UM-Dearborn hosted its first public ‘Zero Waste’ event

January 25, 2023

The recent exhibition opening at the Stamelos Gallery Center diverted 96% of total waste from the landfill.

Three people give a thumbs up standing in front of compost and recycling bins
UM-Dearborn’s new Sustainability Programs Coordinator Grace Maves (center) was part of the team that organized the first public Zero Waste event on campus. Photo by Rudra Mehta

The opening of the new exhibition at the Mardigian Library’s Stamelos Gallery Center looked much like past opening nights. But if you looked closely, you’d have noticed a few noteworthy differences. The hors d'oeuvres menu was carefully planned to exclude packaging, like cupcake wrappers and dessert cups. Public trash bins were nowhere in sight, though recycling and compost receptacles were abundant and clearly marked. Hovering near each of those bins, six volunteer “waste goalies” stood guard to help folks direct their food scraps and recyclables to the right spots.

These subtle upgrades were part of an effort to make the exhibition opening the very first public Zero Waste event on campus. UM-Dearborn’s new Sustainability Programs Coordinator Grace Maves notes that Zero Waste events typically aren’t as absolutist as the name suggests. Understanding that a small amount of waste may not be recyclable or compostable, the target is often to divert more than 90 percent from the landfill. Even hitting that mark requires some careful planning. For the exhibition opening, for example, Maves, Art Curator and Gallery Manager Laura Cotton and Library Director Jean Song, who’s been looking for creative ways to make the library more sustainable, started by auditing all the consumables they’d have at the event. They picked menu items that emphasized fresh rather than prepackaged foods. They worked with the university’s longtime catering partner, Picasso Restaurant Group, to make sure they were covered on compostable cutlery, dinnerware and wine glasses. They double checked that the cream for coffee would be served in reusable pitchers rather than individual, unrecyclable creamer cups, and that the wine they chose had recyclable metal caps instead of corks. They even verified that the specific brand of dinnerware at the event could be handled by the compost facility they had contracted with. Song says the fact that Picasso already emphasizes reusable and compostable items made planning a breeze. 

Maves says the other big part of pulling off a Zero Waste event is making sure that the waste that people are producing throughout the night ends up in the right spot. “Publicly accessible compost bins are not very common, so a lot of times, people may just not know what items are compostable and which are recyclable,” Maves says. “So, for example, compostable forks, those feel like plastic, so most people want to automatically put that in the recycling.” To help folks out, they made announcements at the event and included lots of educational signage. The waste goalies were the last line of defense. “I would say our volunteers were absolutely necessary,” Maves says, noting that folks needed direction “pretty much every time” they headed toward the composting and recycling bins.

Maves gives the first Zero Waste event high marks. The team succeeded in diverting 96 percent of the waste away from the landfill, and they didn’t run into any unexpected snags. Coming off that success, she hopes to support several more public Zero Waste events on campus this year, and produce a “how-to kit” for campus units that, say, want to make their next office party Zero Waste. Maves notes that food-based events present an especially good opportunity, as food scraps that end up in landfills break down to form methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.


Want to learn more about making your next campus event Zero Waste? Sustainability Programs Coordinator Grace Maves would love to hear from you. If you’re interested in other things you can do to make campus — and your life — more sustainable, you’ll also want to check out the Planet Blue Ambassador program, which recently launched on the UM-Dearborn campus. Story by Lou Blouin.