Washington University School of Medicine

Zero Waste Employee Picnic

The annual employee picnic at the School of Medicine provides a fun opportunity to recognize the hard work of the WUSM community. 9,000 people join the festivities and enjoy an amazing BBQ spread.

The challenge of feeding 9,000 people in three hours is no small feat. It requires a massive amount of planning and an extremely efficient catering crew.

In 2013, the Employee Picnic planning committee introduced a new layer of complexity – pursuing zero landfill waste after serving the community. They pitched waste sorting station tents, recruited volunteers, and ordered compostable plates. Year after year, they adjusted their strategy, and each year they further decreased the volume of waste destined for the landfill.

For the past several years, this event has successfully operationalized and internalized zero waste principles and practices. The event regularly diverts 99% of the post-consumer waste from the landfill, with most of it going to compost and a smaller portion going for recycling. The amount of landfill waste generated by guests can fit into a small to-go box. Not bad for serving 9,000!

Planning a zero waste event does take extra work, but thinking about it early in the planning process and pulling in the right partners can go a long way. In the early years, it was difficult to procure compostable service ware to serve the BBQ and Ted Drewes custard, but now it is the standard practice for this event.

In addition, the committee was also mindful of the employee gift that goes out to all of the employees. A reusable lunch container that doubles as a collapsible to-go box was put into the hands of thousands.

The picnic went beyond incorporating sustainability into its operations. Attendees received advanced communication encouraging them to take the sustainability challenge: to bring their own reusable water bottle and their new reusable to-go box to the picnic. Participants were entered into a raffle for a gift certificate!

The visible waste stations staffed by amazing volunteers, many who return year after year, also serve as an educational opportunity, as people sort their waste and discover how much waste can be kept from the landfill.

The Employee Picnic Committee and supporting stakeholders include: the Human Resources Department, the General Services Custodial Team, Medical School Security, Kendrick’s Meats & Catering, Ted Drewes, and the many volunteers who staff the waste stations.