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Zero Waste Events

zero waste event illustrationUT is working to become a Zero Waste institution, with the goal of diverting 50% of our waste from the landfill by 2030. Make your event Zero Waste and help us achieve that goal!

The biggest step in making your event a success takes place during the planning process. Please fill out the form below to get started or contact with any questions. 

Zero Waste Event Request Form

Zero Waste Event Planning Guide

Making your event “Zero Waste” (reducing total waste generated and diverting 90% of remaining waste from the landfill through recycling and composting) is the single most impactful thing you have control over as an event planner to make your event more sustainable. 

  • Submit the Zero Waste Event Request Form at the bottom of this page, even if you have already indicated a “Zero Waste” option on Ad Astra or CaterTrax.
  • Explain your Zero Waste commitment to your caterer and all others involved in the event planning process (we are happy to help with this, but it is usually more effective coming from the event planner). Ensure all food service and event materials are reusable, compostable, or recyclable by addressing each of these items below with your catering contact:
    • Items to Use:

      • Reusable or Compostable Utensils
      • Reusable or Compostable Plates
      • Reusable or Compostable cups for hot beverages (coffee, hot chocolate, etc.)
        • Plastic coffee stirrers are always the default, but reusable spoons and compostable wooden stirrers are available from Vol Dining upon request
      • Reusable, compostable, or plastic recyclable cups for cold beverages
      • Bulk packaging for items like water, tea, sugar, condiments, butter, dressing, etc.



      Items to Avoid:

      • Plastic bags/wrapping
        • If this cannot be avoided and there will be a lot of it, let us know and we can bring a specific bin to recycle the material. It cannot be placed with mixed recycling!
      • Paper cups (these have a plastic lining that can be neither recycled nor composted)
      • Aluminum Foil
      • Foil-lined bags (candy wrappers/chip bags)
        • Ask for self-serve chip bowls instead of individual bags
      • Straws
        • Make these a request-only item for guests of different abilities
      • Styrofoam
      • Individually packaged cutlery

  • Talk to your caterer about the possibility of donating uneaten food from your event to community members in need. Email for assistance coordinating this the day of the event.
  •  Sometimes there isn’t an easy right decision, but it’s helpful to know what things are more sustainable:
    • Large plastic jugs (drink dispensers are filled from these as well) > cans > plastic bottles
    • Reusable cups > compostable cups > plastic cups > paper cups (lined with plastic and not recyclable)
    • Reusable cutlery > bulk compostable cutlery > bulk plastic cutlery (not recyclable) > individually wrapped cutlery
      • You can avoid the issue of cutlery altogether by choosing finger foods or items on compostable wooden skewers! Catering is always happy to help you adapt menu items to suit your event needs.



  • Use reusable tablecloths. Rent tablecloths through VolDining or consider purchasing a set for annual events to save money. The plastic disposable kind are not recyclable.
  • Eliminate paper tickets, programs, and schedules. Instead, send all information via email or utilize event planning apps like Guidebook or Whova.
  • If providing lanyard-style name tags/badge holders, ask attendees to return them at the end of the event for re-use the following year.
  • Avoid physical giveaway items when possible. Raffle off experiences instead!
    • Examples: tickets to a UT sporting event or show at the Clarence Brown Theater, gift cards to local restaurants, vouchers for Gatlinburg attractions
  • When physical giveaways must be purchased, keep dates, locations, and event names off items so that extras can be used for multiple occasions. Instead of placing one at every seat, make the giveaway optional so guests can choose to take an item only if they will actually use it.
    • Slightly more sustainable giveaway ideas: reusable water bottles or thermal mugs, recycled paper notepads, grocery totes, other relevant items with a higher use beyond simple promotion

  • Provide a substantial vegetarian or vegan meal option. Extra points for making the entire meal meatless!
    • Locate the green leaf symbol when ordering through Vol Dining.
  • Consult the Nourish Knoxville Local Foods Guide if choosing an off-campus caterer.
    • Locally sourced restaurants in Knox County are listed on pages 39-42.
  • Choose from the “Zero Waste-Friendly” Vol Dining menu items below:


Example Menu Items Sustainable Zero Waste-Friendly
The Winter Garden Grain Bowls/Platters

(Asian Grain Bowl, Mediterranean Grain Bowl, Lale Quinoa Panzanella Salad, and Build-Your-Own Ancho-Lime Portobello Burrito Bowl, Taco-Seasoned Ground Beef Burrito Bowl, and Southwestern Chicken Bowl)


