This story was updated in April 2023 to reflect WashU’s 162nd Commencement.
Since 2014, Washington University in St. Louis has pursued zero waste Commencement celebrations. WashU has provided recyclable or compostable serviceware at receptions, set up waste collection stations, collected paper programs for recycling, and donated leftover food. Each year, the Commencement planning team and other departments that provide operational support push the envelop to host an exceptionally memorable experience while being mindful of and minimizing environmental impact.
WashU banned single-use plastic bottled water sales on campus in 2008, preventing an estimated 500,000 plastic bottles from being produced every year. For special events like Commencement, graduates and guests were offered boxed water in disposable packaging that is less harmful than single-use plastic bottles. New this year, however, guests are being asked to bring reusable water bottles that they can refill at outdoor hydration stations throughout campus. (Compostable plastic cups will be available.) This strategy requires less materials overall and the emissions from transporting and cooling packaged water has decreased. The new effort will eliminate 30,000 boxed waters from the Commencement waste stream.
Back for a second year, WashU will host an all-school Commencement festival that will stretch from Mudd Field to Tisch Park, featuring games, photo ops, and foods and beverages from local St. Louis businesses. Look for the blue waste station tents staffed by the Office of Sustainability and Commencement volunteers.
Read on for tips on how to make your celebration more sustainable.
Let’s start with the easiest thing you can do: Don’t buy balloons. In addition to the problem of global helium scarcity, balloons can cause a lot of damage to wildlife. You may have seen images of dead birds entangled in balloon ribbon or heard about how many seabirds die after ingesting balloon bits.
There are alternatives to having balloons at your celebration. If the goal is to give the balloons as a brightly colored token of congratulations, flowers are a great option. As a decorative element, pinwheels, streamers, or tissue pom-poms are effective replacements.
Confetti is fun for a moment but could create a long-term challenge for our grounds team as well as harming wildlife and the local ecosystem. Avoid confetti with glitter and shiny plastic or metalic paper. Instead opt for shredded paper, bubbles, flower petals, or birdseed (use a regionally-appropriate bird seed!). If you are feeling crafty, hole punch leaves or undyed paper. Creative signs and letter boards also make for nice photo props.
We’re quite fortunate in St. Louis to have some great florists that grow and/or source flowers locally. Many of the blooms we purchase throughout the year at our grocery stores are flown in from South America or other faraway places—quite a big footprint for such delicate items!
Here are a few St. Louis businesses that grow and support local flowers:
For those of you returning to other localities after Commencement, you can check out Slow Flowers or your local farmers market to find locally grown bouquets near you.
There are several great dining options within a few miles of campus. The Green Dining Alliance audits St. Louis area food and drink establishments on several sustainability criteria, such as ingredient sourcing, water and energy conservation, and waste diversion. Check out their website for certified restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops and support them with your patronage during your celebrations.
Sitting outside in the heat for an extended period of time can leave you feeling pretty parched. Plan ahead by bringing your own water canteen, the best waste-free move you can make to stay hydrated. You can refill at an outdoor water-filling station or one of the hundreds of indoor filling stations.
Fortunately, WashU is situated close to some great dining establishments and outdoor recreation. There are several destinations within walking distance of campus including the Delmar Loop and Forest Park. Whenever possible, opt for spending time in places you can get to without a vehicle or plan to hop on the MetroBus or MetroLink!
However you celebrate this auspicious occasion, choose to make it sustainable!