The First Conference to Audit Its Litter


When Rubbish was selected to exhibit at the Startup Grind Global Conference on February 11–12, 2020 in Silicon Valley, we also became their sustainability partner, working with Startup Grind and the Fox Theatre Redwood City Team (Team Fox). Our goal was to make Startup Grind Global 2020 the first conference in the nation to audit their litter and quantify their litter footprint. As the largest independent startup community — actively educating, inspiring, and connecting 3.5 million founders in more than 600 chapters globally — it was no surprise to us that Startup Grind wanted to make a positive environmental difference for their attendees.

Especially today, when public health is paramount, an initiative like this not only reduces litter but also highlights the cleaners who work hard to make a clean conference possible.

A LED-lit smart trash picker upper (Rubbish Beam) in front of the Fox Theatre
Our Rubbish Beam lit up, in front of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City

During this two day conference, 1,993 pieces of litter were picked up, over 50 exhibitors signed a pledge to leave no litter behind, and less litter was left as a result. In addition to quantifying litter daily at the event, we created a way for attendees to report any urgent maintenance needs for the trash bins and bathrooms. QR codes we placed throughout the conference made it easy for everyone at Startup Grind to notify the Team Fox cleanup crew, and reduce cleanup time. The Startup Grind Conference was more sustainable, cleaner, and more enjoyable for attendees — and Team Fox now has a stronger environmental plan now in place!

Ernie Schmidt, Vice-President of Fox Theatre Productions and the Planning Commissioner for Redwood City, said it perfectly: “As a Community Leader, I have first-hand knowledge of the outstanding work our community does in keeping our city and our waters clean, but after learning about the creative way Rubbish has built upon other community’s efforts to keep their communities clean, I was excited to have them participate in this year’s Startup Grind Global conference and in turn share it with our great community in Redwood City.” To have cleaner and healthier communities, it takes teamwork.

An inforgraphic showing "How Much Litter Does a Conference Bring?"
Click to download this awesome infographic!

As we are all practicing social distancing and truly evaluating every interaction with germs, our team is working to build upon our learnings from Startup Grind to future events and conferences.

Our Gameplan
We wanted to empower Startup Grind attendees to make their experience more sustainable and make sure the influx of entrepreneurs left behind memorable experiences, not litter. We worked closely with Team Fox to make sure trash bins were positioned where they were most needed and provided metrics, issue maintenance, and resolution timing. We placed QR codes with GPS tags on trash bins and in bathrooms to alert of any maintenance needs. In total, 78 locations had the Rubbish reporting platform enabled.

An example of a QR code that can be posted in bathrooms that people can scan to report issues and get notifications when cleaned.
An example of our QR code and real-time reporting platform for Team Fox

Our team arrived at Redwood City on Saturday, 48 hours before the event. We walked Team Fox through our QR Platform, which crowdsourced alerts to the cleanup crew of any maintenance issues. We did a Rubbish Run — that’s what we call a survey of the street — to build a baseline map of litter in Redwood City. This allows us to better understand how the streets will change once Startup Grind begins.

There were 317 pieces of litter on the ground in the following breakdown:

A map showing litter on Sunday
Baseline litter map from Sunday evening

Going Live and the Opening Night Event
On Monday 2/10, Startup Grind hosted an event at the Fox Theatre. When the event was over, Rubbish went out on the street to pick up litter and see the impact made. Our three-person team cleaned up 622 pieces of litter. We found a lot of cups placed on top of garbage cans, instead of inside them!

A map showing significantly more litter on Monday
Litter map for Monday evening

Startup Grind Day 1: Tuesday 2/11/2020
The three tents at Startup Grind were filled with people, exchanging ideas and business cards. At the end of Tuesday, we did another Rubbish Run and picked up 886 pieces of litter. We noticed a lot of fliers in the Community Tent, where attendees gathered throughout the entire day. In addition, many restaurants placed their to-go menus on these tables at the end of the evening.

A map showing significantly more litter on Tuesday
Litter map for Tuesday evening

Rubbish asked our fellow exhibitors to sign a pledge, promising to pack up and take with them any materials. Over 50 companies in just a few hours got on board!

