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The Green Arena: How Spark went completely waste-free

Judith Clumpas, design strategist and special projects consultant at Spark Arena in Auckland, explains how the venue has radically tackled its single-use packaging issues

30 Jul 2019

Judith Clumpas, Spark Arena

Choose life. Choose a plant (preferably the waste product of agriculture); upcycle it into something we need (food and drink packaging); make our customers happy by serving their needs and delighting them with our attention to detail (quality products, ease of use); make it impossible for customers to stuff it up (take back control – sorry, you Brits!); make sure it gets composted (I said, make sure!); then send it back to the farms (or kiwi fruit orchards).

While deposit-scheme reusable cups and drink-bottle culture is on the rise in greenfield sites, in arenas we operate a different model in which hard objects are simply unacceptable. This has given rise to the proliferation of nasty plastic products, including polystyrene and laminated cartons, at indoor events, as well as the usual PET cups, polystyrene and soft plastic wrapping around foodstuffs.

Anyone remember Wall-E? Prophetic, huh?! The waste mountain is beginning to smother the Earth, and we need to do something. Now.

The good news is, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle actually works. Here at Spark Arena we have been composting EVERYTHING since last August: that’s a million PLA cups, lids and straws, plus countless thousands of bagasse/bamboo/paper food cartons, cutlery, napkins, etc.

Cross-contamination was a huge problem, so rather than try to solve it, we completely removed it. No matter how hard we tried, however beautiful and well-labelled the bins, however persuasive our social media campaigns, the fact is that punters are distracted, unobservant, disinterested and ultimately just there for the gig. Meaning they will always do the mindless thing: either dropping stuff on the floor or in the totally wrong bin. We have stood there and watched them do it: chips in the paper recycling, ice cream in the plastics…

So rather than add more bins, more sorting, we flipped the problem on its head and went with just the one bin. For everything. And with just one final destination: the Earth.

Taking a systems approach rather than a piecemeal one to procurement, catering, cleaning and waste management, we have created a waste-free environment for all concerts at Spark Arena. System design means taking full responsibility for inventory, how it is handled and where it ends up, and it can only be done if the venue is in control and has absolute clarity.

Taking a systems approach … we have created a waste-free environment for all concerts at Spark Arena

Getting it right is called the circular economy, which is an oft-misused phrase. Circular means plant back to plant. Cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave. The system design took into account:

  • Deliberate or unwitting use of packaging made from problematic materials
  • Cross-contamination of waste types by staff and customers
  • Lack of transparency and control in the procure-use-collect-dispose chain
  • An understanding of our local commercial composting facilities

We have to stop kidding ourselves that recycling is good, when it is only very slightly less bad. According to National Geographic, only 9% of plastics globally are actually recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, gets burned or ends up in the ocean. While the figures may be better where you are, the reality is truly appalling. We can’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with a product that calls itself “recyclable”. And don’t even get me started on the disingenuous use of the word “biodegradable”…

Our local compost facility regard us as a trusted supplier, having monitored our compostable waste and found it to be below the contamination threshold they can accept. The resulting compost is top-grade stuff, and in high demand. There is always the chance of contamination, so we do have some landfill bins for rogue items that get into the building, but we have managed to source ice creams and crisps in compostable packets now, too, and we have bulk-bought sweet items and repackage them in-house, so we have barely anything to send to landfill these days.

We even have straws. They are not the devil. They go in the compost.

We rolled out this system following my master’s of design in 2016, and my next step will be to use an action research methodology to test its efficacy in different scenarios and locations as part of my future PhD study into sustainability design for music events.

If you want to be part of the study or would like more details, please email me at jclumpas@sparkarena.co.nz.


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