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Green Event Best Practices Showcased at 2018 Commencement

Since 2014, Washington University in St. Louis has pursued zero waste receptions throughout the Commencement celebration. Typically, receptions achieve 98% waste diversion through recycling and composting. Some of our standard practices include:

  • 100% recyclable or compostable serviceware at each commencement reception.
  • Waste collection stations with trained volunteers and staff to help attendees correctly sort waste (1,680 lbs of compost were collected this year).
  • Recycling collection is available across campus and along pedestrian pathways.
  • Providing boxed water (instead of plastic bottled water) for guest comfort.
  • Unopened ponchos are collected for reuse. If clean and dry, open ponchos are collected for soft plastic recycling.
  • Paper programs are collected for recycling.
  • Signage is reused from year to year where possible.
  • All leftover food is donated if possible or composted.

Rainy weather put a damper on the festivities and created several challenges. Hundreds of complimentary ponchos were provided to guests. Once worn and wet, this soft plastic cannot be recycled, so the material ended up in the landfill. In addition, the receptions were moved inside, which resulted in fewer attendees and lots of extra food.

Hosting an event with sustainability in mind provides opportunities to anticipate and reduce waste where possible. In anticipation of reduced attendance, Dining Services/Bon Appetit held back some of the prepared food, keeping it at safe temperatures to enable the donation of 925 lbs of prepared food to local organizations who feed the hungry, via Operation Food Search and WashU’s Campus Kitchen. Thousands of printed programs were held back to keep dry to mail out to families after graduation, avoiding the need for a reprint.


Boxed water aligns with our campus-wide initiative that bans the sale of bottled water.  For nearly 10 years, the WashU campus has refrained from bottled water sales, creating a culture of reusable, refillable water bottle use. On an average day, most students, staff and faculty carry their own water bottle around and use convenient filling stations for free, low impact hydration.

However, big events like Commencement pose a challenge. Graduates are carrying as little as possible and their guests may not have thought to bring their own water bottle. Families sit in the sun (or rain), saving a seat and anticipating their graduate’s special moment. Having a refreshing drink makes a stressful day a bit more manageable.

So, we researched alternatives to plastic and landed on boxed water. Learn more about the advantages of boxed water….


Zero Waste Commencement is a small but important part of a robust, year-round effort to weave sustainability values into the cultural fabric of the WashU community. We would like to recognize and thank the dynamic team of people who go the extra mile to ensure that as little waste as possible goes to the landfill after one of the biggest and most important celebrations of the year:

  • Commencement Office
  • WFF staff and Waste Station volunteers
  • Facilities Department
  • Dining Services, Bon Appetit and Aramark
  • Recycling On the Go & St. Louis Earth Day
  • Office of Sustainability