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Eco-Friendly Wedding Planning: Have Your Special Day & Be Green Too

Anna Nowakowski
Urban Ecology Center
David Gackstetter and Tracy Wilcox are getting married next September. They explored green options at a recent wedding expo.

Earlier in February in the middle of a snowstorm, people showed up at a Milwaukee event to explore eco-friendly wedding ideas. The green wedding expo, held at the Urban Ecology Center on Milwaukee's East Side, was the brainchild of MaryBeth Kressin.

When she got married, Kressin instructed her guests not to buy new clothes for the occasion. She bought decorations at thrift and rummage sales. Instead of generating loads of glasses to washed or wasted, each guest was allotted a single drinking glass.

In the end, Kressin achieved her goal: she shared her wedding with the 90 people closest to her and they created very little waste.

"A normal sized garbage can that you see outside of a garage, it was maybe [one]-fourth full, if that … Even the recycling, we had barely anything,” Krissen says.

A few years later she facility rental coordinator at the Urban Ecology Center, which is dedicated to engaging people of every age in nature and a popular wedding venue, teems with green. It allows no Styrofoam or plastic. Every bit of food waste is composted and Kressin says, “We flush our toilets with rainwater.”

That level of green is unattainable for most wedding venues, but Kressin insists no matter the setting, you can drive down wedding waste.

Take food waste, for example. According to the EPA, in 2015 a total of more than 39 million tons was generated. Kressin says arming a couple with ways their wedding can help drive down that environmental problem can be empowering. 

"If your one day of your life has a little less impact on the earth and it sustains our world more," Kressin adds, "and it encourages that thinking for your guests."

To spread her philosophy, Kressin organized the green wedding expo and hand-picked 17 eco-minded vendors.

Credit Susan Bence
Sarah Baillie (center) with the Center for Biological Diversity traveled from Tucson, Ariz., to share wildlife-friendly wedding tips at the expo.

Sarah Baillie with the Center for Biological Diversity shared her two cents on stresses that weddings can exert on the environment.

“The two biggest components being travel — where your wedding is and where all of your guests are going to have to travel to and food,” Baillie says.

Calculate the impacts of your projected travel and menu choices with the wildlife-friendly wedding guide Baillie’s team devised.

But her message doesn’t end there. “It also goes along with our endangered species condoms,” Baillie says.

She says the choices humans make, including family planning, impact the planet’s health. “Because the more people we have on the planet, the less space and resources are left for endangered species,” Baillie says.

Not far away, native flower expert Michaela Rosenthal was holding a workshop. A roomful of people wanted to learn about the art of creating sustainable wedding bouquets. 

Credit Susan Bence
Bride-to-be Leslie Peckham (left) and native flower and plant expert Michaela Rosenthal discuss options for her December wedding.

“Black-eyed Susan’s and brown-eyed Susan’s … They last for weeks and many people have them in their very own garden," Rosenthal says.

For people planning winter weddings, Rosenthal suggested alternatives to flying flowers in from far-flung places.

“We actually have some really beautiful options that come from our native landscape. Winterberry has white flowers in summer months. In the fall, the berries form and turn this brilliant red and they hold all winter long,” Rosenthal says. “Don’t be afraid to also use conifers — evergreens are also really beautiful, really striking in the wintertime. Why not use our natural green?"

"We actually have some really beautiful options that come from our native landscape ... Why not use our natural green?" Michaela Rosenthal says.

Bride-to-be Leslie Peckham was looking for advice.

She’s getting married next December. Between now and then she wants to start growing her own flowers and then dry them. She and her fiance also plan to make fire starters out of pinecones to give to their wedding guests.

“I was always sort of a nature-oriented kid. I love being outside, I love the natural world, so doing something that honored that for our day, seemed like the right thing to do. Bring our values into the celebration in the ways that we can,” Peckham says.

The expo wasn’t only about flowers, food and family. Vendor Cassandra Morello approaches an eco-friendly wedding from a different angle.

The beauty expert advocates an animal-friendly and vegan palette. Morello asserts that makeup makes an environmental statement and impacts the planet.

She says a common non-vegan cosmetic is carmine. "It's crushed beetles that give that red pigment to a lot of lipstick, blush — whether it’s red, purple or brown — so that’s something to look out of for,” Morello says.

Another common non-vegan cosmetic is lanolin, she says, which is extracted from sheep's wool. “If you want to avoid having sheep oil on your face, that’s a good reason to go cruelty-free, I think,” Morello says.

Credit Anna Nowakowski / Urban Ecology Center
Photography team Michelle and Patrick Stromme reduce their fee for couples who opt for vegetarian or vegan at their receptions.

Nearby photography team Michelle and Patrick Stromme feel so strongly about the impact of what we eat that they were offering couples who plan to serve a vegetarian or vegan menu a substantial discount.

“As wedding photographers and anyone who works in the wedding industry, you will see at the end of the day there is so much food that goes to waste, unfortunately, and if that’s all animal, that’s just really unfortunate,” Patrick Stromme says.

Animal products were not off limits one booth away. Nina Mendez, with a catering company called Tall Guy and a Grill, was serving dates stuffed with cream cheese wrapped in bacon.

“People smell bacon but they come right to our booth — so it comes out really nicely,” Mendez says.

Credit Anna Nowakowski / Urban Ecology Center
Meghan Forseth (right) promoted her two-bite sweet treats at the green wedding expo. "I use all compostable packaging — duck egg cartons for my 6-packs, boxes and inserts for my 12-packs and cupcake liners. All my ingredients are non-GMO and purchased from local stores," Forseth says.

That doesn’t mean the caterer doesn’t have an environmental soul. Mendez says they source ingredients locally or as close to local as possible. And the kitchen has a no waste policy.

“If we order too many cucumbers that we don’t use, we’re going to make pickles. If we have fruit, we’re going to make jam. That sort of thing,” Mendez says.

And the food waste problem we’ve heard so much about, Mendez says not to worry. “We actually collect that at the site, at the venue and then we bring back to our shop,” Mendez says, and the waste is then composted.

David Gackstetter and Tracy Wilcox’s wedding is coming up next September. They made their way through the entire expo and seemed – at that moment — to be teetering on the edge of oversaturation, but say they also were excited about what they learned.

“So florals, we had a really great talk and learned about what was in season, out of season,” Tracy says.

David adds, ”I never even thought about all of the transportation stuff ... making me feeling better now because I'm more aware. I’m glad that we’re not just doing a bunch of waste [that we would] throw away at the end of it.”

The couple is figuring out how the day of their dreams can create more joy and less waste.

You can hear more voices from the green wedding expo on this feature that aired on Lake Effect.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.