California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary: Recycling at  Special Events

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As communities seek to reduce waste disposal, interest in diverting waste generated at public events has grown. Special events may be held at venues specifically designed to host such events (stadiums, fairgrounds, convention centers) or at venues designed for other uses (street fairs, road races).

Event organizers that have implemented recycling programs have had remarkable success at many venues. Examples include:

  • The Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California. The fairgrounds recycled 90 percent of its discards in 1998.
  • The 1998 Bay to Breakers footrace and Footstock, a post-race festival, held in San Francisco, California. Participants and attendees recycled approximately 8.5 tons of material in 1998.
  • The 1998 Classic Bike Tour in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The 5,000 riders recovered 95 percent of their discards through recycling and composting.
  • The 1999 Rib Run marathon in Kansas City, Missouri. Enthusiastic recyclers averaged less than one ounce of trash per participant. These included 2,300 runners, 300 junior marathoners, 500 volunteers, and many spectators.

The main elements of recycling at special events are:

  • Determining who will coordinate and implement the recycling efforts.
  • Evaluating event waste stream composition.
  • Assessing local markets for recyclable materials.
  • Designing a system for collecting, sorting, and transporting trash and recyclables.
  • Gathering support of the numerous parties involved, including event organizers and management, venue management, vendors serving the event, and waste haulers (as appropriate).
  • Educate and/or train recycling staff, vendors, attendees, and participants.

Often, the biggest challenge facing recyclers at special events is designing a system that will be convenient for users and that will eliminate contamination of collected materials. The need for convenient recycling opportunities is critical.

Locating public recycling areas near vendors and at event entrances and exits—and keeping the sorting required by patrons to a minimum—can enhance recycling convenience. Contamination is difficult to eliminate once started. Bins of contaminated recyclables can quickly become filled with trash because people ignore signs. Instead, they look inside trying to determine what goes in the bins.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Trash collection and disposal costs are a part of staging a special event. But integrating recycling into waste management systems does not necessarily increase total waste management costs.  Recycling can even save money for event organizers.

Recycling program costs include equipment, labor, transportation, tip fees, advertising, and administration. Revenues from the sale of recyclables and avoided disposal costs often offset program costs.

Additional equipment usually required for special event recycling includes recycling containers, roll-offs for storage, and signs.

Event organizers can often shift labor from trash programs to recycling programs. Even so, total waste management labor needs will likely be higher when handling event discards in multiple streams.  Event organizers can keep these costs in check by using volunteers.

Implementing a recycling program can cause overall waste management transportation costs to change. The change may be an increase or decrease, depending on recycling program characteristics and the existing waste management system. For example, if markets for recyclables are nearer than the waste disposal site used, total transportation costs may decrease, and vice versa.

Event recycling coordinators should make all decisions with an eye toward local markets. Markets for recyclable materials are often volatile, and materials may be recyclable in one region but not in another.  The sale of some commodities may generate income, but others may be revenue-neutral. Some will require a tip fee, which may be offset by resulting reductions in trash disposal costs.

Advertising recycling at special events can increase participation as well as costs. To minimize additional costs, include advertising about the recycling program in other messages promoting the event or seek a sponsor for the recycling program.

Because recycling programs are more complex than traditional waste disposal, implementation of recycling programs will generally increase administration costs. The need for recruiting and training staff and volunteers, managing contracts with recycling service providers, and additional program oversight can also increase program costs.

Many recyclable materials have value and can produce revenue. Aluminum, scrap metal, corrugated cardboard, and office paper have generally had a positive value, even at times when processors have charged tip fees for other commodities. In California and other “bottle bill” states, redemption of deposit containers can generate revenue much greater than the scrap value of the containers.

Recycling can help event organizers avoid some of the costs of purchasing materials at the venues. For example, organic materials collected at special events can become mulch and compost for the grounds.  Often savings in trash tip fees can offset all other program costs to create net dollar savings.

Tips for Replication

  • Begin planning recycling programs as early as possible.
  • Involve vendors in recycling program planning.
  • Perform a waste characterization study.
  • Constantly examine waste disposal content to identify opportunities for increased recycling.
  • Solicit volunteers to help with recycling and education efforts.
  • If possible, reward volunteers with free event passes, t-shirts, and/or refreshments. Another option is to make donations to the volunteer organizations whose members help with recycling.
  • Encourage the use of reusable and recyclable products in place of non-recyclable goods.
  • Locate recycling bins close to waste generation sources.
  • Include recycling opportunities at every trash disposal location.
  • Make sure recycling areas are well marked and easy to use.
  • Educate event staff, recycling program workers, vendors, and patrons about how to recycle and why it is important.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Washington, DC), prepared this summary.

The statements and conclusions in this summary are those of the contractor and not necessarily those of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), its employees, or the State of California. In addition, the data in this report was provided by local sources but not independently verified. The State and its contractors make no warranty, express or implied, and assume no liability for the information contained in this text. Any mention of commercial products, companies, or processes shall not be construed as an endorsement of such products or processes.

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Last updated: October 15, 2002
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