10 Tips For Planning Zero Waste Events

The tradeshow industry is the second largest producer of trash, second only to the construction industry.

I will take any opportunity to use a Schitts Creek gif, but in reality, this isn’t a laughing matter. My stomach dropped when I heard this statistic.  I absolutely love the tradeshow industry, but we must do better.

“What frustrates you about your business? What frustrates your customers?  What do people say when they complain about your industry, and what do they mean when they say it.? I don’t ignore more problems.  I just see them a little differently.  Where some might see problem as a brick wall, I see it as fuel for the idea machine.”

– Jesse Cole, Find Your Yellow Tux

We need to take a close look at the practices we’ve always implemented and fuel that idea machine so that we can dramatically decrease our impact on the environment and the landfill.


Sustainable, eco-friendly, zero waste …figuring out the terms can be confusing.

And, the term zero waste can be a bit of a misnomer.  Is it possible to go ZERO waste?  Unfortunately, as a society, we’re not yet in a position to send nothing to the landfill. There is a lot of systematic change that needs to happen before that is possible.  For now, zero waste must mean adding as little to the landfill as possible.

Want to know more?

Learn about the 5 R’s of zero waste living:

Refuse | Reduce | Reuse | Recycle | Rot

Here are 10 steps to help you move toward a zero-waste event:


Have you ever stood in front of recycling bins with your trash in hand, trying to figure out what goes where?  Ever seen others put theirs in the wrong bin, not even giving it a second thought?

Make it as easy as possible for your attendees by clearly labeling the bins like the ones below, seen at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

3 bins, 1 marked compost, one marked recycling, and one marked landfill. Each one has a label on it that shows what should go inside that bin

These signs made me stop and take notice, they educated me, and I am sure they support a lot more recycling and less landfill because items are being properly sorted.


Ask the venue not to sell plastic water bottles. Communicate out to the attendees and ask them to bring their own reusable water bottles.  Provide them for those who don’t have one (this is a great sponsorship opportunity), and have plenty of clearly marked refill stations throughout the facility.


There are many options for lowering your event’s impact on the landfill when it comes to food and beverage. Communicate your zero-waste mission to your F&B provider and work with them to use zero waste options.  Use reusable plates, glasses, and silverware.  If that isn’t possible and you must go single-use, go for compostable.


There is so much that can be done in this area to lower the impact.

Let’s just talk about signs to begin with.  Just think about all of those signs that are used once and then thrown away.

Think through your signage needs. Is the sign absolutely necessary?  Go digital signage.  If that isn’t possible, have the signs made out of recyclable materials.


Say it loud and proud!

Let your attendees know about your initiative to decrease the amount that goes into the landfill in your pre-event correspondence.

Tell them why you’re doing it and what you are doing.


Make the zero-waste mission as easy and pleasant as possible for your attendees.  Place friendly and helpful volunteers at the bins assisting those who need direction on where to put what. Have them at some of the water stations, making the refill station a pleasant place to be.  Ideally, these volunteers should be knowledgeable about zero waste practices and eager to educate.


Registration is typically one of the first touchpoints that your attendees will experience once they arrive at your event.  And nothing screams “we’re committed to zero waste”  than greeting your attendees with a plastic badge and a bag full of cheap plastic swag, does it?

Show your commitment to a zero waste event by putting a lot of thought into that first impression that attendees are going to have of your event. Rethink your badges and your swag.


I admit that I love to hit Amazon to purchase items that add pops of color, coziness, and class to the event.

I recently purchased a bunch of pillows to add some color to an exhibit floor lounge.  The idea was widely loved….and I loved it too, until I realized… what am I going to do with all of these pillows when this is done?  I am not proud to say that they likely went into the trash.  I am hoping that workers took them, but I lost track of them once the move-out scramble began.  One-use pillows?  Not good.


Set up a donation bin at the event where you as a show organizer and exhibitors can place items to donate.  Make sure that you’ve identified where these items will go.  Remember, donating is better than trashing, but donating items doesn’t mean they won’t get into the landfill – it means that they may be delayed in getting there.


Although you have little control over what materials an exhibitor uses to build their booth, your messaging can influence their decisions.

First of all, the days of cheap swag are over. For exhibitors who want to distribute swag, give them more eco-friendly options.  Ask them to consider having the item not be wrapped in plastic and something that can inspire zero-waste living in those receiving it.  Give them sustainably- sourced options and ask them to consider using local artisans in the city where the event will be held.

Suggest not marking the year or anything else that is identifying on it so that if there are leftovers, they don’t have to throw them away.

I would absolutely love to hear what you’re doing on your missions to make your events zero waste or more sustainable. Please comment below!

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