With two months until Earth Day 2020, cities around the
world are preparing events to recognize the day. But with each event comes
Events that draws thousands of people not only have a significant
carbon footprint — electricity for sound systems, emissions from cars, refrigerants
for drinks — but they can also leave behind literally tons of garbage. And an
Earth Day event that creates a mess of litter kind of defeats the purpose,
Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, is
no stranger to these challenges. But through a recent partnership with the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, the city
is committing to a zero-waste Earth Day.
“Many years ago, Earth Day in Houston was an exuberant
celebration characterized by enthusiastically large crowds (and abundant
trash), loud music and not much action,” said Rachel Powers, executive director
at Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. “We set out to change the event by
reducing waste that was generated and encouraging people to commit to improve
the environment after the event.”
A zero-waste event is defined as one that diverts at
least 90 percent of waste to composting, recycling or reusing. In other words, it’s an event that pulls out
all the stops to avoid dumping waste in a landfill.
Earth Day in Houston isn’t technically zero waste, but it’s
getting there: In 2018, organizers diverted 70 percent of their waste by weight.
To do that takes a lot of planning, organizing and communicating.
Most notably, for the last several years, organizers set
up recycling and composting stations around the park. Each station has signs
and ambassadors, who help people properly dispose of different materials.
“We had a troupe of cosplay volunteers and a few mascots
act as champions for recycling, and they were a big hit,” said Powers.
Behind the scenes, organizers work with recycling and
composting vendors to accept waste and ensure everything got to the right
place. Perhaps most importantly, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition weighs and
tracks all the waste. This allows them to record everything — like the most
common items trashed — and gives them the chance to improve each year.
For example, plastic utensils were the most commonly
trashed items in 2018. For 2019, organizers purchased compostable utensils,
which they distributed to market vendors. That same year, to reduce single-use
plastic water bottles, the coalition provided water fillers for reusable
Houston’s signature Earth Day event takes place at
Discovery Green, a 12-acre park in the heart of downtown. The park sees over
1.5 million visitors to its 600 free events annually. The park is also
“carefully designed, meticulously maintained,” said Powers, and thus a hard
place to host typical environmental activities like picking up trash and
Instead, the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition uses
events like Earth Day to educate the public by drawing attention to daily
“Earth Day is the one time of year when many Houstonians
think specifically about the environment,” said Powers. “The event is our
largest forum each year for carrying our [educational and environmental]
By hosting a zero-waste event, the group showcases more
sustainable actions — like composting or swapping single-use plastics for more
sustainable alternatives — and encourages people to stick to these actions
after the event.