For the Professor: Working Toward Zero Waste at MiddleMoot 2018

Park University hosted the 2018 MiddleMoot in Kansas City, the first in the metro area and the second after a moot in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2017. I was fortunate enough to be allowed, and even encouraged, to make the event zero waste. What does that mean, you ask? And why does that make me fortunate? (I’ll get to that later.)

Reducing waste at the conference was in keeping with its theme, which strove to answer questions such as “How is the corruption of Nature a focus in Tolkien’s works?” and “How does Nature answer the problem of industrialization?”

The event organizer, Tolkien Society of Kansas City president Robbie Park (pictured below), thought that Tolkien would be pleased with our efforts to avoid plastic trash and food waste going to the landfill.

That is essentially what it means to host a zero waste event: Don’t throw anything away—not the leftover food; not the plates, cups, lids, and utensils; not the napkins; not the programs. As you may have guessed, the term zero waste is a goal rather than a reality in most cases. We can get close to zero waste, but right now, with the profusion of plastic disposables in our society, it’s difficult to get to 0 percent waste, or to put it another way, 100 percent composting and recycling and reuse.

The best approach is to set out reusable plates, silverware, and napkins for an event. Another way is to use compostable plates, cups, and napkins and make sure those items, plus any leftover food or food waste, actually get composted. There are establishments in Kansas City that use compostable cups, for instance, but then throw them in the landfill, where they will break down and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

We went with the second option, since the catering staff at Park University wanted to accommodate us but weren’t able to provide reusable items for this event. After shopping at a couple of stores in the Kansas City area—Nature’s Own Health Market in River Market and Whole Foods in Brookside—I bought plates, napkins, and cups (cold cups, and hot cups with lids). I didn’t buy flatware because the catering staff had told Robbie they would provide metal flatware, as well as condiments that didn’t come in little plastic packets.

Upon arrival, I was surprised to find a long table laid out with black Styrofoam plates for breakfast, and hot cups and lids that would have to be thrown away after use. (Paper packaging that has had food inside is not recyclable because there is not really a way to separate the usable paper from the food residue, and most coffee cups are whitened with chlorine bleach, so they can’t be composted.) The staff took the disposable items away on their cart, assuring me those items would be saved for another event. I hope the items on the bottom shelf of the cart were not thrown away.

Apparently, the facilities staff who had set up the rooms for the conference had laid out the tables, and they weren’t aware of the zero waste focus of the event. So there’s a lesson for the future: If you are planning a zero waste event, make sure to ask who will be setting up the rooms. Will it be the people you are emailing, or will they delegate setup to someone in a related department?

Here’s a very wide view of what the breakfast table looked like after the food had been set out. Plates  and napkins flank the platters containing (yummy) pastries. Hot cups and lids are stacked to the left of the coffeepots, and clear cold cups are set out to the left of the water dispenser on the right side of the table.

Both types of cups were Repurpose brand, and the plates (Natural Value) and napkins (365 brand from Whole Foods) were made from recycled paper not bleached with chlorine. When I was searching for a place that would take a small load of compostables, I was told that paper plates break down better in compost piles than plates made from starchy plants. So I went with paper.

Before the conference started, we set up a makeshift “materials processing” area by the door. We chose the trash can with a plastic bag for the compostables, because the food waste, including coffee cups, would mess up the carpet beneath the blue recycling bin (which has holes in the bottom).

As the day went on, we added to the list of items that had to be thrown away.

People at MiddleMoot did very well at following the directions on the signs. Believe me when I say I’ve attended many events with much more elegant composting/recycling/trash setups that people didn’t even look at.

Lunch was more complicated, since it included salad, sandwiches that still needed condiments, and potato chips. On the far left below, the plates and napkins we provided can be seen in front of metal bowls of salad and dressing. Moving right in the picture, the staff laid out metal tongs for picking up the sandwiches that would shortly be arriving, as well as metal bowls of mayo and other condiments; a platter with lettuce, onion, tomatoes, and pickles; and bags of potato chips. To make room for all that, we moved the hot cups to the other side of the coffee dispensers.

Unfortunately, the flatware provided for the salad was plastic. I ended up fishing it out of the trash bin, taking it home, and washing it. So now I have a lot of black plastic forks. Some Whole Foods locations recycle the plastic flatware they offer in their dining areas, but I don’t think they’d want these forks because of the color. I will have to check at a local store. (My housemate said she sometimes bundles plastic utensils and take them to a thrift store, or uses them at an event she’s organizing.)

Here’s how the materials processing facility looked at the end of the conference. I confess I did a lot of dumpster diving throughout the day, as surreptitiously as I could, to make sure discards were in the proper bin. I didn’t mind, though; I often have to restrain myself from plucking recyclables out of trash cans, so this conference gave me a chance to indulge for a good cause.

And here are the compostables from the conference, all collected in biodegradable bags and ready to go to the Missouri Organics compost bin at a business I patronize. (Yes, I did get permission before I dropped off those four bags. And no, individuals can’t just show up at Missouri Organics with compostable plates. MO picks up from businesses and organizations only. But individuals can take compostables to Urbavore Urban Farm.)

At the beginning of this post, I said I was fortunate to be encouraged to make this a zero waste event. I’m grateful to Robbie for being so receptive to the idea and working with catering to make it happen. Usually, the response to a request to reduce waste at an event is something like, “Well…” And with good reason. Because American society is accustomed to using disposable plates, cups, and flatware at events, any movement toward zero waste seems like a pain in the neck. For zero waste to work on a large scale, to the point at which it is convenient, companies and schools must incorporate into their goals and planning from the beginning.

On a related note, does anyone need two dozen lids for hot cups? For some reason I ended up with a lot of lids.

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Featured image: Dr. Corey Olsen, the president of Signum University and one of the leading forces behind the Mythgard Institute, gives his keynote address at MiddleMoot 2018.