Every May, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) alumni return to Cambridge to honor achievements, share ideas, and reconnect during Reunion Weekend. With a long-standing tradition of seeking innovative solutions to local and global-facing challenges, the Kennedy School community embodies their emblematic motto “Ask What You Can Do.” This year, alumni returning to campus, asked what HKS could do to reduce the environmental impact of Reunion Weekend. 

Seeking a solution to requests from the alumni community, Kristen Gallagher, Assistant Director of Alumni Relations, led an effort to host the first-ever zero waste HKS Reunion Weekend. 

In true HKS fashion, the planning team went above and beyond to ensure that all materials were compostable, reusable, or recyclable. No bottled beverages or plastic water bottles were distributed throughout the weekend. Instead, all alums were given a reusable Nalgene bottle, and water filling stations were set up across campus. Bamboo plates and utensils, compostable napkins, and eco-products were used at all catered meals. Even paper from passed hors d’oeuvres was eliminated. Takeaway lunches were completely compostable and housed in a recyclable container; and during receptions, beverages were served in glass only and beer flowed directly from kegs, eliminating can and bottle waste. 

For our first attempt, it was a great success! We’ve already started planning for next year, and thanks to the discoveries we made along the way and the lessons learned, we’ll be able to make even more improvements to HKS Reunion Weekend 2014.

Tackling the waste accumulated from 600 Alumni was no small task. “Planning for the weekend was a hybrid evolution of collaboration and instruction,” said Kristen Gallagher. “Early on, I realized that the event wouldn’t truly be zero waste unless we ensured composting, and to do that I needed the help and participation of many departments.” Gallagher worked jointly with the Dining Services and Facilities and Maintenance teams to explore options that were less wasteful, to design a completely compostable menu, to provide adequate service for reusable materials, and to replace trashcans with ample recycling and composting receptacles. 

Additionally, signage and messaging reinforced the goal and the purpose of zero waste throughout the event, and a Green Statement along with directives was included in lunches. Paper and printed items were kept to an absolute minimum. Necessary signage and programs were printed only on recycled paper and any left over materials were recycled. This year flyers, folders, printed bios, and other miscellaneous, minor materials were not printed.  

“For our first attempt, it was a great success! We’ve already started planning for next year, and thanks to the discoveries we made along the way and the lessons learned, we’ll be able to make even more improvements to HKS Reunion Weekend 2014.” 

Polled after the event, alums responded positively and enthusiastically to the changes Gallagher and team implemented. One pleased alumus wrote, “Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables. I’m so glad that the catering services could come up with a system that reduces some of that food waste!”

Gallagher noted, “The decision to host a zero waste event aligns effortlessly with the HKS mission which is all about preparing our students to go out and change the world. Instituting this type of sustainable initiative at Reunion Weekend will hopefully educate, motivate, and inspire our Alumni community each year.” 

In June, the University awarded Gallagher a “Harvard Green Hero” award for her work on making Reunion Weekend waste-free. Her efforts are part of a history and larger movement of sustainable practices at HKS. “Looking back, it’s not that hard to do!” Gallagher said about the event. “We made some minor modifications and took necessary steps to accommodate, but really it’s just about rethinking how you host an event.” She hopes that others will follow suit and make use of valuable partnerships and resources such as the University’s Dining Services and Facilities teams to hold their own zero waste events. 

To learn more about the HKS zero waste Reunion Weekend contact alumni@hks.harvard.edu