems. When hosting events either on a yacht, at a state park, or an enclosed space, even the slightest amount of noise can irritate animals.
The number of allowed and issued snowmobiles in Yellowstone National park is a hot topic for environmentalists and vacationers alike. The sound of snowmobiles passing through even on designated paths, can awaken hibernating animals. In the Plos One journal, Tye A. Nichols, Todd W. Anderson, and Ana Širović write in “Intermittent Noise Induces Physiological Stress in a Coastal Marine Fish” to discuss the intermittent and continuous anthropogenic noise. Boats and resource drilling point out in the water produces massive amounts of noise. Whales, fish, and all marine creatures alike succumb to higher induced levels of stress. Fish are even more sensitive and can be impacted by low to mid-frequency range noise. After the 9/11 attack, fewer cargo ships were traveling to the east coast and a study released in 2012 presented data collected from whale poop containing less than average cortisol stress hormones, for example. Also, dolphins have been reported to use shorter echolocation calls due to the noise interference in the ocean. Noise-induced stress also tremendously affects amphibians and birds. Migratory birds travel a long and dangerous path and need quiet resting spots. With urban sprawl continuing in the US and more roads being built and expanded, it is difficult for wildlife to find land (more than 360 feet away) not near a roadway. Raised levels of cortisol break down vital energy stored in the form of lipids, and with time and continuous exposure to noise, can impair reactions to predators.
Greater actions to consider, outside of any events you may be planning, consist of choosing alternative modes of transportation, carefully selecting the businesses we support, and increasing our awareness. All of these actions enable us to limit the amount of noise pollution produced. For events of all kinds, shuttle service or public transportation can be promoted to cut down traffic. If a destination wedding is involved, be aware that aircraft routes are being routed along busy highways. Although new technologies to lower the noise from oil and gas operations and cargo ships are being created, the overall reduction of international shipping would make a greater impact. During events, limiting participants to the designated area is beneficial for the surrounding ecological system. For example, during picnics in forests and parks, it is not recommended to venture out into the forest beyond the boundaries of the event space. By being aware of the effects of noise and light pollution on land and water animals, we can better take action to preserve these important aspects of both the animals and their ecosystems.
Tool(s): To view light pollution in your area go to: https://cires.colorado.edu/artificial-sky
Planning an event requires an incredible amount of work and preparation, however it only requires a few additional steps to make your event not only successful, but also animal-friendly. Whether you are a professional planner or you are organizing a simple birthday party, it is important to acknowledge that your event has impacts on animals. Consider the ways your event will affect animals in the very beginning of the planning process, and use our suggestions and your own ideas to pull off an eco-friendly event. Using this resource as a guide ensures that you have incorporated animal and environmental safety into your event planning.
Sources: Austrian Government, Botanical Paperworks, CalRecycle; CDEnviro, Corporate Event News, Earth Day Network, EPA; EventMB, Food Recovery Network, Inside Climate News, Intermittent Noise Induces Physiological Stress in a Coastal Marine Fish – Nichols TA, Anderson TW, Širović A (2015), International Dark Sky Association, Move For Hunger; National Geographic, One Green Planet, PCMA, Positive Impact Events, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, State of the Planet, StopWaste, Sunshine Community Compost, The City of San Diego, Toronto Environmental Alliance, University of Bristol, University of Illinois Chicago, Youtube – SciShow, Zero Waste California