Zero Waste Events Are the New Normal

Two garbage cans.

By Cheryl Scott and Sally Stovall

In the past, the list of zero waste events in the Oak Park/River Forest area could be counted on one hand, but now zero waste events are the new normal.

Zero waste events (those that generate less landfill waste through reducing, recycling and composting) in the area include the Oak Park Micro Brew Review, the One Earth Film Fest, Oak Park’s Great Food Truck Rally, the Good Life Race in Oak Park, green block parties in Oak Park and River Forest, the LemonAid annual fundraiser in River Forest, farmers market events, the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry fundraiser, and the list goes on. Green Community Connections wanted to know more about these events and how they came to be “zero waste.”

Park District of Oak Park Events

The Park District of Oak Park’s zero waste events include Concerts in the Park, which runs for 11 weeks, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Race, said Special Events Supervisor Susan Crane. The Park District started the zero waste efforts in 2016 with Concerts in the Park, as part of the District’s sustainability efforts and work with the Greening Advisory Committee, a committee that acts as a liaison between the Park District and the community and assists in identifying projects.

“It is a great way to educate the community on how they can help by recycling and composting at their own home,” Susan said. “It does reduce our waste expenses as well as what gets sent to the landfill. It is one of many ways we are trying to help protect Mother Earth.”

Greening Advisory Committee members recruited volunteers for each of the 11 weeks of the concert series to help with three sorting bin locations at Scoville Park, Susan said.

“Volunteers are critical for the success of this program to educate and keep the recyclables and compostables from becoming contaminated.”

River Forest Green Block Parties

River Forest introduced the green block party program in 2012, according to Sue Crothers, founder of the River Forest green block parties and Sustainability Commission member. The River Forest Parks Foundation board thought of the idea as a way to educate residents on sustainable practices.

“We identified that block parties are a great opportunity to connect with many residents or multiple generations, in a relaxed and fun atmosphere,” Sue said.

The River Forest green block parties also stemmed from the 2011 PlanItGreen Oak Park River Forest Sustainability Plan and were funded by a grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

The green block parties started with free compost education, a raffle to give away a free Earth Machine compost bin to each block, and discount vouchers for Earth Machine bins, Sue said.

When the Village of River Forest started a curbside composting program in 2015, the green block party volunteers explained the program to residents and raffled off a free one-year subscription to the program. In 2016, the block parties evolved again by introducing zero waste stations which residents could use to sort their own waste, if they had been trained to do so at previous block parties.

Zero waste stations that separate trash, recyclables and compostable items can be borrowed for free from the Village for block parties or events by registering at the Village’s website at

When residents apply for block party permits, they must choose if they want a green block party. From 2014-2017, 62 percent of all River Forest block parties were green block parties, according to Sue.

Housing Forward/PADS

Housing Forward, which runs the PADS shelter program, switched from using Styrofoam dining materials to more sustainable options after being approached by the Interfaith Green Network last summer, said Janet Gow, director of development and communications. Housing Forward received a $2,500 grant from the Interfaith Green Network to begin the initiative in four out of nine shelter sites.

The PADS Shelter, the seasonal program that operates from mid-September to mid-May, is using compostable plates, cups, and bowls. During the Transitional Shelter from June to August, PADS is using standard, washable dinnerware.

“We’re thrilled to be doing our part to reduce landfill waste,” Janet said. Volunteers help shelter clients understand the new process, and participation continues to increase.


River Forest’s LemonAid charity lemonade stand experienced more success each year since becoming a zero waste event in 2013, said Katie Brennan, event volunteer and River Forest Sustainability Commission Chair. The event diverted 93% of waste from landfills in 2017.

“I noticed that the zero waste concept seemed more ‘natural’ and fluid this year,” Brennan said. “Perhaps our staff is more experienced, attendees are more used to the trash sorting concept, and we’ve worked some of the kinks out of the system.”

One method that works for Katie is to tape a sample of each type of trash to a bin so that people can have a visual of which item goes into which bin. Volunteers redistribute the trash if certain items are mistakenly placed in the wrong bin, and then place all the trash on a tarp inside an empty garage to weigh the amount of trash being diverted from the landfills.

When asked about zero waste events becoming the new standard in the area, Katie said, “There is plenty of room to expand … permanent zero waste bins could be strategically placed around Oak Park and River Forest.”

Tips For Hosting a Zero Waste Event

Mindy Agnew, who coordinates the Zero Waste Events and Block Parties requested through the Village of Oak Park (80 events in 2017), offered a few tips on hosting zero waste events:

  • Sorting of items is easiest for attendees to understand if bins are clearly marked and if reusables, recyclables, and compostables are used.

  • Make announcements before and during events.

  • If using caterers, tell them ahead of time to use compostables, or use your own stock of reusables/compostables and tell them not to bring anything.

  • Encourage more to take action and host their own zero waste event.

To find more information on zero waste events, go to the “Zero Waste Event Planning Guide,” which was produced by Seven Generations Ahead:

To sign up for curbside composting and divert items from the landfill every day at home, go to the Village of Oak Park website at or the Village of River Forest website at