Includes several vegetarian options

Choose the Build-Your-Own options rather than proportioned options

If one of the other options seems most appealing, request it be served as Build-Your-Own

Medi Eats Buffet

(Chicken Souvlaki Skewers, Falafel, Roasted Eggplant, Sauteed Spinach, Couscous, Pita)

Includes several vegetarian and vegan options

Served buffet style

You can make the menu even more Zero-Waste by modifying it to only include items, such as the eggplant, that can also be put on skewers or eaten as finger foods
Ultimate Breakfast

(Breakfast Pastries, Scrambled Eggs, Cheddar and Onion Frittata, Crisp Bacon, Breakfast Sausage, Pancakes with Butter and Syrup, Breakfast Potatoes, Fresh Seasonal Sliced Fruit, Assorted Juices and Bottled Water and Coffee, Decaf and Hot Water with Tea Bags)

Seasonal fruit

Includes several vegetarian and vegan options

Request ice water instead of bottled

Ensure that the juices are not bottled and that the syrup is not individually packaged

Traditional Carving – Slow-Cooked Beef

(Slow-Cooked Beef served with Fresh Rolls and House-made Condiments: Roasted Garlic Aioli, Tarragon Horseradish and Pesto Mayonnaise)

Carving stations help reduce food wasted at the table

“House-made Condiments” means it will never be severed in individual packages!

With reusable or compostable service items, this is a perfect example of a Zero Waste meal item!
Heartland Buffet

(Baby Spinach Salad, Roasted New Potatoes, Fresh Herbed Vegetables, Grilled Lemon Rosemary Chicken, Bakery Fresh Rolls with Butter, Oreo Blondies and choice of Beverage)

Can be seasonal vegetables upon request With reusable or compostable service items and butter balls, this is a perfect example of a Zero Waste meal!

Many items could also be served on skewers upon request

  • Keep dates, times, and locations off of banners and other decorations so they can be reused each year.
  • Avoid balloons and confetti, as they are not recyclable or compostable.
  • Invest in centerpieces and decorations that can be reused or modified for different events:
    • Examples: flower vases; upholstered bulletin boards or frames for photos, event schedules, or informational cards; UT-themed decorations; etc.
    • Alternatively, use natural decor like fresh flowers or produce that guests can take home after the event.

  • Offset the emissions produced from your event by purchasing carbon offsets, renewable energy credits or donating to carbon sequestration projects.
  • Reduce electricity use.
    • Utilize natural light for daytime events and supplement with LED lighting as needed.
    • Avoid meeting during peak energy periods:
      • Winter 5 – 11am
      • Summer: 2 – 8pm
  • Encourage local attendees to use public transit, bike, or walk to the event.
    • Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) bus routes 10, 11, 17, and 42 run directly through campus.
    • The Orange Line of the free KAT trolley runs between campus and downtown.
    • PACE bike rentals and e-scooters are available throughout campus and the city.
  • Consider live-streaming conference sessions or video conferencing large meetings to cut travel emissions from non-local attendees.
  • There are lots of great outdoor and LEED-certified event spaces on campus if you are flexible on location. Find some of our favorites below:
    • Outdoor: HSS Amphitheater, Fred Brown Amphitheater, Student Union (Union Plaza and Cumberland Plaza), Ayres Lawn, Circle Park, Claxton Courtyard, Ferris and Perkins Engineering Quad, Fiji Island, Greve Courtyard, Massey Courtyard, Melrose Courtyard, Pedestrian Walkway, Presidential Courtyard, REC Sports Fields, Sorority Village Tree Park
    • LEED Certified Buildings or Equivalent: Ayres Hall, Haslam Music, Student Union, Fred Brown, JIAM, Min Kao, Baker Center

  • Ask us for our “Zero Waste Event Stamp” to add to your promotional materials.
  • Advertise on the digital sign boards around campus to cut down on printed flyers (we can help with this if needed).
  • Ask us for our standard Zero Waste Event Signs to hang around your event or on the catering table to let guests know what to do with their waste.
    • We can personalize these with specific waste station locations or other instructions upon request.
  • Include an invitation to attendees to bring a reusable water bottle and cutlery to the event on all promotional materials.

  • Reflect on what went well and what didn’t and make notes for next year.
  • Share your successes! Be it with us, with your supervisor, or on your office’s social media accounts, let others know about your efforts. You never know who else you may inspire to make their next event a little more sustainable!

Zero Waste Event Request Form