Take the “One Bag Challenge”

Published Monday, March 19 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Here’s a challenge for schools, churches, workplaces and community groups: can you feed more than 400 people, and produce no more than one bag of trash?  Yep, that’s one bag of trash, period. 

The season of spring suppers and school picnics is fast approaching, so maybe it’s a perfect time to take on the “One Bag Challenge”.

It’s possible
Feeding lots of people doesn’t have to result in a dumpster full of garbage.  Of that I’m certain, because it was proven at Garden Creek School in Fredericton last June.

Like many schools, Garden Creek holds a year-end picnic for students, staff and parents.  It’s always a fun event, with hot dogs, beverages and popsicles for all.  Well over 400 people attend.

Such events often produce a lot of waste.  But last year’s picnic included a comprehensive recycling and compost station.  It featured five bins with clear, kid-friendly signage to show what went in what bin.  As well, examples of each type of recyclable were taped at eye level just above each bin to provide a visual aid.  Finally, several students stood by to help anyone who had questions.

The result?  The entire event produced about half a bag of trash.  (Interestingly, most resistance to recycling came from parents, not kids.)

Secrets to success
Garden Creek School’s success, duplicated months later at the school’s annual Christmas Bazaar, involved no magic.  It was just the result of a bit of planning and effort, and it’s possible at any school, church supper, community event or even restaurant. 

If you’re ready to take the “One Bag Challenge”, here are a few tips that will ensure success:
• Find a champion: ask someone in your organization who’s already passionate about recycling to take the lead.  Ask them to recruit a team of people who can help work through the logistics of planning, designing, communicating and staffing.
• Plan for less: before the event, see if there are ways to avoid using disposables.  Reducing up front is always better than recycling.  (For example, a compostable paper towel is better than a foam plate.)
• Communicate the goal: promote your “One Bag Challenge” on-site to get every attendee interested and enthused.  Place signage at entrances, high traffic areas and the recycling station itself, and keep the message simple and clear.  Generate a buzz, and success is almost a certainty.
• Make it easy, fun – and exclusive: locate the station in a central location that is easy for everyone to access, and add a bit of music for fun.  As well, make it the only place for trash disposal, because any other trash bins in the vicinity will become magnets for reluctant recyclers.
• Provide clear direction: design the recycling station to be like a one-way street, with a well-labelled entrance and exit.  Make the trash bin the last in the row, so that everyone walks past each recycling bin first.  (Putting the trash bin first is way too tempting for reluctant recyclers.)  Label each bin clearly, and have someone standing by to provide direction – both critical factors for success.  If possible, tape samples of what goes in each bin above that bin to provide unmistakeable cues.  Since you know what’s being served, you can anticipate what will be coming through for disposal.
• Celebrate success: thank everyone for participating as they pass through; you can even provide up-to-the-minute progress reports.  In schools, acknowledge success through displays, in newsletters, in announcements and on websites.  For church suppers, use the bulletin.  Emphasize environmental benefits, but point out cost savings that come with avoided trash too.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be.  Garden Creek School’s recycling station took just three hours to plan, set up and implement.  Students made all the signage.  Everybody learned a bit.

Take the challenge
Is your school, church, workplace or community group planning a meal, picnic or special event this spring?  Why not take on the “One Bag Challenge”?  Garden Creek School did it; you can too..