Making Big Red Events Sustainable

Linda Copman June 23, 2023
Slope Day 2023
Students at Slope Day 2023

By Linda Copman

One thing is for sure: Cornellians like to come together and share their Big Red spirit. Whether it’s showing up to celebrate the return of Dead & Co., sharing pix of their feathered friends through eBird, giving to their favorite Cornell cause on Giving Day, or attending Fun in the Sun at Reunion, the Cornell community is hopping. The university hosts over 10,000 campus events each year—and that count includes only those that are officially registered. 

Kim Anderson, assistant director of the Campus Sustainability Office, estimates that the real total is more than 20,000 events—from guest lectures to poetry readings, acapella performances to improv comedy, ClubFest to career fairs, and Commencement to Homecoming. Kim and her team at the Campus Sustainability Office (CSO) see these events as thousands of opportunities to green Cornell’s carbon footprint.

The CSO team has been tracking Cornell’s progress on various sustainability metrics through the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) framework for several years. The effort to make Cornell events more sustainable has been growing over the past two decades, but—until the past few years—the charge was mostly led by individual stakeholders, so-called early adopters who are especially passionate about sustainability. For example, Cornell Outdoor Education has long embraced an ethos of environmental responsibility, incorporating low-impact practices like packing out trash, encouraging reusable containers, and composting into their programs.

“I think how broadly these practices have been adopted is really hit or miss,” Kim admits.

Students are shifting campus culture

 “We’re hearing from students that they want to see more sustainable events, and we’re seeing students backing that up with their actions.” —Kim Anderson, assistant director of the Campus Sustainability Office

Students picking up recyclables on Slope Day
Students picking up recyclables on Slope Day

Kim reports that students have been a significant driver of changing campus culture. She cites August 2022 survey data showing that 99% of incoming Cornell students report they are concerned about the state of the environment—a finding that holds true across colleges.

“What we hear a lot from students is a disconnect between Cornell's ambitious sustainability efforts and how we host events in unsustainable ways,” Kim observes. "Students are coming in more knowledgeable and aware of this issue than ever, and they want to see us do better.”

In 2021, she and her team decided to take a more intentional approach to event planning—in an effort to reach more stakeholders and fulfill Cornell’s educational mission. (Note that ‘Respect for the Natural Environment’ is one of Cornell’s six core values, and the university’s Climate Action Plan has a stated goal to advance sustainability knowledge and skillsets for all students.)

Kim worked with a student intern, Alora Cisneroz ’23, to benchmark sustainable event planning at peer institutions. The team identified Stanford as a good model, since they inventoried green practices across several dimensions. Stanford also invited campus partners to consult with a team of seasoned event planners to think through how best to make events greener, and they offered a certification for events which met certain sustainability standards.

A checklist for success

Photo of Bill Nye on a zoom
Virtual events reduce travel-related emissions

In fall 2021, Kim and her team officially launched Cornell’s Sustainable Events Checklist, with a menu of options for event planners to make their events more sustainable. These include everything from:

  • menu planning to incorporate more plant-based and locally sourced foods to reduce upstream emissions; to
  • eliminating single serve containers (such as individual water bottles or creamers) in favor of a single reusable container; to
  • offering virtual options for conferences to reduce travel-related emissions.

Event planners from across campus were invited to participate in a workshop to talk through various options with CSO staff and other event planners on campus. Kim says these sessions have been invaluable to both participants and to her team.

“We presented to a variety of different academic and non-academic staff. A lot of people who attended our workshop then invited us to host workshops for another area. So, there are ripples of people catching wind of what we’re doing and realizing that it could be helpful to other people at Cornell.”

For example, a student in a sorority who attended asked CSO to host a follow-up Panhellenic sustainable events workshop. About a dozen students from different sororities came to learn how to host more sustainable events in Greek life.

This kind of networking has helped Kim and her team bring the sustainable events planning framework to other groups across campus—helping CSO achieve their goal of diffusing this information to thousands of people at Cornell.

“Our role is to try equip, empower, and engage people. We provide an overview of what the options are, so people can compare the impacts of this decision versus that decision, and then make the best choice,” Kim explains.

