Confessions of a Fairgoer: Opinions on Sustainability


Michelle Peiffer

Michelle Peiffer

The Iowa State Fair

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to camp at the Iowa State Fair.

It was a perfect weekend to walk around the 435-acre fairgrounds (admittedly, that includes parking lots and all). The sun was out and there was a breeze to cool us off when the shade wasn’t available.

As a small town Iowa girl who was active in the local 4-H club, I’m proud of the fact that the Iowa State Fair has been ranked as one of the top events in the country. Attracting over a million visitors, it’s an unrivaled picture of all things Americana. The flashing lights of the Midway, the smells from the Cattle Barn, and the waist-busting variety of fried treats are what put Iowa on the map as the only state fair that’s included in the New York Times best-selling travel book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”

The Fair is the perfect place to meander about; I’m weaving in and out of the crowd, gazing at the attractions (and attendees) and occasionally treating myself to the smells that win the heart of my stomach. It wasn’t long before I visited the Iowa Pork Producers Booth for a Pork Chop on a Stick. A favorite treat of this year’s fair, I have the pork chop in hand and am happy that I’m not only supporting the local agriculture but I’m also enjoying one of the best tastes produced here in Iowa. Devouring my way down the chop with a conscious effort to not chomp right into the stick, I realize I’m almost at the bottom and still there’s no stick. Where is it, I wonder? I un-wrap the napkin-wrapped ‘stick’ and am surprised to find out that it doesn’t exist! What I’ve been holding onto the entire time has actually been the bone from the chop. I’m silently amazed at how perfectly this chop blends nature and function. What a perfect combination!

A Sustainable Fair Sensibility

Similar to the pilot project Green & Main, finding a balance between traditions and incorporating the needs of the present can easily go hand-in-hand. For example, when Cambria High School needed new gym floors, Green & Main was the perfect recipient to put the salvaged maple flooring to use. Unfortunately, things aren’t always so easy. Like the complicated nature of trying to blend the historic windows with energy efficiency, the pork chop on a stick was actually just one of a very few things at the fair that I would consider a good use of resources.

Trash compactors at the Iowa State Fair

Trash compactors at the Iowa State Fair

For example, trying to find one of the recycling bins at the Fair, I was acutely aware of the downside in creating such a large event. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generates 4.6 pounds of trash per day. For a million-visitor event such as this, that’s an estimated 4,600,000 pounds of waste generate from humans alone! It was pretty obvious that the majority of this was going to end up as landfill waste.

True, there were 200 recycling containers on the fairgrounds, but how exactly were they distributed over the 435 acres? When I did see a bin within eye sight, it was almost never placed near the garbage, which meant you had to walk to two different sites just to dispose of your waste in somewhat of a socially responsible manner. That’s a lot of work for unmotivated visitors. In fact, I was the only one in our group who took the initiative.  There were a few times when I offered to walk one of my friends’ cups to the recycling container instead of letting it end up in the garbage. This clearly wasn’t the norm; I got blank looks in response that made me think that they were quietly questioning whether or not I was an alien.

Lighted solar cubes at the Iowa State Fair

Lighted solar cubes at the Iowa State Fair

See, even though I am a small town girl from Iowa, I spent seven years living in the green city of Seattle. This is a place where you are fined if you put recyclables in the garbage. The Seattle Mariners Safeco Baseball Stadium not only has a water collection roof that uses the water collected in the winter to keep the field green during the summer, but it’s also almost 100% compostable – all the vendors use compostable products. When I tell people this (as I was lamenting over the amount of fair accumulated trash) they often get defensive or challenge me to ‘prove’ that sustainable initiatives actually do any good.  I’m completely baffled at how many people don’t care.

Truth is, I think many people assume that it’s too much work to put efforts into green initiatives. While that can definitely be true in some cases, technology and standards of practice are vastly improving. The compostable stance that the Seattle Mariners have taken actually simplifies the entire process. Instead of putting your recycling cup in one container and your waste in another, it all goes into one compostable container – program, beer cup, and hot dog container (with the hot dog, even).

So while there are a million visitors looking at Iowa’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement, why isn’t there more on sustainability? Iowa State University had an amazing booth focusing on their multitude of sustainable efforts. There’s also Expo Hill where they are in Phase 1 of an eco-friendly transformation. It’s marked by the giant MidAmerican windmill, a solar cooling bench, solar powered trash compactors and other green initiatives.

A Sustainable Wrap-up

These are great additions to the Fair, but I can’t help thinking about the aftermath. I’m sure a lot of the decisions revolve around economics and the ability to apply green initiatives throughout such a massive event, but isn’t this where we showcase our leaders of the future?  Isn’t this where we have the opportunity to educate our community and show the world how innovative Iowa is?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but when I go to the Fair next year I’m looking forward to seeing the green initiatives grow. Like the Green & Main project, I understand the challenges of blending practicality with ideology; it’s not something that can easily happen overnight. How we can effectively strike a balance between tradition and green technology will come from a change in how we invest our actions and dollars today to affect the future of tomorrow. Let’s be the leaders in both agriculture and sustainability! After all, wouldn’t protecting our precious land be the ultimate blue ribbon effort to give back to our future farmers and Fair exhibitors?


– Michelle Peiffer is director of communications strategy at Indigo Dawn. She believes the more travel you cross off your list, the longer it actually gets.



  1. Blue ribbon for Michelle for this great article. It inspires me to eat something on a stick! And always, always to find a recycling bin. :-)

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