Harvard Law School’s 2009 Commencement Luncheon was its greenest yet, with over 65% of meal leftovers, by volume, reclaimed for recycling or composting.  Three key components led to this recycling victory: a central “Recycling Tent,” effective communication among various event planners, and invaluable on-site help from event staff and volunteers.

Each year following Commencement Morning Exercises, over 3000 recent HLS graduates and guests fill Holmes Field for the Law School’s diploma ceremony and commencement luncheon.  In 2008, the Dean of Students Office (DOS), which coordinates Commencement activities, set up a central Recycling Tent for the first time.  In 2009, DOS, Restaurant Associates, Harvard Facilities, Maintenance, and Operations (FMO), and the HLS Sustainability Coordinator worked to expand the concept of the Recycling Tent in order to divert even more waste from landfill.

Getting out the Message about Recycling

Rather than relying on luncheon guests to properly sort their leftovers into recycling, trash, and compost, luncheon planners decided to direct guests to return all leftover meal components to one central Recycling Tent, located at the rear of Holmes Field.  A multi-part communications plan was created to ensure that this message was effectively disseminated.  While guests waited to pick up boxed meals at a food tent, signs directed them to bring all leftover luncheon materials to the Recycling Tent when finished eating.  This message was verbally delivered by the Restaurant Associates staff who helped guests pick up their meals.  It was also printed on cards placed on every table in Holmes Field, and on signs placed at the entrance to the Recycling Tent itself.  This repetition proved effective; many guests brought their boxed meals right over when finished with their meals.  In addition, Restaurant Associates catering staff circulated through Holmes Field, clearing tables and bringing boxes and empty bottles back for recycling throughout the event.

Inside the Recycling Tent

Once boxes were delivered to tables in the Recycling Tent, a team of helpers—both staff and volunteers—  took care of the rest.  Workers began by emptying excess liquid from cans and bottles into plastic buckets, then scraped leftover food and napkins into compost bins, and finally sorted trash and recycling into separate bags.  FMO staff were on hand to seal bags and pile them out of sight on the opposite side of the tent, ready for periodic removal by an FMO pick-up truck.

Tree Recycling Outposts

In addition to the Recycling Tent, twenty “Tree Recycling Stations” were also set up throughout Holmes Field to provide guests the option of separating their own trash and recyclables.  At these stations, luncheon guests generally did a good job of recycling plastic cups, bottles, and aluminum cans, but were more likely to mistakenly trash less familiar items-- plastic luncheon plates and cardboard boxes. 

Key to Success—Event Staff

Inside the Recycling Tent, the combined efforts of twelve undergraduate Commencement workers, five FMO custodians, five Restaurant Associates staff, and four Green Team volunteers were instrumental to the event’s recycling success.  Boxes were processed within moments of delivery, meaning that moments of backlog were extremely rare.  Because of this, at the end of the luncheon Recycling Tent helpers were even able to make trips into Holmes Field, bringing back stray boxes and recovering bags of trash from Tree Recycling Stations.  These bags could then be sorted at the Recycling Tent so that additional recyclables could be reclaimed. 

Looking Ahead

Overall, the staff at the Recycling Tent helped HLS recovered over 260 bags of recyclables and 4 bags of compost, compared to around 130 bags of trash.  Looking ahead, event planners realize that even less waste could have been generated had the luncheon packages themselves been simpler. Guests ate from recyclable plastic plates and plate covers, which came inside a cardboard box along with other meal items.  Alternatives to this packaging scheme will be explored for 2010.