An excited Elena holding a clipboard with signatures of people pledging to take care of their trash
Rubbish co-founder, Elena, happy with all the signatures on our Rubbish anti-litter pledge

Startup Grind Day 2: Wednesday 2/12/2020
On the last day, we worked with Team Fox during the day to prepare for the breakdown of the tents and the trash from all the exhibitors. Additional trash cans were placed by the exits. After the conference was officially over, we did our last Rubbish Run and picked up 568 pieces of litter.

A map showing significantly more litter on Wednesday
Litter map for Wednesday evening


When people attend a conference, they throw things out — it’s normal. And, litter does increase during the conference — see the charts below. But, community is key! As the event came to a close, litter decreased because attendees reported issues, exhibitors tossed their trash, and the Team Fox cleanup crew was quick to respond to maintenance issues.

A pie chart showing the total litter breakdown. Most of the trash (37%) was paper
A pie chart representing the breakdown of litter for Startup Grind, by category
A stacked bar chart showing the litter collected by day by type. Most of the litter occured on Tuesday
A chart representing litter by category during Startup Grind, day over day

These were some of our findings, proving a couple of common assumptions:

  • The areas close to restaurants, maintained solely by the businesses during the event, were generally dirtier. Perhaps an extra hand would be helpful to them?
  • The areas with the most traffic were the most littered, especially in meeting spaces like benches or picnic tables.
  • On the last day, we noticed an increase in paper litter near the tents. This was driven by the marketing materials left behind.
  • To-go food containers, fliers, and business cards were the most common type of litter. Tobacco is a close second (normally, tobacco is over half of all litter picked up!)
  • Providing attendees and exhibitors an easy way to report issues was critical to maintaining a clean environment.

We are very proud that Startup Grind is the first event to take such a proactive approach to its footprint. Based on our findings and our belief that we will still need to do our part once we are able to congregate in groups again, Rubbish has created a list of suggestions to host a Litter Free and Sustainable Conference.

  1. MAKE A PLAN: Decide what your sustainability goals are as early as possible. Create multi-step goals so that you know what is attainable and what is a reach. Create a plan to reach as many people as possible.
  2. EDUCATE: Make your sustainability goals known to attendees, exhibitors and all of your staff ahead of time. If conference organizers pledge to improve their local impact and leave no trace, their attendees and exhibitors will follow! Digital awareness campaigns throughout the duration of the event remind attendees to be mindful.
  3. BE AGILE: Litter and attendee behavior changes from day-to-day. Where you place trash bins during setup may be different than where you may have them at the end of the conference. On the last day, move extra trash bins to the entrance of the conference, especially to where exhibitors are set up.
  4. GIVE CLEAR DIRECTION: Designate a cardboard drop off area for all exhibiting companies to place boxes. Request all boxes to be broken down for easier disposal.
  5. SIGNAGE MATTERS: Place signs on all picnic tables to remind people to discard their trash once they are finished eating or finished with their meeting. This can also be integrated into the conference app, if available.
  6. PREPARE FOR SMOKERS: 25% of all litter was tobacco. We ideally don’t want attendees to smoke but make sure to provide empty cigarette disposals.
  7. BE ACTIONABLE: Use a reporting system (like Rubbish!) for faster issue maintenance where attendees can report issues like overflowing trash cans and cleaners can make areas cleaned.
  8. UNDERSTAND THE YIN AND YANG OF FOOD: Place extra trash bins near fast-food restaurants and meeting places to prevent trash on the ground. In many cases, restaurants are not part of the event and may not participate in your plan so plan accordingly.
  9. METRICS MATTER: It’s vital to know how well you did or how much learning you can do for the future. Ensure your metrics can properly gauge your goals.
  10. REFLECT: As you reflect on a job well done, look at the areas that were surprising. What did you learn and what did you not expect to occur.

We #loverubbish, but litter can feel like an insurmountable and unhealthy problem. The insights from Startup Grind 2020 helped reinforce why litter trends are key to improvement and helped Startup Grind and Team Fox plan future events to meet their sustainability goals. We thank them for being our partner and look forward to working with them again!

Written by
Emin Israfil