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Sustainable Commencement Celebrations

This story was updated in April 2022 to reflect WashU’s 161st Commencement.

Since 2014, Washington University in St. Louis has pursued zero waste receptions throughout commencement celebrations. In years past, WashU has provided recyclable or compostable serviceware at receptions, set up waste collection stations, collected paper programs for recycling, and donated leftover food. During commencement, guests are offered boxed water as a more acceptable alternative to single-use plastic bottles. WashU has banned single-use plastic bottled water sales on campus since 2008, preventing an estimated .5 million plastic bottles from being produced every year.

New this year, WashU will host an all-school Commencement Festival that will stretch from Mudd Field to Tisch Park featuring foods and beverages from local St. Louis businesses, games, and fun. Look for the blue waste station tents staffed by the Office of Sustainability and Commencement volunteers.

We are looking forward to a more “normal” commencement celebration this year! Read on for tips on how to make your celebration more sustainable.

Balloons

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

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.

Flowers

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.

Food

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.

Water

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. While boxed water is preferable to plastic bottled water, it still takes significant energy to create and subsequently recycle the carton. Bringing your own canteen is the best waste-free move you can make to stay hydrated.

Mobility

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 metro!

However you celebrate this auspicious occasion, choose to make it sustainable!