A new way of thinking about the bottom line

Student using reusable container
Student using reusable container and utensils

The old way of doing things was based on single bottom-line thinking: how much does it cost and will we save money by doing it differently? The new model is based on quadruple bottom-line thinking, which weighs decisions based on impacts to people, the planet, prosperity, and how well it serves the educational purpose of the institution.

So, the question of whether to offer single-use utensils shifts from, ‘How much does the alternative cost?’ to something more like, ‘Does this choice represent our values as an office, department, college, or unit?’ 

According to Careen Arsenault, who manages Cornell’s Green Office and Green Lab Program and assists CSO’s sustainable events program, there has been a noticeable shift in campus culture over the past few years. “I’m starting to see the wheels turn, where people are paying more attention,” she notes.

Careen says that one of the highest impact actions event planners can take is shifting from plastic to reusable options. For example, more than 500 Reunion goers who attended the recent Fun in the Sun event used washable bowls and spoons—rather than disposable paper and plastic ware.

Dish truck staff at a Cornell Sustainability Office function anticipating dirty dishes (and compost!) with glee

The durable dishes were provided by Ithaca Dish Truck, a local business founded by Cornell staff member Joey Gates. Joey was recognized as a Cornell Staff Sustainability Champion in 2020 for her work to reduce what she calls “mountains and mountains of garbage” by providing a durable alternative. Between 2015 and 2020, the program avoided more than 100,000 disposable dishes from going to the landfill.

Kim and Careen are very proud of their efforts to green this year’s Slope Day. One way they did this was to work with event planners ahead of time to think through menu options with an eye toward incorporating more locally sourced, plant-based foods, as well as choosing options that didn’t require utensils. This year’s Slope Day menu featured a variety of finger foods served with wooden toothpicks, which were composted after the event.

Students sorting their compost and recycling
Students sorting their compost and recycling

The CSO team also set up four waste stations where students were asked to sort their landfill waste, recycling, and compost. About 30 volunteers helped people sort plastic bottles and other recyclables and dispose of their compost. Kim reports that volunteers collected about 300 pounds of compost at the event with a an almost 0 percent contamination rate—a big win for their first time trying composting at a large-scale event like Slope Day.

“We were pleasantly surprised that students were so eager to sort their waste and to take a moment to figure out how to do it. If they did it wrong, they'd actually watch us decontaminate it, and apologize. So students were really receptive to it,” Kim says. “We’re hearing from students that they want to see it, and we’re seeing that students are backing that up with their actions.”

Bags of plastic water bottles
Proceeds from the redemption of water bottles served at Slope Day help fund a field trip for a local fifth grade class

Volunteers were also able to redeem 6,000 of the roughly 40,000 plastic water bottles served at Slope Day, and proceeds from the redemption will help fund a field trip to the museums of Rochester, New York, for a local fifth grade class

Touching everyone, one choice at a time

Kim is looking forward to even bigger successes ahead, as the word spreads and Cornell’s culture of sustainability creates new ways of thinking and behaving at Big Red events. One hugely successful initiative is the Cornell Free Food Group on Groupme. Catering managers at campus events take stock of the volume of food left as their event winds down. They then send out a message to the group letting members know that there’s free food available at a specified time and location.

Mix & Mingle event-sustainable event
Sustainability Mix & Mingle attendees Careen Arsenault and Mike Hoffmann enjoying themselves at a Platinum-rated sustainable event, using washable plates, glasses, finger food and more...

“It’s been super effective in getting 5 or 10 people to show up within 5 or 10 minutes and eat the leftovers,” Kim says.

“The response is very quick,” Careen adds.

The group now boasts a few thousand members, and Kim and Careen will continue to promote this option at their sustainable events workshops, so that leftover food doesn’t go to waste.

For those planning events at home, Careen suggests the following tips to green your next party:

  1. Try to have as little leftover food as possible. Plan ahead by getting RSVPs.
  2. Serve local food and consider plant-based menu options.
  3. Try not to use plastic and use reusables as much as possible.
  4. No bottled water. Try to use big containers of beverages rather than individual containers.
  5. Consider sustainable gifts like plants and use fabric or blankets instead of wrapping paper.

Peruse Cornell’s Sustainable Events checklist for more great ideas to green your next event.