Best Practices for (More) Sustainable Events: Event Planning in Compromised Times

By Sawyer Seminar Pre-doctoral Fellows Megan Dean and Meredith Denning

Way back in September, we held our 2017-2018 kick-off event in Copley Formal Lounge. “Writing Climate Now,” a round table discussion of strategies for writing persuasively and accurately about environmental disaster and climate change, was a great success; our panelists were insightful and compelling, discussion was lively, and there was excellent turnout. After the formal discussion ended, we celebrated our panelists and the upcoming year of events with wine and cheese, one of many receptions the Seminar has hosted over our two-year tenure.

As the speakers and audience filed out and we fellows and organizers set about to clear up, we found ourselves with a couple problems. There was a lot of food left over, but no containers to transport it away in. And there were no recycling bins anywhere to be found. So, there we were, at the launch of eight months of events grappling with the disaster, devastation, and despair of human-caused climate change, filling garbage bins with empty plastic water bottles and piles of perfectly good havarti.

Alexis Shotwell, keynote speaker for February’s “How Should We Eat?” event, tells us we live in “compromised times.” She explains: “to say that we live in compromised times is to say that although most people aim to not cause suffering, destruction, and death, simply by living, buying things, throwing things away, we implicate ourselves in terrible effects on ecosystems and beings both near and far away from us. We are inescapably entwined and entangled with others, even when we cannot track or directly perceive this entanglement.” These entwinings and entanglements mean that we will never act well if we insist on defining “well” in terms of purity; to hurt no one, destroy nothing, to avoid contamination of self or others, is impossible. But there are, nonetheless, better and worse ways of acting, of eating, drinking, disposing of waste. And there were clearly better ways for us to organize our events.

Unfortunately, doing better on Georgetown campus is not simple. It is difficult to get a recycling bin for an event, let alone a compost bin, and even if you implement a “no bottled water” policy for catering orders, sometimes the bottles show up anyway. Sorting out how to do better without much institutional support has taken a good deal of research, trial and error, and collaboration with Georgetown’s Office of Sustainability and local businesses. Through this work, we have developed a set of best practices to make our events more sustainable and less destructive. We share them with you here.

We call for organizers of events big and small—conferences, lunch meetings, happy hours, talks, department events—to implement these practices. The Georgetown Office of Sustainability and various student groups are working to improve access to recycling bins, on-campus composting, and other services that would make planning more sustainable events easier. If they succeed, these changes will reduce labor and costs, and help to establish campus-wide norms for sustainability. Until then, employing these policies and practices will not only make your events more sustainable and less destructive, but show the administration that the Georgetown community wants to do better, and would make use of institutional support if it were available.



Purchase and use refillable water jugs

  • Secure storage space between events

Use compostable plates, cups, and utensils

  • Purchase yourself or order from caterer
  • Reuse from previous events

Order platters of food instead of box lunches

Order food with compostable or recyclable containers and wrapping

  • Ex., order a container of milk instead of creamers
  • Refuse drinking straws

Order vegetarian options

Catering companies we have used and liked: Geppetto Catering (301.927.8800; ), DC Vegan (202.297.0886; ), Roti ( )


Hire a composting company to provide bins and dispose of compostable waste

  • Post signs in English and Spanish, announce waste disposal procedures to attendees
  • Keep watch over compost bins to avoid contamination or accidental disposal by maintenance workers

Ensure there are recycling bins in the event space

  • Post signs in English and Spanish, announce waste disposal procedures to attendees

Bring containers or bags for leftover food

  • Offer leftovers to students or (where appropriate) leave in department kitchens for students

Save and reuse unused utensils, serving ware, napkins, etc.

  • Secure storage space for between events

Composting company we have used and liked: Veteran Compost (443.584.3478; )

Event paraphernalia

Cut down on paper use

  • No printed programs, no brochures, minimal poster printing
  • Rely on email and social media promotion

No swag: t-shirts, frisbees, tote bags, pens, etc.

No pop-up sign boards, easels, etc.


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