Eco-Friendly Singing

by Amy Finlay, PVADS chair 2007
Important update on compostable forks below.

New: find local composters, and certified compostable product, here.


Our large singing events are now organized as "Zero Waste" events, which means they are virtually trash-free.

We are making this happen by providing only biodegradable or recyclable items for the potluck dinner on the grounds. Instead of a trash can, we set out three unique collection containers side by side: a large Compost box/bag (where the vast majority of waste ends up), a standard blue Recycling bin, and a tiny Trash bin.

At our Summer 2007 PVAD Sing, we fed 150 people, and had less than 1/2 bag of trash at the end. The other 5 bags were composted and recycled. At our large 2008 WMSHC Convention, where we fed approximately 560 meals over two days, we saved 18 large bags of compostables and recyclables from going into a landfill.

The below guidelines show our full shopping list, costs, and organizing guidelines for going Zero Waste!

Follow these three steps to Go Green:

1) Find a place to Compost your stuff

Who does large-scale composting? Large colleges with landscape waste to compost; Smaller, environmentally committed colleges; Organic Farms; Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms; local Food Co-ops...I could think of several places to approach. The first place I called said yes! We are composting at Whole Foods Market in Hadley.* Remember to acknowledge your composting location in your thank-you's, especially if they are a business.

*For local singers only: contact Karen (known as "Kale"), at Whole Foods for advanced permission to drop off compost in Hadley, MA. (413)586-9932.

2) Buy compostable forks, plates, etc.

How much does it cost? All costs below worked out to $.46 per serving used. However, since this was our first time, we bought extra servings, and also bought some items which will last us for several events. So this first time cost us double. (More details on that price break down, at the bottom of this page.)

Our Pioneer Valley All-Day sing had a total of 150 servings. (107 registered singers, approximately 8 unregistered singers, and approximately 35 people at the social.) Below quantities are in reference to that sing, not our large convention. was our main supplier. Here's our shopping list:
  • biodegradable cutlery! (a certified compostable brand) (forks, knives and spoons). WARNING: lots of "biodegradable" forks contain plastic and are not, therefore, compostable. If the fork says "compostable" on the fork itself, that's a good sign. To be sure, you can use this directory of certified compostable products. I also would encourage you to consider washing re-usable forks if your hall provides them, or if your group wants to own them. Rental can be pricey.
    We used 170 forks, 15 spoons, and 15 knives (at the PVAD sing).
  • biodegradable paper hot cups Regular hot cups have a clear plastic coating inside. These have a corn-based lining. One tip: keep hot and cold drinks on different tables, so these pricier hot cups don't get used for juice and water!
    We used just under 100 hot cups for coffee and tea. (This was a summertime event. We used more hot cups at our winter event.)
  • Biodegradable trash bags. For lining our compost collection containers. 33 gallon ones are ideal to fit a 30-gallon lawn/leaf bag. These are also available in Whole Foods Market. Everywhere seems to charge an average of about $1 per bag. (If you find them cheap somewhere, let me know.)
    We would have used about 5 of this size for compost (we had 50-gallon bags this first time, and filled 3 of them).
Items I purchased elsewhere for economy:
  • Chinet Plates! These rigid, uncoated plates are common in stores, and are totally eco friendly (recycled paper content, no chlorine bleach, and compostable). They're nice and sturdy. Costco has them for $13.99/165 plates.
    We used about 265 plates.
  • Small 6" desert plates These are tiny plates, and flimsy enough that folks may want to double them up.
    We used one 100-pack. (People must have re-used their food plates for their desert. Awesome.)
  • Waxed paper cups are accepted by most large scale compost facilities, and are great for cold drinks needs. I found some 7 oz. ones at Stop & Shop. Here are some 10 oz. ones online (2,000 qty.). Waxed cups can be identified by scraping the interior coating with your fingernail. Even through the package, the wax will easily scrape off and form a visible wax flake. (The "nicer" paper cups are typically plastic-lined,a thin coating which doesn't scrape as easily or copiously as wax.)
    We used about 200 cups. (best guess, didn't get to count).
  • Napkins. Any will do. UPDATE: I used to worry about dioxin in chlorine bleached ones, but I've recently been informed that this is no longer an issue for US-made paper products. **
    We used about 250 of the standard 400-pack lunch napkins.
  • Compost collection containers . A large box or brown bag will do great. We opted for standard brown lawn/leaf bags, which stood up nicely on their own, with the top edge folded down. These are 30 gallon capacity generally, which is nice and big.
    We had two containers at the sing, and one at the social.

3) Create 3 sorting bins: recycling, composting, and trash

You'll need three DIFFERENT CONTAINER TYPES. If they look like trash cans, they'll be used like trash cans! For instance, one year we used trash cans with "recycling" signs on them for our recyclables, instead of the standard blue recycling bins. Sure enough people threw trash in them. So this year we chose our containers carefully. Blue bins for recyclables. Trash cans for trash. And something unique-looking for compostables (like a cardboard box). Color-coded signs helped reinforce the point.

