How to be smarter, and less wasteful, about event clean-up

Like a potentially hokey rom-com...  I’m starting with the end.

You know the scene: piles of leftovers; empty bottles scattered; perfectly good-looking floral arrangements sitting on table tops; a sad, semi-deflated balloon bobbing along aimlessly. Party’s over. And it’s time to clean up.

The aftermath of an event, whether big or small, is often the most overlooked and wasteful part. But any impact, meaning, or intentionality you aimed for in how you planned your event, is all for naught if everything just winds up in ForceFlex Hefty bags as soon as the last guest leaves.

And so, I present some tips, and some seriously useful resources, to make us all a little better at event clean-up.

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1. PLAN IN ADVANCE

As “un-fun” as it may be, clean-up should be part of your event-planning checklist in the same way that inviting guests, figuring out a menu, and picking out decor may be. What this plan looks like-- and how far in advance it needs to be put into place-- will obviously vary depending on the size and location of your gathering, but it needs to exist.

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2. DON’T LET FOOD LEFTOVERS GO TO WASTE

Before jumping in to what to do with leftovers; a quick word on how to avoid winding up with a ton of uneaten food to begin with.

It is incredibly common to overestimate how much people will eat at an event, so dare to under-order for the number of guests you’re expecting. Some people won’t show up, and others won’t eat all that much. Even if you stock up with more than enough food, try only serving small quantities at a time, and keeping the rest in its original packaging at a safe temperature in the kitchen, so that it is eligible for donation or can be re-used at a later date.

Now, even with excellent planning, some leftovers are almost inevitable-- so let’s put them to good use.

If you’re just throwing a dinner party for a few friends, redistributing leftovers can be as simple as ensuring you have tupperware to send people home with. There are a lot of brands, such as Zoetica, Eco Lunchbox, and Black + Blum, who make packing up leftovers as convenient, stylish, and eco-friendly as possible.

With larger events, a few stainless steel bento boxes won’t do the trick (regardless of how Kondo-approved they may be). But there are several innovative businesses and nonprofits working to combat food waste that you or your caterers can partner with. Naturally, some of these are city-specific, but a few we know are:

  • Transfernation- a 501c3 non-profit that is NYC’s first on-demand food rescue service (Uber for leftovers, if you will). For a low flat-fee, they will pick-up and deliver your untouched leftovers to the closest local feeding program. Just download their app and you’re on your way to combating food waste and hunger.

  • Food Cowboy- Like Match.com for food waste, they use location-based technology to route leftovers to the best location. While Food Cowboy services needs to be coordinated through a caterer, restaurant, or other food provider, it is available nationwide.

  • Food Rescue US- Also to be coordinated through a professional food provider, but available throughout the U.S.. After answering a few questions, your caterer can sign up to be a “food donor,” and request to have food picked up. Food Rescue’s algorithm matches surplus food to a nearby shelter and sends a driver, and they have donated over 26 million meals to date.

  • Goodr- Also to be coordinated through a caterer, Goodr runs a 24/7 service in Atlanta to pick up excess food and deliver it to non-profits.

This is just a small sample of the innovative organizations out there, so try googling for your specific event area, and make sure to read through requirements, or coordinate with your caterer, in advance.

Another great resource is Feeding America’s nationwide network of food banks, which secure and distribute 4.3 billion meals each year. Their handy food bank locator makes it easy to get the contact information for the locations nearest you.

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3. BE ORGANIZED ABOUT TRASH

The easiest way to minimize the amount of event trash that winds up in landfill is to properly label and prominently display receptacles for composting and recycling throughout your event space-- even if it means putting two bins in your kitchen when you’re hosting at home. Images on signs, just to make things crystal clear, are incredibly helpful. The EPA has a page that outlines the basics of composting-- and what in the U.S. is and isn’t compostable— and there are also great guides on how to compost at home. They also have loads of resources on recycling, but since regulations can vary by State, berecycled.org allows you to input your zipcode and find local recycling information!

New businesses working to facilitate sustainable event clean-up are sprouting up nationwide. The Broomsmen, a clean-up service in Oregon, highlight that the average wedding produces 400-600 pounds of waste(!) and are working to change that statistic by working with couples and event-planners to ensure proper waste management. Greenhouse Eco-Cleaning Services in New York not only guarantee proper waste disposal, but exclusively works with cleaning products that are vegetable-based, organic, and contain 100% biodegradable ingredients.

If you know your event is of the scale where an outside cleaning crew may be necessary, be sure to research sustainable and eco-friendly businesses in your area-- more likely than not, at least one exists.

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4. PUT LEFTOVER DECOR TO GOOD USE

There’s something particularly sad about seeing dozens upon dozens of flowers and plants wind up in the trash after a celebration. Luckily, a number of social enterprises work to repurpose event flowers for worthy-causes. A few to check out include:

  • Repeat Roses- Available nationwide, Repeat Roses helps their clients petal-it-forward with their signature collection-through-composting service. They collect and break down floral arrangements from events, redesign them into petite bedside bouquets, and deliver them to patients in hospices, cancer treatment centers, mental health facilities, domestic abuse and homeless shelters. They then return to donor sites to collect the twice-enjoyed blooms for composting, completely disrupting the single-use-flower-to-landfill pipeline.

  • Random Acts of Flowers- With branches in Knoxville, Tampa, Chicago and Indianapolis, Random Acts of Flowers delivers beautiful bouquets of recycled flowers to about 100,000 people each year.

  • Petals with a Purpose- Hawaii-based Petals with a Purpose repurposes event flowers for  personal bouquets delivered to hospitals, hospices and retirement homes. A similarly-named Petals with Purpose has a comparable model in the Palm Beach area, pairing flower deliveries with visits.

  • The Bloom Project- Collects donated flowers in the Portland area to provide fresh floral bouquets to hospice and palliative care patients on a weekly basis.

  • Flower Angels USA- Not only donates repurposed flowers after events in the Cape Cod area, but additionally works with adults with disabilities to assist with flower collection, deconstruction and delivery.

For other leftover decor like table numbers, votives, and vases platforms like Wedding Recycle and Bravo Bride, are among the growing number of sites that let you buy and sell gently-used items. Even donating items to the nearest Salvation Army or Goodwill, is better than tossing them in the trash!