Had you been at the Three Rivers Arts Festival earlier this month, you might have seen Katie Jameson digging in the trash. But she wasn't.
Thanks to the Festival's new Zero-Waste Initiative, what festival-goers might ordinarily recognize as trash were bins of recyclables and future compost. Jameson, a recent Slippery Rock graduate and festival intern, had donned latex gloves to staff one of five stations of 24 wire-racked plastic bags -- eight well-labeled containers each for recyclable waste, compostable material and stuff bound for the landfill.
In the past, the festival offered recycling bins. But last year, executive director Elizabeth Reiss hired Ryan Walsh, of Pittsburgh-based consulting outfit Restorative Events, to move the venerable festival toward ensuring that "zero waste" dropped from the hands of the roughly 500,000 annual visitors accustomed to simply discarding plates, cups, napkins, plastic utensils, drink bottles and uneaten food -- sometimes a ton or more daily.
So the festival told the dozen food vendors on Downtown's Stanwix Plaza: Replace nonrecyclable products -- like foam clamshells and plastic cups and cutlery -- with paper plates and compostable cutlery made from potato or corn starch. That made all food packaging compostable or recyclable. (Though three vendors in separately managed Gateway Towers plaza didn't participate.) The fest added an extensive education effort, with ubiquitous signage explaining why recycling is better than landfilling, and why composting -- a natural process that breaks down organic matter into new soil -- beats even recycling. And it deployed a sunburned mix of paid staffers and volunteers to make sure patrons knew where to deposit their water bottles and aluminum foil (all recyclable), paper plates, napkins and uneaten fries and funnel cakes (compostable) and, if they absolutely had to, anything else.
In this first year of a planned three-year initiative, Walsh, 28, had hoped to divert half the waste from landfills. But 12 days into the 17-day festival, preliminary figures indicated that, by volume, some 80 percent of the post-consumer waste had either been recycled or composted -- a big success.
There were challenges: Walsh said some vendors needed convincing about the alternative cups and cutlery, which is somewhat pricier. (The festival wound up actually supplying the veggie-starch plastics itself.) There were also fund-raising needs for extra staff and promo materials -- and ketchup-sticky fingers from extracting nonbiodegradable plastic bottles from the compost bin. "That's why we have the gloves," said festival intern Jameson.
The festival's compostable material was contaminant-free enough for AgRecycle Inc., a local firm that turns organic waste into topsoil for everything from industrial-brownfield reclamation to rose beds. AgRecycle President Carla Castagnero says the festival was a "very positive" experience for the company, which had shied from servicing public events because patrons are seldom mindful of what bin they use.
Walsh claims the arts festival is the region's first large-scale public event to incorporate composting, but surprisingly few festival-goers seemed to mind taking detailed instruction about something they've always done without thinking. Some even approached festival staff, crumpled white napkins held questioningly aloft.
"They feel good about themselves," says Jameson. "I say, 'Thank you,' and they say, 'Thank you.'"
Of course, the stuff in garbage bins reflects only a fraction of a festival's environmental impact. There are also the greenhouse gasses and more represented by everything from the high-calorie snacks for sale to the fossil fuel burned to transport and illuminate audiences, vendors, artists and performers.
Lately, some big events (like the recent Festival International de Jazz de Montreal) have claimed to be "carbon-neutral," usually meaning that they (or their corporate sponsors) purchased "carbon credits" for tree-planting or other attempts to hypothetically offset greenhouse-gas emissions. But while Walsh says future Three Rivers Arts Festivals might focus more on directly reducing carbon emissions, he calls carbon credits "an extremely low form of going green."
Walsh prefers the philosophy espoused in Cradle to Cradle, the influential 2002 book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Instead of being "less bad" through strategies like recycling or reducing pollution -- or, harder still, battling the consumer's compulsion to consume -- they propose redesigning our built world to eliminate the very concept of "waste": Green buildings. Nontoxic manufacturing. Pollutionless cars.
One biodegradable fork at a time, says Walsh: "We're creating a cultural shift in the way Pittsburgh thinks about waste and energy."