October 22, 2008 | General

Whole Earth Festival Creates Diversion Culture

BioCycle October 2008, Vol. 49, No. 10, p. 32
Annual event in Davis, California has evolved into a Zero Waste model with over 97 percent of its collections recycled in 2008. The latest twist is a reusable dish program.
Derek Downey

THE Whole Earth Festival (WEF) is a free annual public event that takes place over three days on Mother’s Day weekend on the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) campus. The event, now attracting over 30,000 people, is planned and coordinated by a group of students with the help of a huge volunteer crew called the Karma Patrol. It brings together music, vegetarian food, appropriate technology and education for a holistic festival experience open to all.
WEF’s origins go back to 1969 when an art class taught by Jose Arguelles had an “Art Happening” on the UC Davis Quad. In 1971, the “Happening” took on the name “Whole Earth” after the United Nations had declared the first Earth Day. The festival later became a unit of the Associated Students of UC Davis (ASUCD) and is now one of only two economically self-sustaining ASUCD units.
A much emphasized aspect of WEF is its integrated solid waste prevention plan for minimizing waste generation at the festival while educating festival goers on ways they can lower their own ecological footprint. Today, the festival reaches diversion rates as high as 98 percent and continues to find ways to reach the ultimate goal of Zero Waste.
WEF recycling began in the 1980s, diverting about 25 to 35 percent of materials (mostly cans and bottles). In 1994, Corvin Brown, known by many as the “Compost King,” started the WEF Composting program, which quickly raised the festival’s diversion rate to over 70 percent. Brown and all the recycling coordinators since then have worked with Susan Cummings, the UC Davis Environmental Health and Safety Specialist, and Mark Van Horn, Director of the UC Davis Student Farm, to plan the collection of food scraps and paper plates/napkins at the event. Composting of those materials is done at the Student Farm.
In 1999, biodegradable utensils and dishes made their first appearance at all food vendor booths, as reported by Harold Leverenz and Mark Van Horn in a September 1999 BioCycle article, “Zero Waste Goal: Minimizing Festival Trash.” By 2000, the second year of using biodegradables, the diversion rate reached its then highest level of 86 percent. A reusable dish program was added in 2002 and, coupled with some other innovative additions, led to diversion rates between 95 to 98 percent for the next six consecutive years to the present (Table 1).
In 2008, WEF had 18 food vendors as well as an on-campus restaurant participating. Letters to food vendors were sent prior to the festival and they agreed not to bring disposable dishes, silverware, beverage containers, etc. of any kind. However, they were allowed to bring compostable dishware in case the reusable program could not keep up with demand. Vendors also were provided with strategies to minimize their resource use and were encouraged to utilize “finger” foods and napkins rather than plates when possible.
The UC Davis Grounds Division supplied all the collection containers for the festival. Each food vendor was provided with compost and recycling containers (65 and 90 gallon toter bins) and was educated on acceptable items beforehand. Festival visitors were not given the option to “throw away trash,” since there were no trash bins on the Quad and immediate surrounding areas within the Zero Waste Zone. Instead, recovery stations were set up that included receptacles for recyclables (mixed) and compostables. Most recovery stations were actually existing recycling/trash containers (Windsors) that were relabeled and spaced apart along the perimeter of the festival.
Two recovery stations were used in each vendor area. Vendors also had access to several 6-cubic yard dumpsters for collecting clean and waxed cardboard separately throughout the event. Near the sorting area, several more 6-yard dumpsters were set up and designated for cardboard or trash, and one 30-yard container was used for sorted compostables. Sorted items were placed into the appropriate dumpsters for eventual transport by a university employee to the landfill, compost piles or cardboard recycling center. All other recyclable items were stored in 90-gallon toters, which were picked up by Davis Waste Removal and taken to its recycling facility after the festival ended.
A team of volunteers was in charge of roving the festival grounds to monitor the recovery stations and change out containers before they filled up. Full bins were rolled to the sorting area. Several recovery stations at the interior of the festival were slightly harder to monitor and manage, but were considered necessary to prevent littering in those areas. A potential change to this system in future years may be the placement of volunteers at each recovery station to prevent contaminants from getting into the compost containers, thereby reducing time needed for sorting.
Most of the recovery station containers were hand sorted on custom built sorting tables surrounded by an assortment of bins for placing the sorted materials. During any one shift, a team of volunteers would dump the materials onto the table and sort into one of the following categories: compostables, refundable aluminum (container deposit), refundable and nonrefundable plastic #1 and #2, plastic #3-7, clean cardboard, waxy cardboard, glass, other metals, clean paper, and trash. There was also a container for reusable items (dishes, fixable crafts, etc.). This proved to be an extremely educational tool, especially for the volunteers.
Many of the compost collection containers did not need to be sorted, but the ones that did were sorted into a container for waxy cardboard and paper (destined for Jepson Prairie Organics Recycling facility) or a container for food scraps for Project Compost.
The majority of food scraps are taken to the Student Farm located on campus, where Project Compost manages its tractor turned aerobic windrows. An equal amount of straw is used as a bulking agent and high carbon component; the windrows, about 12 feet wide, are managed in accordance with California Certified Organic Farmers standards for temperature and turning schedules. After two months of active turning, the piles are ready for curing, with compost distributed to several gardens on campus.
