By Abby Neff | AmeriCorps VISTA
When Tyler Bonner served as an AmeriCorps member on Rural Action’s Zero Waste team, he started by helping local events come up with creative ways to mitigate waste. Once Kyle O’Keefe, the founder of the Zero Waste program, got a job in Columbus during his second term, Bonner became the point of contact for zero waste coordination for events like the Pawpaw Festival, Nelsonville Music Festival and the Number Fest.
“At the end of my term of service, all of that knowledge and those partnerships were going to sort of be walking out the door with me,” Bonner said.
That’s when he pitched waste mitigation at festivals as a viable business to Michelle Decker, the former CEO of Rural Action. He proposed that if Rural Action worked with enough event partners throughout the year, it could fund his position and potential social enterprise. Decker was “all about it.”
“I put my full weight behind Zero Waste Event Productions,” he said.
Rural Action brought Bonner, who is ZWEP’s CEO, under its umbrella as an employee in 2015. Since then, the organization has become a separate LLC from the non-profit organization but still owns some percentage of the business.
Lewis Preston, the business’ chief administrative officer, joined ZWEP in 2021. He previously worked with a different festival waste company, where he witnessed how festival attendees were treating the campgrounds.
“When it came time to clean up afterwards, the impact of seeing the campgrounds just completely wrecked really put in perspective for me the community I was trying to support and how they treated these festivals that I was going to,” Preston said.
The team is made up of four worker-owners: Bonner, Preston, Shannon Pratt-Harrington and Austin Wheeler. ZWEP also hires contractors, seasonal workers and, of course, volunteers.
“It takes a very special time for a person to do the work, which is pretty intense, but also to keep a smile on your face and have a good time while you’re doing it,” Bonner said. “We have a lot of people come and try it out and then never come back.”
Some people who either contract or volunteer at several events with ZWEP say it’s the hardest work they’ve done in their life. Bonner thinks it’s a good litmus test to filter for the kind of people that will be fit not only with the job, but for traveling on the road week after week while also living in close quarters and stressful circumstances.
“During the work, we have to lean on each other a lot, because it is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility,” Preston said.
According to ZWEP’s statistics, the team has diverted over a half a million pounds of waste from landfills since 2015. They have worked with 194 events and have reached over 470,000 festival attendees.
Bonner said the vast majority of people who volunteer with ZWEP do so because they are a part of the festival community, so they’re willing to trade their time for a free ticket.
“Not everybody has the income to support not just a week off work, but a week where you’re spending a ton of money, so I think it levels the playing field so that there’s a little bit more equal access for folks,” he said.
Sometimes, festival volunteers are randomly assigned to work with ZWEP and are reluctant to get their hands dirty on the conveyor belt. Within minutes, not only does their demeanor change, but their opinion of ZWEP’s work changes. They’re asking questions and by the end of their shift are willing to come back.
Both Bonner and Preston agree that ZWEP has “a unique ability to attract some of the best people on the planet to do this.”
“It’s almost cliché at this point, but festivals are an important part of the human experience,” Bonner said. “We need to celebrate but we need to learn to celebrate sustainably.”