  1. The blue bin is a huge asset: people recognize it immediately, so it's one less thing they'll have to think about! This Recycling Collection Sign (PDF) indicates commingled (mixed) recyclables. Absolutely keep your recyclables mixed, don't ask people to sort them into multiple bins, they've got enough to think about. A volunteer can sort them out later if need be.
  2. Avoid using a trash can for compost. A brown cardboard box is perfect, or a brown paper bag. We opted for large, brown paper lawn/leaf bags lined with biodegradable bags. In 2009 we're going a bit fancier with these boxes and these bags. (A slightly smaller and cheaper option would be these boxes and these bags.) We used this Compost Collection Sign (PDF) which shows examples of plates, cups, food, etc., being composted.
  3. Trash can go in any standard trash container. Label it "trash."
    UPDATE: We include a trash bin as a convenience for people who bring trash in with them. However, I learned at our recent WMSHC event that it's important to keep that trash bin tiny. When we provided a large trash bin, people assumed we anticipated it being filled. It definitely increased the amount of non-trash (compostables and recyclables) that were thrown away unnecessarily. Note to self: bring a few small black office waste bins next time for trash, and resist temptation to use the regular trash bins at the location.
4. Take a moment during the morning and pre-lunch announcements, to show them every type of cup, plate, napkin, etc. that you have at your sing, telling them that "Yes, these are all compostable." People really have to see it to believe it. If you omit showing a single type of cup, people will spend tortured moments worrying over the compostability of that one cup. Really. Just show it all.

"Everything we are providing for you today can be either composted or recycled! The only reason we even have a trash can here is because we know that people will bring their own trash in." This wording might also help people to get the idea.



Resources was my inspiration, and main resource. This is a place in Boulder that serves the entire city with compost collection: we're talking curb-side pick up, people! (Go Boulder!) They regularly help event coordinators organize zero-waste events, and I found their web site extremely helpful. I also got the name of their paper goods supplier, and that's where I bought the specialty biodegradable items.

Ecocycle's service is only one piece of a larger Zero Waste management model, which Boulder, San Francisco, and even entire nations, have adopted and are already implementing! This is large scale, and it is actually happening. Talk about exciting!

By demonstrating that Zero Waste is possible at our singing events, we will help educate people throughout this country. We may very well accelerate the rate at which the entire US switches to this common-sense model. Yay us!


More on our costs/figures for going green

I decided to invest in this personally, so I spent money up front to get some things (namely the forks, hot cups, and desert plates) in 1,000 quantity bulk at their cheaper rate. This, and buying extra quantities for a buffer, cost about $200 above the cost of what was used up at our 150-person all day sing, but I will be reimbursed down the line as those items are needed at future sings. In the mean time, the bulk savings were passed on to the community right away, cutting the cost of those three items nearly in half.

The cost of goods used at our 150/person sing was $69.13 worth, or $.46/ per serving. Costs of our larger event indicated a lower average of $.39/serving (not factoring in generous donations, see below).

Actual compostable goods costs for our large WMSHC convention was $157, or $.28/serving. This was thanks to a generous donation of 600 biodegradable hot cups from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters of Vermont. $.28/serving is cheaper than purchasig standard, non-biodegradable goods. Not a bad total bill, for an event that fed approximately 560*** meals over two days, and is one of the largest Shape Note events in the world!

I am keeping a generous stock on hand of these items, and charging the event only for items used. Here is my cost-per-item list online for reference: Cost Chart. I am happy to provide these at cost for any event, to anyone willing to pick up the goods in the Northampton/Amherst/Belchertown MA area. Call me to arrange this, or even if you just have questions: (413)256-3311.

Compost Stats

At our Summer 2007 PVAD Singing, we fed 150 people, and had less than 1/2 bag of trash at the end. The other 5 bags were composted and recycled.

Our recent Convention (WMSHC 2008), where we fed approximately 560 meals over two days, resulted in 11 bags of compostables, and 5 bags of recyclables (mostly 50-gallon bags!). We had at most 1 bag of actual trash, and approximately 3 bags* of non-trash which were thrown out due to the simple fact that we're all still learning what is in fact recyclable and compostable. The exciting thing about hosting events like this, though, is the fact that we are learning.


Here's the place where you can find out exactly what can and cannot be recycled in Western Mass. I found it to be in line with my town's requirements, which makes sense since this is where my town drops off its recyclables (along with 78 other towns in Western Mass--find out if your town is one of them.). That facility doesn't process plastic bags, but I called my local Stop & Shop, which collects plastic bags for recycling, and confirmed this to be true: Any type of plastic bag or wrap (think bread bags, zip lock bags, saran wrap...) can be dropped off at these plastic bag collection areas.

Finally, for the die-hard among us, check out page 2 of this document (PDF from above website) which tells you where you can send some kinds of styrofoam for recycling!, as well as computer disks, CD's, and a few other odd items often thought of as non-recyclable. Sweet!



*I've converted multiple smaller trash bags into equivalent 50 gallon sized bags, the size we used at this event for compost and recyclables.

**I have been told that chlorine bleach is no longer used in primary wood-pulp processing (the dioxin creating phase), but only in secondary processing (which does not result in dioxin). This information comes directly from my own correspondence with a paper pulp processor. If anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know.

***This figure is based on how many dinner plates were used up.

Sponsored by the nonprofit Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community, Inc.