The primary contaminants in the biodegradable stream were plastics. The trash component consisted mostly of nonrecyclable plastics (wrappers, bags, straws), Styrofoam cups and diapers, as well as other items carried into the festival. Despite colorful labels on all the recovery stations, many people disregarded the labels and misused the containers. Even after sorting, contaminants could be found in small amounts in the finished compost product months after the festival. Table 2 provides a breakdown of tons of various materials (resources) collected during the 2008 festival.
Colorful, hand-painted reused wood signs were placed all over the festival grounds to educate attendees about the zero waste program and how to participate. The entrances to the festival had signs welcoming people into the “Zero Waste Zone.” People also were encouraged to check out the Resource Recovery Zone where the sorting tables were located to learn more about the different recycling streams and help sort.
During the festival, Project Compost held two free compost workshops. It also set up a compost demonstration site to teach attendees how to start their own compost piles or worm bins at home.
Though diversion was high, festival staff sought to fully eliminate the concept of disposability at WEF and determined that an improvement over using biodegradables was to adopt a reusable dish program that would connect attendees with their responsibility for the resources they consume. Thus, in 2002, Max Cadji, a recycling coordinator for WEF, helped form the Whole Earth Reusable Cooperative (WERC) with the purchase of a large set of reusable dishware, including plates, cups, chopsticks and utensils. The purchase was made possible through a grant from ASUCD and partially from surplus capital acquired from the existence of the festival over the prior 30 years. Purchasing the reusable items wholesale and through university affiliated distributors saved 50 percent off the retail cost. The current inventory includes 5,000 cups, 4,000 plates, 500 mugs, 3,000 spoons, and 4,000 forks. During the 2008 festival, each cup and plate was used approximately five times.
An institutional dishwasher, located in an adjacent food service building, was rented for the festival weekend. The cost of the dishwasher use was passed onto the participating food vendors at the festival through a dishwashing fee, based on relative booth size. The use of the reusable dishware saved the vendors money by eliminating the need to purchase relatively expensive biodegradable products.
To promote reusable dishware, single-use beverage containers (soda, water, etc.) were not sold at the event; instead, all beverages were sold in reusable cups. Additionally, two water stations were set up in the food areas to distribute purified water (free of charge); festival attendees were encouraged to fill their personal container or rent a cup from the reusable collection station.
To minimize dishware loss, WERC employs a deposit-refund system in which plates, cups, utensils and chopsticks are sold for a set deposit amount to food vendors in known quantities and packaged in sealed buckets and containers. The deposit is aimed to roughly mimic the replacement value of the item (plates-$1, cups-$1, mugs-$1.50, utensils-$0.50, chopsticks-$0.50). Vendors in turn charge an extra deposit for each beverage and meal served on WERC dishware based on the same rates above. Customers must return their dishware to one of the dish return booths where their deposit is refunded in cash. Signage at each vendor booth explains the reusable dish system. An important aspect of this system is that ASUCD provides a huge cash loan before the festival even begins and works with WERC coordinators throughout the weekend to help ensure smooth money exchanges.
The life cycle cost (environmental footprint) of the reusable dish program and dishwashing continues to be evaluated, especially when compared with using biodegradables. Some important considerations are: 1) During the three day event, each plate and cup was used approximately five times; 2) Public education on waste and other environmental issues is a major objective; and 3) Dishware is used at campus events throughout the year as a replacement for disposables. In addition, the public response was overwhelmingly positive regarding the reusable dishware system. Negative factors to consider are the energy and water required to run the dishwasher. A reusable dish system, however, leads to reductions in resource extraction, manufacture and transport of disposables (biodegradable or not) as well as the reduced need for postconsumer waste management services and activities.
Overall, Whole Earth Festival attendees are presented with an alternative system of waste management in which reusability (not disposability) is the only option as no disposable items are used and no receptacles are labeled as trash. By placing social responsibility into the hands of the consumer, sorting time was reduced, recovery receptacles were managed less and clean up made easier, all while performing an educational function. Some festival patrons even take the initiative now to bring in their own reusable dishware. It is this philosophy that is central to the Whole Earth Festival, which is close to Zero Waste.
Derek Downey is a Senior Biological Systems Engineering student at UC Davis who has volunteered for WEF the last four years, including two as the Compost and Recycling Director. He can be reached at
Sidebar page 34
Spawning Diversion
THE Whole Earth Festival (WEF) provides University of California Davis students with the inspiration to compost and recycle more. In 2001, Max Cadji, one of the recycling coordinators for WEF, founded Project Compost, a student run group that handles not only the compost fraction of the WEF resource stream, but also operates the collection and composting of all preconsumer organics (food scraps, coffee grounds, etc.) at UC Davis the entire year. This initiative amounts to composting over 250 tons/year. Project Compost also gives free compost workshops throughout the year, including at WEF, and manages a worm farm from which it gives out composting worms.
With inspiration from WEF Zero Waste and the leadership of Mike Siminitus, 2005 festival recycling director, the university-run R4 Recycling program started its own zero waste campaigns for many school events and created two staff positions for students to organize zero waste on campus. It has succeeded with diversion numbers over 90 percent for many events, including some with more than 5,000 people. R4 Recycling’s Zero Waste Program was chosen by the USEPA to receive its 2005 Region 9 Environmental Achievement Award.

Sign up