A fair-goer drops off some trash at one of the Evergreen State Fair’s many zero waste stations during opening day Thursday, August 24, 2023, in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A fair-goer drops off some trash at one of the Evergreen State Fair’s many zero waste stations during opening day Thursday, August 24, 2023, in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Evergreen State Fair aims for zero waste, with mixed results

Program leaders had hoped to reroute all of the fair’s waste from landfills. Almost a decade later, they’ve achieved 45%.

MONROE — When the Evergreen State Fair’s zero waste program began in 2014, county officials had an ambitious goal: divert 100% of the event’s waste from landfills in the next three years.

It’s an objective still advertised on the program’s website.

Nine years later, local sustainability leaders acknowledge that goal was not realistic.

Even so, the program has helped keep approximately 45% of the fair’s total waste out of landfills each year. Molly Beeman, the Snohomish County energy and sustainability manager, said the county hasn’t set a new target year to achieve zero waste. Only a year into her role, Beeman said her office plans to collect more data before modifying the program. Beeman said she still considers current waste-reduction efforts a success at the fair.

“If we can divert even half of what happens at a large-scale social event, we’re making some serious headway,” she said.

About 245 tons of garbage from the fairgrounds were going to landfills before 2014.

Studies conducted prior to 2014 confirmed the 12-day fair generated “a significant portion” of Snohomish County’s total annual waste, said Beeman’s predecessor, Lisa Dulude.

So the county’s Office of Energy and Sustainability partnered with the Parks and Recreation Department to make a plan to reduce waste at the fair by recycling and composting. In the first year of the zero waste program, the county placed 30 zero waste stations with three color-coded bins throughout the fairgrounds: gray for landfill, blue for recycling and green for food and other compostable items. They posted signs at the waste stations with pictures of trash typically sorted into each bin, as well.

County parks also hired six zero waste “educators” to monitor the stations and ensure attendees placed waste in the correct bins.

“If we’re not educating the public, that’s also taking away from our zero waste goal,” Dulude said.

By the program’s second year in 2015, the number of waste stations and educators more than doubled. The waste stations are still there — close to 100 of them. Program leaders also had water bottle refilling stations installed throughout the park, and food vendors were required to offer compostable tableware like plates, cups and utensils. A food service representative stocked with compostable materials was stationed at the fairgrounds, so vendors could purchase the materials on site, Dulude said.

In the early years of the program, when the fair still attracted 350,000 people on average, up to 50 tons of waste were rerouted from landfills. Last year, when fair attendance was about two-thirds of normal, it was only 8½ tons.

The fair no longer hires educators to monitor the waste stations, though at its peak, the program had 30 employees. Beeman said the educators’ presence has been less necessary in recent years because people are more aware of how to organize waste. Program leaders also never intended for educators to have a permanent presence at the event, she said.

“We aimed to create a waste diversion system at the fair, educate fairgoers for three years and have an ongoing waste diversion program in place,” all of which the county has accomplished, Beeman said. “The ongoing goal is to continue the program and monitor the results.”

The food court begins to swell with customers as people grab lunch during opening day of the Evergreen State Fair on Thursday, August 24, 2023, in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The food court begins to swell with customers as people grab lunch during opening day of the Evergreen State Fair on Thursday, August 24, 2023, in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

There isn’t a food service representative on site anymore, either, Beeman said. She still meets with the rep before the fair starts to make sure vendors have everything they need. However, she said most vendors who operate in Washington are used to providing compostable flatware and dishes now — especially as it is encouraged in the state’s 2022 Organics Management Law.

Anthony Reed, who was working Ola Mae’s Southern BBQ stand on the fair’s opening day this year, said this was the business’ first time at the fair, but when operating at other events, his staff has “always” been required to have compostable materials.

Livestock are big waste producers at the state fair, too. Until 2014, wood chips, straw bedding and other animal waste accounted for about 85% of the fairground’s total waste. After the initiative began, animal waste was initially sent to the Qualco Biodigester plant in Monroe, where it was turned into renewable energy and fertilizer. Now Topsoils Northwest Inc. in Snohomish and Wetlands Creation Inc. in Monroe collect manure, wood shavings and straw bedding for recycling.

Dulude, now the University of Washington’s director of sustainability, said zero waste goals are complex. It is impossible to make sure 100% of waste is going into the right bins during a large-scale event like the fair, she said.

Most experts define a successful program as diverting 90% of waste from landfills, because 100% is such a lofty goal.

On a finite planet, though, with limited space, Beeman said, the concept of throwing things “away” isn’t sustainable:

“There really isn’t an ‘away’ for this stuff.”

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine reports on the environment and climate change for The Daily Herald. Her journalism is supported by the Herald’s Environmental and Climate Reporting Fund. Learn more and donate: heraldnet.com/climate-fund.

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